Ketchup is as controversial a condiment as they come in the United States. While it’s as ubiquitous as it is red, ketchup also has a reputation for appealing to unrefined palates. It’s virtually considered blasphemy to use ketchup with a Chicago dog, and while the rules are more lax in New York City, mustard is the go-to standard at the Original Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand in Coney Island.
Given this contempt for ketchup, I find it rather fascinating that the stuff has been embraced by Japan as both a topping and as a key ingredient in a variety of dishes. While many of the foods that incorporate ketchup in Japanese cuisine aren’t the most refined, the following examples show just how far ketchup can go.
While spaghetti with ketchup was a staple of US Depression-era cooking, today it’s reviled as an affront to all that’s good in the world, and an easy way to offend Italians. However, ketchup on spaghetti continues to be popular in Japan. Spaghetti napolitan consists of onion, button mushrooms, green peppers, sausage, bacon, Tabasco sauce, and often uses tomato ketchup. It works partly because the ketchup is used in moderation and doesn’t overpower the rest of the flavors, a valuable lesson for just about any open-minded chef.
Ketchup on rice almost sounds like an accident, but in Japan it takes the form of “omelet rice,” a bed of rice enveloped by delicious egg. You may have come across it in anime and manga, often served in maid cafes with a giant ketchup heart or messages on top. One thing that’s not as obvious is that ketchup is mixed into the rice, and much like spaghetti napolitan it is anything but excessive.
Ebi chili (Prawns/Shrimp in Chili Sauce)
Anyone who’s watched Iron Chef knows that prawns in chili sauce is Iron Chef Chinese Chen Kenichi’s signature dish. It’s also one of the most common Chinese dishes in Japan, alongside mapo tofu and chaahan, or Chinese fried rice. As revealed in the show, ebi chili was originally a Sichuan dish that Chen’s father, Chen Kenmin, introduced to Japan. However, Japanese people generally do not like spicy foods, so in order to mellow out the strong Sichuan spices, he used ketchup, and it’s been a part of the dish ever since. Again, we can see how ketchup was viewed as an ingredient deserving of respect, and that something unique and flavorful came out of it.
If you’re a fan of ketchup already, does this make Japanese food sound even better? If ketchup isn’t your thing, would you still give these dishes a chance?
And if you’re looking to try a wide variety of Japanese dishes, come to Waku Waku +NYC, an even that celebrates not just food but also anime, manga, film, fashion, and all aspects of Japanese popular culture! Tickets are on sale now.