Words by Isaac Bess (with Kaoru Hudachek) Photograph by Erin Kunkel
In the US, comfort food is melted cheese. In the UK, it means tea and toast. What is comfort food in Japan? A former Tokyo resident and his friends weigh in.
In 1986, I moved from New York to Japan with my family. Even though I’ve been in San Francisco for a million years now, I stay connected with my extended Tokyo family. A bunch of us still get together to cook and eat every week here in California, and they were the first ones I reached out to when Japanese comfort food came up.
At first I figured we could break it out, a tidy little guide citing well-known classics such as おでん (humble fish cake stew), 唐揚げ (fried chicken), even オムライス (rice omelet, lots of ketchup) or ピザまん (Chinese pork bun with “pizza” swapped in for pork, the original Hot Pocket)—stuff anyone’s mom might make or any kid could grab from a convenience store.
I also thought of a dish called ハンバーグ (“hanbaagu”)—not to be confused with ハンバー ガー (“hanbaagaa”)—which is a postwar fave that took the Japanification of the lowly hamburger to wild new heights, adding pork, replacing ketchup with demi-glace (!) and doing away entirely with the bun. It’s now served at “family restaurants” such as Royal Host or Jonathan’s, so any airs of sophistication have been replaced by the nostalgia of being 10 and living in the Yokohama ’burbs.
Okay, fine, but ハンバーグ has probably been documented to death already. It’s a bit like saying SpaghettiOs is comfort food. So I put it back to the group, and of course a huge email debate ensued—comfort food is really controversial! Have you ever watched two Germans argue about whether or not potato salad should have caraway seeds? Heated! At any rate, after an extremely long email thread, the best response came from my dear friend Kaoru, whose recipe for, well, raw egg topped them all.
“生卵 [raw egg]—we used to crack it, and mix it with 醤油 [soy sauce] and 味の素 [ajinomoto, a.k.a. delicious MSG] and pour it over ごはん [plain white rice],” says Kaoru. “Eat it with のり [dried seaweed] that’s dipped in 醤油 [more soy]. Mmm, pour 納豆 [gooey, stinky fermented soybeans / nattō] on it. That’s the ultimate comfort food!”
Fish Cake Stew おでん
Fried Chicken 唐揚げ
Rice Omelet オムライス
Pizza Bun, the Original Hot Pocket ピザまん
Hamburger Steak ハンバーグ
Regular Old Hamburger ハンバーガー
Raw Egg 生卵
Soy Sauce 醤油
Ajinomoto a.k.a. MSG 味の素
Plain White Rice ごはん
Fermented Soybeans 納豆
Isaac Bess has flitted around the independent music world in New York, Tokyo and San Francisco for nearly 20 years now.