The sun is rising on Japanese small plates

by Susan Malovany
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Japanese small plates
The recent turning toward Japanese is all about small plates and portion control, healthy options, global foods, umami and variety.

KANSAS CITY – It’s definitely not sayonara, sushi.

Instead, it’s hello to okonomiyaki, takoyaki, Japanese curry and chawanmushi, among others.

Without a doubt, sushi and the other heavyweight contenders on Japanese casual comfort food menus, such as the ever-popular ramen, still are showing their strength. Additional Japanese menu items, however, are making inroads and beckoning both millennials and even those born after them — Generation Z — in particular.

Asian/Noodle limited-service concepts in the United States increased sales 10% in 2015, according to Chicago-based research firm Technomic’s “Top 500 Report.”

Ramen dish
Ramen is still are showing strength on Japanese menus. 

And, this “turning toward” Japanese is all about small plates and portion control, healthy options, global foods, umami and variety — which go hand-in-hand with American casual dining trends. It is also about many of these Japanese foods being served with beer, sake or even soju at Japanese brew pubs — called izakayas — that also serve snacks and small meals.

The Japanese gastropub

“There are a growing number of izakayas everywhere in the U.S. today,” said Kara Nielsen, an independent food trend analyst based in Oakland, Calif. “They are usually in urban areas with Asian-American populations, such as San Francisco, New York or Chicago. Even a [popular American chain restaurant] tried to create an izakaya a few years ago, but it was just a little too early for it then.”

It’s not too early now, however. Bon Appétit magazine named renowned Chef Sylvan Brackett’s Izakaya Rintaro in San Francisco as one of its “Best New Restaurants in 2015.”

Izakaya Rintaro
Bon Appétit magazine named Izakaya Rintaro in San Francisco as one of its “Best New Restaurants in 2015.”

Ms. Nielsen added that the izakaya trend has been creeping forward slowly — trends take a while, she said — but that even non-Asian Americans’ love for sushi, ramen, nori (edible seaweed), wasabi and tempura turned the tide to their seeking out new Japanese small plates at these brew pubs.

Izakayas rising stars

One of the most popular small plates served in izakayas is okonomiyaki, according to Gerry Ludwig, corporate consulting chef for Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Gordon Food Service.

“Okonomiyaki, or savory pancakes, is a combination of two words — ‘okonomi’ means your choice or as you like it, and ‘yaki’ means anything cooked on a griddle or grill,” he said. “This savory batter is mixed with freshly shredded cabbage and then topped with bits of meat and seafood, and the classic accompaniment for it is also bacon or pork belly. The sauce drizzled on top is a thickened, sweetened soy-based sauce that looks like a teriyaki glaze, or the pancakes can also be drizzled with kewpie mayonnaise.”

Okonomiyaki
One of the most popular small plates served in izakayas is okonomiyaki.

Takoyaki is another popular izakaya dish. Takoyaki menu mentions increased 16.7% since last year, Technomic reported.

Takoyaki are crispy, grilled dough balls, Mr. Ludwig said.

“Chefs take a thick batter made with rice flour and egg and also water or dashi broth and combine these together and add chopped squid and then griddle this on a takoyaki grill,” he said. “These round balls are then garnished with sweetened soy sauce or kewpie mayonnaise and then diners toss them in their mouth just like popcorn. They’re delicious.”

Japanese small plates - octopus balls
Takoyaki are crispy, grilled dough balls combined with chopped squid.

Chawanmushi, a savory Japanese custard, is another izakaya staple.

“It’s not a sweet dessert custard,” Mr. Ludwig said. “To make it, you beat eggs and combine them with dashi stock and then put them in a ramekin with a little meat, shrimp or mushrooms. Chawanmushi is then poached, and it is served warm.”

A Japanese curry may be the perfect accompaniment to the small plate items. This type of curry isn’t like the spicier Indian or Thai curry but is made from a base of caramelized onions combined with other vegetables, a meat sauce and flavored with a Japanese curry powder.

Chawanmushi
Chawanmushi, a savory Japanese custard, is another izakaya staple.

“Japanese curry has its own distinctive flavor — it’s not as aromatic or complex as an Indian curry, and it’s thickened with roux,” Mr. Ludwig said. “It’s a very slowly simmered and savory sauce. A chef can also take the curry and add meat and vegetables and simmer it together to make a stew. The most popular way to serve the curry is with a katsu, which is a thick pork or chicken cutlet breaded with panko bread crumbs and deep-fried so it is crispy and crunchy.”

Comfort food redefined

“I have noticed the slow rise of Japanese cuisine for a number of compelling reasons,” Ms. Nielsen said. “It’s been growing and evolving. Millennial diners have been raised on sushi, even from the grocery store, and have been going to sushi bars for special occasion meals, so they were exposed to it from an early age and now seek out other Japanese foods.”

Plus, she added, ramen “has turned into a cult food,” so once again, diners are seeking out more Japanese comfort foods.

Sushi rolls
Millennial diners have typically been introduced to Japanese foods such as sushi from a young age.

And consumers are simply looking for new dining experiences, because they bore easily.

“Consumers want savory flavors, umami and comfort food,” Mr. Ludwig said. “The Japanese cuisines served with beverages at the izakayas are comfort-based, not an acquired taste, savory and understandable.”

Diners are definitely saying hello to these foods.

“It’s just love at first bite,” he said. 
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READER COMMENTS (3)

By Maya P. 8/29/2016 7:21:30 PM
Interesting and informative article, however I wanted to make a correction regarding the description for takoyaki as described here. The author quotes Mr. Ludwig as saying, “Chefs take a thick batter made with rice flour and egg and also water or dashi broth and combine these together and add chopped SQUID and then griddle this on a takoyaki grill,”... Actually, takoyaki includes octopus, not squid. "Tako" is the Japanese word for octopus. Readers should not be misinformed. Thank you, Maya P.

By Maya P. 8/29/2016 7:10:31 PM
Interesting and informative article, however I wanted to make a correction regarding the description for takoyaki as described here. The author quotes Mr. Ludwig as saying, “Chefs take a thick batter made with rice flour and egg and also water or dashi broth and combine these together and add chopped SQUID and then griddle this on a takoyaki grill,”... Actually, takoyaki includes octopus, not squid. "Tako" is the Japanese word for octopus. Readers should not be misinformed. Thank you, Maya P.

By Comment 8/29/2016 2:13:41 PM
There is a mistake on the photo caption. Takoyaki is with octopus, not squid.