In just a few decades, sushi has taken the U.S. by storm; now other specialties are following in its wake.
“It takes time for people to get familiar with things,” says Tatsu Aikawa, chef and owner of DipDipDip Tatsu-Ya, a hotpot restaurant in Austin, Texas. “Sushi took a long time. When I was dishwashing at a sushi bar back in the day, there were so many people that said, ‘It’s gross. I hate sushi.’ That was only 20 years ago.”
Aikawa, who lived in Japan until he was 10, is referring to the evolution of Japanese food in the U.S. In recent years, he says, American diners have become increasingly interested in other types of Japanese cooking. “Sushi became popular for the sheer shock value,” Aikawa says. “There are a lot of underappreciated genres of cuisine that are common in Japan but haven’t made it over here yet.” Tatsu-Ya is among the many U.S. restaurants doing their best to shine a light on the country’s lesser known foods and flavors.
Hotpot, known as shabu-shabu, centers around a pot of boiling water or broth into which diners cook meat and vegetables at their own table. Although the cuisine has been popular in Japan for decades, it is still a novelty in the U.S.
Izakayas, or casual Japanese pubs where people gather for drinks and snacks after work, are also gaining traction. In Chicago, the family-owned Izakaya Mita has been a mainstay since opening five years ago. Several of the restaurant’s dishes are analogous to American bar food, like karaage, or fried chicken, and chicken meatballs, known as tsukune. But guests can also order more unusual offerings, like shishamo, which are broiled smelts eaten whole.
The Midwest as a whole has recently seen an increase in new Japanese cuisine. In St. Louis, chef Nick Bognar recently opened Indo, a Southeast Asian restaurant heavily influenced by his Japanese culinary training. Indo does serve familiar staples like tuna sashimi but is also pushing the boundaries of what diners might know.
“I’m hoping to only serve more obscure fish varieties in the future,” Bognar says. “I love showing off different fish that guests may have not tried yet. Right now I’m really excited about iwashi, a Japanese sardine.”
For this dish, Bognar bones the sardines with his fingers, then cures them in salt for several minutes, followed by a quick cure in sugar and a yuzu-vinegar marinade. The sardines are scored and then lightly torched to draw out the fats. Finally, the fish is brushed with a sweet soy sauce and topped with negidare—a scallion garlic paste. The restaurant also employs a fish-aging technique that has become more popular for sushi chefs in Japan but is relatively unknown in the U.S. It’s just another way Indo is expanding its diners’ conception of what sushi can be.
Traditional sushi restaurants, like Sushi Ran in Sausalito, California, which opened more than 30 years ago, are also finding that diners are becoming more interested in unusual techniques and ingredients. “I’m very excited that Japanese traditions like fermentation—we use it for miso, house-made soy sauce, and koji—are becoming more popular,” says Sushi Ran restaurateur Yoshi Tome. “We use these every day, like for our shio koji [rice malt]–marinated teriyaki chicken.”
Tome is also pleased that some of Japan’s sustainable practices are now more widely adopted. “The farm-to-table concept is very popular right now in the U.S., but in Japan it has been standard practice for years and years,” he says. “It’s a more seasonal approach, which means the ingredients are at their peak.”
At Austin’s Tatsu-Ya, chef Aikawa has a similar approach. “There are lots of great local farms around here that provide proteins, and I combine those with a lot of seasonal vegetables,” Aikawa says. “That’s what makes shabu-shabu special to me. Since it’s pretty much raw ingredients you’re cooking yourself it makes sense to work with local farms and seasonal ingredients.”
Many chefs who don’t necessarily make Japanese food have nonetheless found themselves influenced by it. In Lincoln, Nebraska, Dish chef and co-owner Rachel McGill’s New American menu is sprinkled with the flavors of Japan; the charred broccolini is served with black sesame salt and a miso-plum aioli, and the beet mochi is topped with a celery root and coffee ice cream.
“I’m heavily influenced by California coastal cuisine and seasonal availability here in Nebraska,” McGill says. “Flavors like soy, kombu, and matcha show up frequently on West Coast menus and work well with seasonal Midwestern produce like sweet potatoes and kale.”
McGill thinks Japanese food will continue to find a place on American menus of all sorts. She says the cuisine has been moved out of sushi restaurants and onto what would have previously been considered continental menus.
“New American chefs are embracing these flavors,” she says. “I see a shift away from traditional French and Italian influences and an embrace of pan-Asian and New World cuisine.”