Posts Tagged ‘restaurants’

2012: Food and drink trends in Japan

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Whether it be moldy salt, lunch in a cup or frozen soup on a stick, the thriving Japanese food scene spawned a diverse array of surprising culinary wonders this year. Behind the fads, a pragmatic consciousness about healthy eating and a desire to economize were major factors affecting food and drink trends during 2012.

Eating out

According to Nikkei Trendy, the poor economy and the aging population have dealt blows to the high end of the restaurant trade. Enter the low-cost posh restaurant. Massively successful in 2012, a chain of restaurants run by Value Create is serving up top-end French and Italian food designed by “super chefs” in a bistro environment. There are now five “Ore no Itarian” (My Italian) and four “Ore no Furenchi” (My French) restaurants in the Ginza area. Meals cost around  ¥3,000 to  ¥4,000 per head, a huge saving compared to the ¥30,000 per head charged at the poshest restaurants. Nikkei Trendy says that other high-end restaurants are cutting costs and following suit.

A new casual restaurant called Tanita Shokudo turned up on Jiyu Kokuminsha’s 50 top buzzwords of 2012. Run by Tanita, a company that manufactures scales, this hugely popular restaurant in the Marunouchi area of Tokyo serves up the same menu — and nutritional advice — as the company’s own cafeteria to health-conscious customers. This year has also seen a revival of interest in restaurants serving yakuzen (Chinese medicinal) cuisine. Some of these restaurants also advise customers on what dishes might have a beneficial effect on their health. This is a trend we feel might spread in 2013.

Keeping trim

The inevitable diet fad surfaced in 2012 with the appearance of the tomato boom. It was kicked off by the publication of a study that appeared to indicate consuming large amounts of tomato juice would help alleviate metabolic syndrome. Though the trend has slowed somewhat, just as the notorious banana boom did, tomato sales stayed higher for longer than your typical fad.

Continuing on a health tip, one of the most successful new beverages to emerge in 2012 was a health drink — at least according to the Japanese government. Endorsed as the Japanese equivalent of a FOSHU (food for specified health use) by Japan’s Consumer Affairs Agency, Mets Cola sold so well that its manufacturer, Kirin, met its annual sales target in just two weeks. Popular with health-conscious men and women in their 30s to 40s, the cola contains an ingredient that helps reduce the absorption of fat. Other tokuho (health) drinks that deliver the fizzy pop experience without the calories have also been popular. The trend looks set to continue with more and more products gaining accreditation.

Spicing things up

Another versatile ingredient that’s still trending is koji salt. Combined with salt, koji, a domesticated fungus used in the production of miso, soy sauce and sake, can be used as a marinade that increases the umami (savory) flavors of meat or fish. It also turned up flavoring packaged foods like potato chips and drizzled on salads and grilled vegetables as a dressing at trendy restaurants. Following salt koji’s huge success, salty yogurt also enjoyed a mini boom with a number of cookery books utilizing this rather odd ingredient. Both savory sauces can be homemade, meshing with the trend toward cheaply producing food at home.

Taking it with you

Hot on the heels of the phenomenon of bento danshi (guys who bring a packed lunch to work), home-made lunch boxes continued to be popular in 2012. This time it was women who were behind a trend to pack their lunch into plastic tumblers. Colorful, versatile and fun, the trend for tumbler bento was also great for keeping portion sizes under control and was popular with dieters as well as the budget-conscious.

Keeping things interesting

As well as economizing, the Japanese food and beverage industry continues to innovate, producing a range of weird and wonderful new products. Among our favorites this year were Gari Gari Kun corn soup on a stick and frozen beer suds. In keeping with that, we’d like to raise a glass of the recently released limited-edition Coffee Porter hot beer coffee (got that?) and wish all our readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year — a year which will no doubt be filled with delicious new treats.

Drive-thru Nippon: convenience or hazard?

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

While finger-food friendly places like McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Mister Donuts have all had drive-thru windows across Japan for years, Nikkei Trendy says drive-thrus are evolving. These days, more distinctly Japanese fare is getting the meals-on-wheels treatment . . . though drivers would do well to consider that the hazards of eating them while behind the wheel.

Ringer Hut's new drive-thru, featuring Nagasaki champon

Ringer Hut's new drive-thru, featuring Nagasaki champon

Gindaco is a chain of takoyaki restaurants that has made drive-thrus a big part of its strategy for northern Kanto. Takoyaki is known as a street food, a favorite at festivals and in entertainment districts. Rows of cast-iron shells are filled with dough then usually handed out in paper or styrofoam trays. Right before eating, they’re doused with a brush of brown sauce, a shake of dried nori and maybe a glurt of mayo topped off with a handful of katsuo shavings. The takoyaki balls are usually wolfed down at a standing or seated counter. They’re deceptively steamy under all those toppings, and the first bite often leads to hands clapped over mouths and muffled cries of “atsui!” (hot!).  So they’re not exactly an obvious choice for a drive-thru. At almost the exact same size as a doughnut hole, they may seem perfect for handing over to the driver one at a time — except for all those toppings and their searing temperature. And the window between blistering hot and cool and claggy is narrow.

Ringer Hut expanded on the success of its Kyushu branches and opened its first drive-thru in the Tokyo area at the end of August. The Nagasaki champon they serve is surely one of the least drive-thru friendly foods out there. It’s a big flat plate of crunchy noodles with a slightly gluey sauce filled with vegetables, squid pieces and pink slices of fish cake. Ringer Hut designed a special multi-part disposable serving system for the noodles, two separate lidded plates that nestle neatly into a cardboard carrying case. Ingenious? Possibly. Front-seat friendly? No way.

Matsuya has drive-thru windows for its inexpensive beef and rice dishes. They use a similar compartmentalized container to keep the beef and rice separate until ready to eat, presumably while the car isn’t moving. Even-cheaper beef-bowl chain Yoshinoya is just starting to creep into the drive-thru market.

Tsukemen is even more impossible to eat on the road. The noodles and thick soup stay in their separate bowls, and you dip the noodles into the soup. I’m not alone in thinking that this is not really a road-friendly dish. It was actually a topic of discussion on a Japanese Yahoo! message board. Easy to eat or not, noodle shop Rokurinsha saw the drive-thru as an option.  Rokurinsha added a drive-thru window to a popular shop in Shinagawa to combat long lines of pedestrians that were annoying the neighbors. Instead, now, they’re facing the possibility of long lines of cars.


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