One of the most fascinating things about food in Japan is how many foreign foods have been reinterpreted and reinvented in ways that make them distinctively Japanese. I’ve talked previously about tonkatsu (deep fried pork cutlet) which is the Japanese version of German schnitzel and American chicken fried steak. And of course there is ramen, which is Chinese in origin but has evolved into a quintessential Japanese dish.
What you may not be as familiar with is the Japanese take on pasta, the stuff that (according to legend) Marco Polo introduced to Italy from the Far East and the Italians have exported right back. You can find Italian pasta in Tokyo and, depending on where you go, it can be quite good. However, the Japanese have also developed their own unique versions that reflect local ingredients and flavors.
Earlier this past summer, a couple of friends took me to a pasta joint in the Yoyogi neighborhood called Hashiya, where I ordered a stereotypical example of a Japanese pasta dish: spaghetti with mentaiko (marinated cod roe) in a cream sauce, topped with a small forest of shredded nori. The tiny round pieces of roe give the noodles a briny seafood flavor and a slight hint of crunchy texture. You can also get it with squid which provides additional chewy texture, protein, and whatever nutritional value squid provides. Just about the only thing that was recognizably Italian in the dish was the pasta itself; everything else looked and tasted Japanese. And yes, it was delicious.
The pasta at Hashiya was fine, but the place I tend to go to for Japanese pasta is Spajiro (すぱじろう). Spajiro is actually a small chain of restaurants, with branches in such neighborhoods as Akasaka, Ebisu, Ginza, Nakameguro, and Roppongi. The atmosphere at the stores is comfortable and relaxed, with contemporary décor and background music that ranges from jazz to R&B.
Spajiro serves many of the more “traditional” Japanese pastas. You can get cod roe pasta like the one I had at Hashiya, though I would also recommend the spicy version. You can also enjoy such things as spaghetti served in a nutty miso and mayonnaise sauce, with chunks of real crab meat, mushrooms, cucumber, and shredded nori.
In addition, Spajiro offers creative seasonal specials throughout the year. For example, during a visit to the Akasaka branch earlier this summer, I ordered the special mentaiko cream sauce pasta, topped with grilled salmon, chewy wakame seaweed (the stuff you often find in miso soup), shredded nori, and scallions. I love mentaiko pasta in general and this was an unusual but delicious twist.
My wife ordered a cold pasta dish that consisted of a miso meat sauce and a mix of lettuce, tomatoes, Japanese mushrooms, cucumbers, bean sprouts, and daikon radish. It looks like something meant to truly put the “salad” in the term “pasta salad.” When you eat it, the first thing that strikes you is the miso sauce – the rich, nutty taste of the fermented bean paste actually reminded me of flavors in some Chinese dishes, rather than anything Japanese or Italian. It was very tasty, especially on a hot and humid day in Tokyo.
All of this stuff may sound completely exotic, and perhaps your first instinct is to think “that’s not pasta.” Certainly, it’s not Italian pasta. But look at it this way: what would the Chinese who invented noodles have thought when they first discovered Italian pasta? They probably would have thought it was a little strange too, at least initially. Yet, this doesn’t take away from how delicious pasta is and the worldwide popularity that it enjoys today – we judge it on its own merits as something distinct from its Asian counterparts. I think that Japanese-style pasta should be approached and appreciated in the same manner.
In a larger sense, my experiences have highlighted to me how noodles are a profoundly global food, one that has continually evolved and adapted to local ingredients, tastes, and imaginations. It’s remarkable to trace the origins of Japanese pasta from the invention of noodles in Asia, to their transplantation and development as pasta in Europe, and then to the introduction and reinterpretation of pasta in Japan. Many of the Japanese pastas that I have had reflect this diverse cultural heritage.
Indeed, noodles have been subject to so much culinary creativity across so many cultures that it makes me wonder what chefs will think of next. I salivate at the possibilities.Spajiro (Several locations in Tokyo; check website for more information) Akasaka: 3 -15−9 Akasaka, Minato Ebisu: 1-2-5 Ebisunishi, Shibuya Ginza: 3-4-1 Ginza, Chuo Nakameguro: 1-20-12 Kamimeguro, Meguro Roppongi: 3-11-6 Roppongi, Minato
Hashiya (several locations in the Yoyogi and Shinjuku areas)