How a Japanese Convenience Store Snack Became America’s Hottest Sandwich

Kelly Dobkin wrote . . . . . . . . .

Breaded, deep-fried pork needs no improvement — except, perhaps, for its portability. Wrap some crustless white bread around it, and you’ve got yourself a perfect, filling snack known as a katsu sando. A popular convenience store staple in Japan, katsu sandos are rapidly becoming this year’s avocado toast at restaurants around the U.S.

You’ve likely eaten katsu before. You may know it as that dish your more unadventurous friends order whenever you “take them out for sushi.” While traditional katsu is typically a panko-breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet, you can make katsu with just about any protein, from chicken to beef to fish. Imagine that golden cutlet sandwiched between two pieces of fluffy shokupan, aka Japanese milk bread (a less processed, more tender version of Wonder Bread), with a few pieces of cabbage and the brownish-red tonkatsu sauce that kinda tastes like A1 — and you’ve got the katsu sando. It’s a grab and go snack popular for picnics, quick lunches or late night eating and available at nearly every Japanese mini-mart. It’s kind of like their gas station taquito.

There are a few types of “sandos” (cute slang for sandwich) you’ll find in Japan, including this fruit variety — a glorious take on ambrosia salad in tea sandwich form. There’s also the tamago or (egg salad) sando. They’re all part of a subsection of Japanese food known as yōshoku cuisine. Yōshoku (literally “Western” fare) came during and after the turn-of-the-century Meiji period, which marked the end of feudal society and ushered in an era of Westernization in Japan. It was during this time that katsu itself originated, around 1899. That dish also of course drew inspiration from the west — it was Japan’s take on wienerschnitzel or chicken Milanese.

Yōshoku cuisine includes beloved dishes like the omurice (a fried rice stuffed omelette topped with demi glace or ketchup), which was interpreted by restaurants like Bar Moga in NYC in 2017, achieving brief, viral status. In fact, Bar Moga’s entire concept centers around yōshoku fare. (Curry rice, and Spaghetti Napolitan/Japanese ketchup spaghetti, are other yōshoku classics as well.) You’ll also find these dishes at newcomer, Davelle in the East Village.

The humble katsu sando is the latest yōshoku dish to pop up in high-end restaurants and bars from LA to NY to London. The proliferation of a pricey wagyu katsu version on Instagram is likely the reason why.

Chefs in Japan began using expensive cuts of wagyu beef to do a tongue-in-cheek homage to the sandwich for a few years now. While its exact origin is debatable, Sumibiyakiniku Nakahara in Tokyo was certainly one of the first to introduce the ritzy sando about five years ago. High-end wagyu supplier Wagyumafia is a bit newer, but has been doing worldwide pop-ups that also feature the uber rich sandwich made with their proprietary beef.

Back in the states, chefs have caught wind of the trend and are offering up their own takes. Chef Daniel Son of LA’s Kura, launched a katsu sando pop-up inside his restaurant last year that became so popular, it’s now a standalone concept at LA’s Smorgsburg’s The Row pop-up. Son, who was raised in LA, fell in love with the katsu sando while he was working at Tokyo’s Michelin-starred Nihonrhoyi RyuGin. Hungry after work with limited options (at 4AM), he would often hit up the local mini-mart and feast on pre-packaged “conbini” fare (conbini = mini-mart). He’s currently looking for a brick-and-mortar space to house his concept, Katsu Sando, full time.

While he offers at $75 wagyu beef version, he peddles more affordable options as well like the Menchi — a take on an In-N-Out burger using Australian wagyu and caramelized onions for $13, and also serves up chicken and pork varieties in the same price range. What sets his apart, according to Son, are the house-made ingredients. He goes to the trouble to make his own milk bread, a recipe that took him months to perfect. “I realized how bad of a baker I was,” Son tells us. “It was so hard. It took me 13 tries and three months.”

You may have also noticed LA newcomer Konbi popping up in your Instagram feed recently with katsu sando porn. Two Momofuku alums are behind the Echo Park concept, where they also have their shokupan made fresh daily (by local baker Bub and Grandma’s). Their inspirations in launching the concept were similar to Son’s: “Akira grew up in Japan eating at conbini,” says co-owner Nick Montgomery. “And after several years of taking chef friends to Tokyo and ending up at the conbini stores every night and every morning, it only made us want access to those foods in the States.”

Back in NYC, one of the first katsu sandos to gain popularity launched at izakaya SakaMai on the Lower East Side about a year ago. Their $85 wagyu version features A5 wagyu beef (which has been become the go-to variety for wagyu katsu). Don Wagyu, from the team behind spendy omakase spot Uchu, opened much more recently in June, raising eyebrows for their $180 version featuring Ozaki beef, a type of wagyu that almost no one else is sourcing here in the U.S., as well as two less pricey versions at $28 and $80.

But other chefs are riffing on the less flashy OG version, mixing up the type of pork and other flavors to create a number of variations. At Ferris in NYC, chef Greg Proechel’s take leans Spanish with the use of Iberico ham, combined with a shrimp paste and hoisin-based sauce. “Since I like to cook the pork medium rare, Iberico seemed like the best option,” he says. More Italian-leaning versions have sprouted up as well at both Momofuku Nishi and recent NYC newcomer Katana Kitten, where they use mortadella, a nod to chef Nick Sorrentino’s Italian heritage.

But NYC is, for once, late to the game on this trend. It hit Sydney, Australia for example when restaurant Cafe Oratnek put one on the menu three years ago. It quickly spread around town and now sando-devoted concepts like Sando Bar and Sandoitichi are cashing in on its popularity.

They also appeared in London as early as 2013 at spots like Tsuru and Tata Eatery. Currently, you’ll find a version at Brixton’s trendy “Japanese soul food” purveyor, Nanban. Single-item restaurants with limited menus have blown up in the UK post the 2008 recession, according to local food writer, Claire Coleman. You could say that in NYC, the single-item craze began slightly before then with places like S’Mac (mac and cheese concept) as early as 2006, Luke’s Lobster in 2009 and later, The Meatball Shop in 2010. Most of the katsu sando you’ll find in NYC right now are part of larger restaurant concepts, vs a single item concept like LA’s Katsu Sando.

Elsewhere in the U.S., the trend is slowly catching on as well. You’ll find katsu sandos in places like Atlanta’s counter service Japanese spot, Momonoki. In Seattle, a faithful representation at Adana and one slightly less so at Marination (served on ciabatta). In San Francisco, you’ll find versions at casual takeout spot Volcano Curry and at Stonemill Matcha. In DC, this $100 version (which takes many creative liberties) made a small splash at Michael Mina joint, Bourbon Steak.

Besides being delicious, the real reason for their popularity is likely pretty simple: they are photogenic AF. When served inside facing up, the pretty architectural layers of pork, sauce and bread make for a highly Instagrammable dish.

Whether you’re eating one of these bougie versions for bragging rights, ‘gram likes, or just unabashed curiosity, know that somewhere across the ocean there’s a $5 version wrapped in plastic making a tired, drunk person equally as happy.

Source: Thrillist

Banh Mi: Vietnam’s Super Sandwich that Took on the World

Alkira Reinfrank and Bernice Chan wrote . . . . . . . . .

Theign Yie Phan has to stop herself from chowing down a banh mi every day of the week. But it’s hard to resist when you’re the head chef of a restaurant that specialises in the delicious Vietnamese sandwiches.

“It is a good between-service snack. I eat one every other day. It is definitely not something you get sick of,” she says with a laugh, as she stands in front of an array of colourful ingredients ready to be stuffed into a crusty baguette at Le Petit Saigon in Wan Chai.

Along with pho, the noodle soup, banh mi is one of Vietnam’s most famous culinary exports – a French-style bread filled with rich meats and zingy, fresh vegetables and herbs.

“As a sandwich it is well balanced in flavours and textures. There’s the crusty warm bread, the richness of the flavours of the meat, and then the tartness and sourness from the pickles,” says Phan, who is also the head chef of next-door sister restaurant, Le Garcon Saigon.

Cutting open a baguette, Phan begins layering it with thinly sliced pork belly, terrine and Vietnamese sausage, topped off with chicken liver pate and house-made mayonnaise. Next she balances that with slices of fresh cucumber, pickled vegetables, Maggi sauce, coriander, spring onion and chilli – “for punch”.

Phan is not alone in her love of the sandwich. Banh mi has gone from humble beginnings on the streets of Saigon to become a global sensation – mirroring the history of modern Vietnam. So how did a country in Southeast Asia – known for rice and noodle dishes – originate such a Western speciality as a sandwich?

Banh mi date back 130 years to when France colonised Vietnam from the 1880s to 1954. During that period the French forced the Vietnamese to work in slave-like conditions on plantations growing opium and rubber, taxing them heavily.

Culturally the French introduced Catholicism, its national language and architecture. And, of course, food.

Chef Peter Cuong Franklin has researched French cuisine’s influence in Vietnam. He was born in Da Lat, in southern Vietnam, and during the tumult of the Vietnam war (1955-75) was separated from his family and adopted in the United States.

In 1994, he relocated to Hong Kong to work as an investment banker, and later headed to the Thai capital, Bangkok, to attend the Cordon Bleu culinary school. After returning to Hong Kong he opened his own Vietnamese-themed restaurants, Chom Chom, and Viet Kitchen. Then in 2017 he moved to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) to open Anan Saigon.

“When the French colonised Vietnam, they needed to eat their own food. So they brought things like wheat to make bread, cheese, coffee, and other products that they would consume every day,” Franklin says.

The Vietnamese were gradually introduced to these French foods, he says, though they were expensive back then. Eventually wheat, and the technique for making baguettes, were imported, and the locals – in particular the ethnic Chinese-Vietnamese – learned how to make bread.

“They [the Chinese] were hired as chefs and cooked for the French,” Franklin explains. Over time, they came to see that what they were preparing was no longer for the French, but for the locals. “They would modify the bread with more yeast and water to make it lighter, for Vietnamese tastes.”

The French typically ate baguettes spread with chicken liver or goose liver pate, which the Vietnamese found too rich. So they developed their own version.

“The Vietnamese used local pork liver, which is cheaper and easier to make. Most of the time the French ate baguettes with some butter and maybe some mustard [to spread on the charcuterie],” he says.

But in the 1950s, “the Vietnamese came up with the idea of putting these things together into a simple sandwich to be consumed by a lot of people. So I think that’s the early form of the sandwich”.

The flavours of the modern banh mi vary by region in Vietnam. In Hanoi in the north, the fillings are more simple than the “original” found in Ho Chi Minh City in the south, and include high-quality cold cuts. In the central coastal city of Hoi An, the meat used is served warm.

Despite its humble roots, banh mi went on to explode in popularity around the world, especially in countries such as Australia and the United States, where many Vietnamese immigrants fled in the ’70s after the fall of Saigon.

Nowadays, there are more than 1.3 million Vietnamese immigrants living in the US, and their traditional food has been widely embraced by the American mainstream.

“The US is a hub of pop culture, and over the years TV food shows, travel shows, Anthony Bourdain, food blogging and social media” have helped introduce people in the West to this quintessential fusion Vietnamese dish, says Phan.

Despite being Southeast Asian – she was born in Malaysia and grew up in Singapore – it was only when she studied in the US that she was introduced to the Vietnamese street food.

“In America, every university town has a street with lots of food carts, and one of these stores always serves [banh mi]. I remember during the cold winters in Wisconsin, I would walk past and grab a banh mi from one of these stores and walk to class,” she recalls fondly.

Phan believes the wider American population embraced banh mi when it was introduced by Vietnamese immigrants because the ingredients used were “familiar” to the American palate.

“The bread, familiar; the meat, familiar; the vegetables and pickles, familiar. So people were more inclined to try it and maybe that’s why it exploded,” she says. “Everyone loves a good sandwich. And in every culture [with bread] there is some sort of sandwich. So banh mi is very accessible culturally, so that’s why it has become so popular worldwide.”

Given that this portable snack is available at street stalls in Vietnam for US$1, it’s perhaps not surprising that Franklin created a stir when he unveiled the US$100 banh mi two years ago at his Anan Saigon restaurant.

“Part of my mission is to elevate Vietnamese cuisine to a higher level, to get people to rethink what Vietnamese food can be. And banh mi is very popular around the world because it’s healthy and light, and it is flavourful. But one problem we have with the cuisine is that people think it’s great but they think it should be cheap as well … so what I’ve done is done something crazy.”

The Anan Saigon banh mi is replete with truffle mayonnaise, pate, sous vide pork chop, foie gras, coriander, cucumber, basil and mint. If that’s not enough, there are also sweet potato fries dipped in caviar on the side. He says there are curious gastronomes willing to dig deep into their pockets to see what it tastes like.

“We have some detractors who think like things like the banh mi or pho, or food in general, should not change. But I’m a believer that food can and should change with the times. You look at Vietnam, it’s modernising very quickly, and I can see change in the past two years I’ve been here.”

Back in Hong Kong, Phan at Le Petit Saigon sells about 90 banh mi a day to hungry customers. There are several varieties to choose from, including the traditional banh mi thit (pork), banh mi ga (chicken) and banh mi chay (tofu).

But Phan is not afraid to get creative with her menu. Each month she invites chefs from various restaurants in the group to contribute their own version of banh mi to the menu. This month, Michelin-star chef Palash Mitra from The New Punjab Club created a mouthwatering tandoori chicken tikka banh mi.

But she says the best selling is still the traditional Saigon pork banh mi.

Some tastes change, while others stay the same.

Source: SCMP

How Steak Became Manly and Salads Became Feminine

Paul Freedman wrote . . . . . . . . .

When was it decided that women prefer some types of food – yogurt with fruit, salads and white wine – while men are supposed to gravitate to chili, steak and bacon?

In my new book, “American Cuisine: And How It Got This Way,” I show how the idea that women don’t want red meat and prefer salads and sweets didn’t just spring up spontaneously.

Beginning in the late 19th century, a steady stream of dietary advice, corporate advertising and magazine articles created a division between male and female tastes that, for more than a century, has shaped everything from dinner plans to menu designs.

A separate market for women surfaces

Before the Civil War, the whole family ate the same things together. The era’s best-selling household manuals and cookbooks never indicated that husbands had special tastes that women should indulge.

Even though “women’s restaurants” – spaces set apart for ladies to dine unaccompanied by men – were commonplace, they nonetheless served the same dishes as the men’s dining room: offal, calf’s heads, turtles and roast meat.

Beginning in the 1870s, shifting social norms – like the entry of women into the workplace – gave women more opportunities to dine without men and in the company of female friends or co-workers.

As more women spent time outside of the home, however, they were still expected to congregate in gender-specific places.

Chain restaurants geared toward women, such as Schrafft’s, proliferated. They created alcohol-free safe spaces for women to lunch without experiencing the rowdiness of workingmen’s cafés or free-lunch bars, where patrons could get a free midday meal as long as they bought a beer (or two or three).

It was during this period that the notion that some foods were more appropriate for women started to emerge. Magazines and newspaper advice columns identified fish and white meat with minimal sauce, as well as new products like packaged cottage cheese, as “female foods.” And of course, there were desserts and sweets, which women, supposedly, couldn’t resist.

You could see this shift reflected in old Schrafft’s menus: a list of light main courses, accompanied by elaborate desserts with ice cream, cake or whipped cream. Many menus featured more desserts than entrees.

By the early 20th century, women’s food was commonly described as “dainty,” meaning fanciful but not filling. Women’s magazines included advertisements for typical female foodstuffs: salads, colorful and shimmering Jell-O mold creations, or fruit salads decorated with marshmallows, shredded coconut and maraschino cherries.

At the same time, self-appointed men’s advocates complained that women were inordinately fond of the very types of decorative foods being marketed to them. In 1934, for example, a male writer named Leone B. Moates wrote an article in House and Garden scolding wives for serving their husbands “a bit of fluff like marshmallow-date whip.”

Save these “dainties” for ladies’ lunches, he implored, and serve your husbands the hearty food they crave: goulash, chili or corned beef hash with poached eggs.

Pleasing the tastes of men

Writers like Moates weren’t the only ones exhorting women to prioritize their husbands.

The 20th century saw a proliferation of cookbooks telling women to give up their favorite foods and instead focus on pleasing their boyfriends or husbands. The central thread running through these titles was that if women failed to satisfy their husbands’ appetites, their men would stray.

You could see this in midcentury ads, like the one showing an irritated husband saying “Mother never ran out of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.”

But this fear was exploited as far back as 1872, which saw the publication of a cookbook titled “How to Keep a Husband, or Culinary Tactics.” One of the most successful cookbooks, “‘The Settlement’ Cook Book,” first published in 1903, was subtitled “The Way to a Man’s Heart.”

It was joined by recipe collections like 1917’s “A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband” and 1925’s “Feed the Brute!”

This sort of marketing clearly had an effect. In the 1920s, one woman wrote to General Mills’ fictional spokeswoman, “Betty Crocker,” expressing fear that her neighbor was going to “capture” her husband with her fudge cake.

Just as women were being told they needed to focus on their husbands’ taste buds over their own – and be excellent cooks, to boot – men were also saying that they didn’t want their wives to be single-mindedly devoted to the kitchen.

As Frank Shattuck, the founder of Schrafft’s, observed in the 1920s, a young man contemplating marriage is looking for a girl who is a “good sport.” A husband doesn’t want to come home to a bedraggled wife who has spent all day at the stove, he noted. Yes, he wants a good cook; but he also wants an attractive, “fun” companion.

It was an almost impossible ideal – and advertisers quickly capitalized on the insecurities created by the dual pressure wives felt to please their husbands without looking like they’d worked too hard doing so.

A 1950 brochure for a cooking appliance company depicts a woman wearing a low-cut dress and pearls showing her appreciative husband what’s in the oven for dinner.

The woman in the ad – thanks to her new, modern oven – was able to please her husband’s palate without breaking a sweat.

The 1970s and beyond

Beginning in the 1970s, dining changed dramatically. Families started spending more money eating out. More women working outside the home meant meals were less elaborate, especially since men remained loathe to share the responsibility of cooking.

The microwave encouraged alternatives to the traditional, sit-down dinner. The women’s movement destroyed lady-centered luncheonettes like Schrafft’s and upended the image of the happy housewife preparing her condensed soup casseroles or Chicken Yum Yum.

Yet as food historians Laura Shapiro and Harvey Levenstein have noted, despite these social changes, the depiction of male and female tastes in advertising has remained surprisingly consistent, even as some new ingredients and foods have entered the mix.

Kale, quinoa and other healthy food fads are gendered as “female.” Barbecue, bourbon and “adventurous foods,” on the other hand, are the domain of men.

A New York Times article from 2007 noted the trend of young women on first dates ordering steak. But this wasn’t some expression of gender equality or an outright rejection of food stereotyping.

Instead, “meat is strategy,” as the author put it. It was meant to signal that women weren’t obsessed with their health or their diet – a way to reassure men that, should a relationship flower, their girlfriends won’t start lecturing them about what they should eat.

Even in the 21st century, echoes of cookbooks like “The Way to a Man’s Heart” resound – a sign that it will take a lot more work to get rid of the fiction that some foods are for men, while others are for women.

Source: The Conversation

The Spam Story: How the Luncheon Meat Became a Hit in Asia and Beyond

Bernice Chan and Alkira Reinfrank wrote . . . . . . . . .

Once in a while chef Jordy Navarra opens a can of Spam and shaves off thin slices of the processed meat before frying them crispy, then laying the slices on top of a bed of rice. The dish takes him back to his childhood.

“All of us sort of grew up on it,” the 34-year-old Filipino says. “It’s something I remember fondly. It’s comforting, one of those few things that my mom would prepare for me. And in that sense I enjoyed it, just because it came from her.”

Generations of Filipinos love eating Spam regularly, typically sliced or diced then stir-fried and served on a bed of steamed rice, sometimes with a fried egg. But how did this all-American canned meat make it halfway around the world?

An American staple for more than 80 years, Spam’s success story is one of ingenuity and resourcefulness. The luncheon meat is now devoured in 44 countries worldwide but it first came to life in 1937 in the small town of Austin, Minnesota.

To drum up interest in the canned meat, its inventor, US company Hormel Foods, launched a contest to name it. Actor Ken Daigneau, who was also the brother of Hormel Foods’ vice-president, won the contest – and US$100 – for coining the name Spam. The meaning behind the name has never been revealed.

Hitting shelves across America during the final years of the Great Depression, Spam quickly won over stretched homemakers because it was cheap, did not need to be refrigerated, had a long shelf life, and was extremely versatile: it could be fried, baked, boiled or braised. However, it wasn’t until World War II that sales boomed and Spam became a worldwide hit.

In 1941, when America joined the campaign, more than 50,000 tons of Spam was shipped abroad to feed allied troops. Not only was it the cornerstone of soldiers’ diets, they also used the grease from Spam to oil their guns and waterproof their boots.

From England to Asia-Pacific, wherever the troops went, so too went Spam, seeping into local cultures. The famous Monty Python sketch about Spam was such a hit, mentioning the word Spam more than 130 times, that it inspired the name of unsolicited emails – “spam mail”.

“Everywhere the soldiers went, they shared a lot of things with local populations because in most places they went, the local population was starving [like in South Korea and Japan],” says consumer behaviour researcher Ayalla Ruvio, an assistant professor in the department of marketing at Michigan State University.

“They shared everything – their clothes, their food – and they shared their Spam. When the troops left, they left their Spam with the local population [who] then adopted it favourably.”

Spam’s versatility allowed people from different countries to adapt it to their own tastes and cooking methods. It became a huge hit across Asia-Pacific and in Hawaii following the war, and is still enjoyed widely today.

“Spam became iconic in Asia because it was a taste of America without being in America,” Ruvio says. “It’s like drinking Coke. While you can’t afford to travel to America, you can eat and drink America or enjoy a little piece of America in your life.”

The processed food that contains six ingredients – pork, salt, water, potato starch, sugar and sodium nitrate – comes in 15 varieties, though there are many more imitations. The official Spam website states that 12.8 cans of Spam are consumed every second.

South Korea is the second-largest consumer of Spam, after America, the site says. Koreans eat it in stews, fry it in egg batter and even gift it as a Lunar New Year present. In Japan, Spam is used in onigiri (rice balls), and is served alongside eggs.

In the Philippines it was the main source of meat for American soldiers stationed there during World War II. It is believed Spam was introduced to Filipinos as a kind of reward, and once the population had a taste of it, the processed meat disrupted the local food culture.

“Every day before lunch and before dinner, my grandmother would go to the market and buy fresh fish, fresh meat,” says chef Navarra. “But the convenience of Spam as an option changed things. It’s not the normal meal you usually have.”

He has heard of Spam being sliced and deep-fried like French fries, or even cooked in hotpot. But when it comes to his own restaurant, Manila’s Toyo Eatery, which promotes indigenous ingredients in his dishes, Navarra indicates that Spam will not be appearing on his menu any time soon.

“I don’t think we’re at a stage where we would do that, though I have seen some of my staff bring it in for their meals. But I guess never say never, right? It’s fun to play around with,” he says.

Though the US market remains the biggest consumer of Spam, in the decades following World War II Spam developed a stigma for being a poor man’s food – an attitude that persists. However, this negative perception never seemed to reach the shores of Hawaii.

Spam is a staple in the island state, where locals eat a staggering seven million cans each year in snacks such as musubi, where a slice of Spam is placed on top of a block of unseasoned rice and wrapped with nori.

Musubi is not just found in supermarkets and fast-food restaurants, but also in service stations, under warmers.

Chef Chung Chow describes Spam musubi as a “poor man’s sushi”, like a thick sandwich that’s easy to eat on the go. He was born in Hong Kong, but his family emigrated to Hawaii before he was a year old.

These days he is chef and co-owner of Noreetuh, a mid-priced gourmet Hawaiian restaurant in New York. On the menu are a few dishes featuring Spam, including spiced Spam musubi seasoned with pickled jalapeño and soy mayo, and kimchi fried rice with Spam and a fried egg.

We have a modern Hawaiian restaurant, that’s who we are, and Spam is a very important thing to the culture of Hawaii,” Chow says. “It’s one of those things that you grew up with eating as a child and into adult life. So you can find it in supermarkets, fast food places, takeout places, and you eat it at home.”

The 44-year-old says that when eaten at home in Hawaii, Spam is typically sliced and sautéed until it is golden brown on both sides, then seasoned with a touch of soy sauce on steamed rice.

“If you want to get a little fancy, sometimes we would dice up the Spam and put it in pan-fried rice, and add some frozen peas to give it some colour,” Chow says.

“Spam is inherently pork, and in terms of the pasta dish the Spam is the pork base. So I always wanted to elevate Spam in a way where people can enjoy it without thinking too much about what it is, originally. So by elevating it, adding truffles and Parmesan cream, all of that goes well with pork as a flavour profile.”

However, having Spam on the menu in a casual gourmet restaurant in the Big Apple might be off-putting for some.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the bestseller, because Spam has a negative reputation, a stigma around it. You have to come with an open mind … We do attract a good amount of Asian clientele, and by definition Spam is already in their diet and cuisine.”

“It’s amazing that this food became popular to begin with just because of the war,” Ruvio says. “Not many things become popular because of war, but this one did.

“The emotional bond that you built with this brand is what carried the brand for so long. When you have a product that answers real needs, then it will become popular. And that’s what happened with Spam.”

Source: SCMP

Yum Yum Sauce: The Making Of An American Condiment

Oliver Whang wrote . . . . . . . . .

The scene is a familiar one. People sit around a rectangular table, the bulk of which is taken up by a smooth iron cooktop. Gas flames flicker underneath. A man wearing a tall red hat and a white chef’s uniform approaches, pulling a cart filled with cold food, large cooking utensils and various bottles of sauces. He holds a spatula and a large metal fork. He brings them together: cling-clang, cling-clang. Eyes sparkling, he looks around the table. “Welcome to Benihana.”

More commonly referred to as hibachi, Japanese teppanyaki-style cooking has become part of the American dining experience. The combination of noodles, rice, vegetables and meat fried up on a griddle draws customers to these restaurants as much as the loud and showy flair of the chefs cooking at the table.

One of the more subtle curiosities of teppanyaki restaurants — beyond the stacked onion rings of fire and behind-the-back toss of metal utensils — is a creamy orange-pink sauce placed beside your steaming meal. Almost every teppanyaki restaurant will serve it, though its name differs depending on whom you talk to. White sauce (a deceptive moniker), shrimp sauce, yummy sauce, yum yum sauce — are all used interchangeably.

Considered by many in America to be a Japanese classic (one Reddit user called it “infamous”; a blogger speculated that there are really only “two types of folk that dine at a hibachi restaurant, those that get double white sauce and those that don’t know you can get double white sauce”), the sauce’s sweet, slightly tangy flavor varies between restaurants and regions as much as the name does. A little more sweetness in one place. A little more tang in another. Some versions are reminiscent of fry sauce, popular in the South. Such variety calls into question whether the sauce we taste in our local teppanyaki restaurants is even Japanese at all.

Maybe not surprisingly, the answer, it appears, is no.

Nancy Singleton Hachisu, author of three cookbooks on traditional and modern Japanese cuisine, was confused when I first asked her about the sauce. She hadn’t heard of it being used in Japan and actually objected to my initial question about hibachi restaurants. “Since hibachi is a traditional charcoal heater for the room,” she told me, “I cannot think that Japan would yield information on this topic.”

Once I sent her a description of the sauce, which I called shrimp sauce and she called “basically pink mayo,” she told me that there is no evidence of its use in Japanese cuisine.

Elizabeth Andoh, who has lived in Japan for half a century and runs the Japanese culinary education program A Taste of Culture, was also puzzled. “I don’t know of any white sauce or shrimp sauce that is served with Japanese steak,” she said. When I prompted her with a more detailed description, she responded, “This sort of mayo-based … tomato sauce is not part of any Japanese steakhouse repertoire I know of.”

And Polly Adema, director of the food studies program at California’s College of the Pacific, said that the sauce’s origins are fuzzy, though probably not deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Perhaps, she said, the sauce stems from congruent American and modern Japanese tastes for mayonnaise.

Andoh did say that, in general, the Japanese are “mayo crazy.” But such speculation doesn’t get you very far.

“Which came first: an affection for mayo or a mayo-enriched dish?” Adema asked. “[It’s] one of those questions we may never be able to answer.”

The recipe for the sauce is equally difficult to come by. I reached out to 15 different restaurants around the U.S. — large chains and independently run joints — but each turned down my request. “We cannot divulge that information,” a Benihana manager in Maryland told me. I received similar answers from a Sakura in New Jersey, an Edohana in Texas and a Flame in New York.

Chuck Cutler ran into a very similar problem 25 years ago, when he first tasted what he calls white sauce in a teppanyaki restaurant. “I noticed that all the other people at the table were asking for two bowls of white sauce … so I tried it. I was instantly hooked.”

Cutler spent a decade asking different restaurants for the recipe, to no avail. “It’s a Japanese secret,” chefs would tell him. One day, though, in a Florida grocery store, he stumbled across a sauce produced by a teppanyaki restaurant. He remembers it being called vegetable sauce. So he bought a bottle “and darned if it didn’t taste exactly like what I had been looking for.”

Using the ingredients listed on the vegetable sauce bottle, Cutler was able to come up with his own recipe (Chuck’s Easy Recipe), which, in a form of revenge against the restaurants that had rejected him, he made a website for: Japanese-Steakhouse-White-Sauce.com. According to Cutler, it was the first good recipe online. Created almost a decade and a half ago, the website now has 229 pages of comments from visitors. There “are thousands of comments from people all over the world saying, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been looking for this forever,’ ” he said. “Ninety-eight percent of them are positive.”

The popularity and intrigue around the sauce led one teppanyaki restaurant owner, Terry Ho, to start bottling it in bulk. Ho owns more than 20 restaurants in the South — some teppanyaki and some Chinese. He has lived in Albany, Ga., since the 1970s, when his grandfather immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan.

Ho’s sauce is called Terry Ho’s Yum Yum Sauce.

The name is distinctive — and a nifty branding move. According to Ho, “Yum Yum Sauce” is much more appealing than white sauce or shrimp sauce, neither of which is even a vaguely accurate description of the actual sauce. “There’s no shrimp in this recipe,” he said. “Why are you calling it shrimp sauce?” Yum Yum Sauce, though, is fitting: “Well, I mean, it tastes yummy.”

For years, Southerners who had tasted or heard about Ho’s Yum Yum Sauce — which he made a little differently from others (less oil and sugar) — would come to his restaurants asking for 16 or 20 ounces of it. He would dole it out in Styrofoam containers.

Seeing the business potential, Ho started manufacturing and bottling the sauce on a mass scale about a decade ago. Success came quickly. The sauce worked its way to larger and larger outlets, diffusing throughout the United States. It is now sold in around 30,000 grocery stores nationwide. Ho said the company is growing by 10 to 15% every year. The sauce is also stocked in U.S. military commissaries around the world. “There are people in Germany and Saudi Arabia buying the sauce,” Ho proudly said.

“My plan is to turn Yum Yum Sauce into the next American condiment,” he told me. “We don’t want to be just [perceived as] an Asian sauce. We want to be the next ranch.”

When I asked Cutler about Terry Ho’s Yum Yum Sauce, he sighed. “I tried that one, and I didn’t think it was that great.” But of course, he acknowledged, tastes are tastes. Different sauces will appeal to different people in different regions.

The sauce — delicious as it is — is something different to everyone. It’s what’s available. What’s memorable. Maybe even what has the most creative name.

Source: npr