The East-West Flow of Condiments

It has always struck me as a little strange that Japanese dishes such as fish tempura and tonkatsu are often accompanied by a squirt of English mustard. Similarly, it seems to me odd that omurice is almost invariably topped with tomato ketchup. The Japanese have also adopted Worcestershire sauce, and a thicker variant of it is a mandatory accompaniment to tonkatsu. And then there’s mayonnaise. It is (of course) drizzled over salads, served as a dip with takoyaki, and no okonomiyaki would seem complete without it on top.

I struggled to think of any similar flow of Japanese – or, indeed, any oriental condiment – from East to West, with the possible exception of mushroom ketchup, which I believed originated in India. That said, it’s hardly a mainstream occidental accompaniment. I was therefore rather taken aback by a recent episode of Masterchef Australia. What happened was this…

Kewpie mayo packOne contestant was asked to select one of three condiments which must play a central role in the food they were to prepare. (Specifically they were asked to make “dude food” – a culinary category I hadn’t heard of before.) The three possible condiments were tomato ketchup, Thai chili sauce and Kewpie mayonnaise. The other contestants appeared universally delighted that it was to be the Japanese mayonnaise. It seems that Japanese mayonnaise has made it from Japan to Down Under.

Obviously, I’ve eaten Kewpie mayonnaise before. It’s smoother and sweeter than “true” mayonnaise. Occasionally I shop at a Japanese-owned supermarket here in Bangkok and take home a tub of potato salad and a ham sandwich which is liberally doused with the stuff (including an extra blob on the outside). It’s strangely addictive. I wondered why, and now I know…

Kewpie mayonnaise (the name coming from the abbreviation Q.P.) differs from classical mayonnaise in a number of respects. For example, it’s made only with egg yolks, rather than whole eggs, giving it a yellowish colour. It’s emulsified more than normal making it very smooth. The acid in it is a mixture of apple and rice vinegars. And … drum roll … it contains a heavy dose of MSG. No wonder it’s so more-ish and has started to take over the world! Everything tastes better with MSG – even “dude food”.

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