How Chinese is Japanese Chinese food?

Japanese Chinese food is called chuka ryori (中華料理 – Chinese food), or chuka for short. Like the Chinese food in the US where I grew up (and most other countries I can only assume), it’s a unique version of the country’s food adapted for local tastes.

Chinese food is by far the most popular ethnic food in Japan. While Japanese food has a mild and simple taste, Chinese food offers something with a bit more zing to it. You find Chinese restaurants everywhere, from downtown Tokyo to the middle of nowhere. Of course, if you want the real thing there are places you can go to get it like Yokohama’s chukagai (中華街 – Chinatown).

The History of Chinese Food in Japan

Chinese culture came to Japan in a big way centuries ago. This included rice, chopsticks, written language, Buddhism and just about everything else that we call Japanese civilization today. However, the diffusion of Chinese food is a different story.

Modern Chinese food came from the influx of Chinese into Yokohama, Kobe and Nagasaki during the late 19th century. The Chinese had no legal right to live in Japan, but were brought in large numbers as servants for the many Westerners who were settling in the country.

Ramen (ラーメン)


Photo by Smaku

Ramen (ラーメン) is probably the most popular Chinese food in Japan. Although similar to Chinese noodle bowls, the taste is completely different. Chinese noodle bowls are based mostly on chicken stock and never use tonkotsu (豚骨 – pork bone) like Japanese bowls do. There is no chashu (チャーシュ – roasted pork fillet) and they typically have more veggies. In true Chinese cooking, you’d never see gyoza (餃子 – pan-fried dumplings) and chahan (チャーハン – fried rice) served with noodle bowls.

Gyoza (餃子)


Photo by avlxyz

Gyoza are Chinese dumplings. The main difference between the Japanese and Chinese versions is that the ones in Japan are pan-fried so that they’re seared on one side while in China they’re usually boiled. Chinese gyoza wrappings are thick and it would be difficult to pan fry them so that the insides would be done. In China, they’re usually served in soup.

Ebi-Chili (エビチリ)


Photo by Geoff Peters 604

This dish is shrimp in hot chili sauce. It was created by Chin Kenmin, a Japanese chef of Chinese heritage. He’s known to most as the father of chef Chin Kenichi, who started the TV show Iron Chef. Kenmin created and popularized this dish, which is based on Chinese Sichuan cooking. While there is a similar dish in China, it doesn’t use ketchup and its taste is not as sweet as its Japanese counterpart.

Mabo-dofu (マーボー豆腐)


Photo by matsuyuki

This dish is also based on Sichuan cooking. It’s tofu in a spicy sauce that’s chili and bean based. This is a dish that actually comes from China, but the Japanese version is much thicker, sweeter and saltier. My Chinese neighbor says that the Japanese use potato starch in their Chinese cooking to add volume and that this kills the flavor of mabo-dofu for her.

Hiyashi-Chuka (冷やし中華)


Photo by naotakem

Hiyashi-chuka is a cold noodle salad that originated in Sendai in northern Japan. Since the noodles are served cold, this is a popular summertime dish. Toppings such as cucumbers, boiled chicken, tomatoes, bean sprouts and mayonnaise are put on top. Only the noodles in any way resemble Chinese food.

Nikuman (肉まん)


Photo by wallyg

Nikuman is a convenience store favorite. It’s the Japanese version of the Chinese pork bun, but the ingredients are a little different. Nikuman contains minced meat and vegetables whereas its cousins in China use all kinds of ingredients, a common one of which is sweet red bean paste.

So, the burning question about Japanese Chinese food is – Can you get crab meat cheese wantons in Japan? Sadly, the answer is no.

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Originally from the States, +Greg Scott has gone native in Chiba, Japan, where he lives with his wife and two children. When not writing, he plays drums like a meth-crazed gorilla in several Tōkyō bands.

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