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Super Mario Cuisine: Italian-Japanese Fusion at its Best!

Back in 1981, Nintendo released the Donkey Kong arcade game developed by Shigeru Miyamoto.  For those uninitiated gamers out there (or too young to remember), players took control of "jumpman," who needed to avoid the barrels that a giant ape threw.  Jumpman earned the nickname Mario, named after American businessman Mario Segale who managed the warehouse spaces that Nintendo utilized in the United States.  The name stuck, and when a game dedicated strictly to the "Jumpman" character was being developed, Miyamoto decided to use the Mario name and define his character as an Italian plumber.  The rest is history. 
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What does any of this have to do with food?  Well, this little Japanese representation of an Italian plumber became one of the most  important icons in Japanese culture at a time when other aspects of Italian culture were taking root, especially cuisine.

You see, while journeying in Japan, one can enjoy a wide variety of cuisines.  Each region has its own specialties, and Japanese chefs throughout the nation have mastered a broad range of foreign foods.  But I think you would be hard pressed to find a foreign food that has as many Japanese fusion interpretations as Italian, much like Nintendo's famed Super Mario.  

"Fusion" can take on quite a few different meanings.  On the modest side, it may be using foreign ingredients in traditional meals.  For example, choosing to use a locally caught fish in a dish that would not have that fish available in its home of origin.  On the opposite side of the spectrum is a dish that merely enjoys the "spirit" of the original dish, such as dessert tacos, which don't have any of the original ingredients or flavors, but matches the shape of the original food.

In this article, I'll introduce you to dishes that run the gamut of Japanese-Italian fusion, which I affectionately refer to as Japan's "Super Mario" cuisine.  So without further ado...

Carpaccio

Carpaccio is an Italian dish that combines thinly sliced raw meat or vegetables with vegetables, lemon (or vinegar) and olive oil.  It is a popular antipasti, or appetizer, and is a fantastic way to showcase fresh, locally sourced ingredients.  In traditional Italian, the protein would be either beef or some sort of white fish caught from the Mediterranean, but in Japan, you can find a whole bunch of different options.

With Japanese fusion options, the modest interpretations would simply be to use locally sourced beef or fish, so wagyu carpaccio or tai (red snapper) carpaccio are common options.

Still, here is my favorite fusion take on carpaccio:

RAW HORSE Carpaccio


Basashi, or raw horse, is a delicacy from Kumamoto prefecture.  The story goes that when Kumamoto castle fell under siege, the besieged samurai ran short on food and had to eat their horses.  Still, shortly after eating their horses, the tides turned and they were able to win the battle.  As such, horse meat is seen as an auspicious food.  

Well, I can't think of anything that would be more representative of Italian-Japanese fusion than to take basashi and put it in a carpaccio dish.

The best place to find this in Tokyo is at Fregoli near Ebisu Station.  It will run you 2500 yen for the plate you see above, but it offers a unique way to enjoy a traditional Japanese food in a non-traditional style!



Pizzas

Many people are aware of the strange pizzas that Japan offers.  Of course, Japan is not unique in that it takes the basic concept of pizza (crust, sauce, toppings) and puts its own spin on it.  All you have to do is go to a California Pizza Kitchen to see some of the varieties out there.  Still, Japan certainly sets itself apart with the "Japaneseness" of its pizza options.

Why is that?  Well, back when the big name pizza companies  (Domino's, Pizza Hut, etc.) were trying to break into the Japanese market in the late 80s and 90s, they were finding difficulty getting the market to take.  While Japanese had a taste for fine Italian food, the thought of fast food pizza simply didn't have the broad appeal necessary to sustain a fast food business model.  So to remedy that, they started catering to the local clientele, offering pizzas that incorporated truly Japanese ingredients.

The one that gained the most customers domestically and most notoriety abroad was the squid pizza, which incorporated squid and mayonnaise into the toppings.  The Japanese public took to it, and it helped Domino's gain a foothold in Japan that it has never had to relinquish.  Meanwhile, foreign observers thought, "This is crazy," and the pizza gained fame for that additional reason.  One of those folks that wanted to try it simply because of how odd it seemed was then-President Bill Clinton, who specifically requested that one be brought to his room during his official state visit.  (His verdict: "It was interesting.")

Nowadays, there are all sorts of unique Japanese toppings on pizzas.  Squid is one of them, but Mentaiko (pollock roe) has become a more popular (and readily available) option. 
Where can you get these types of pizzas?  The easiest place is Pizza Hut!  Visit the Pizza Hut Japan website (English language available) to find stores or order online to be delivered to your hotel/hostel/bnb!

Pizza Ramen

So what if you love pizza but want to try a different fusion take that doesn't include squid?  How about some pizza ramen?  

Personally, I would have never thought to combine Ramen and Pizza (it sounds like something a college student would come up with at 3 o'clock in the morning after partying all night), but there is one place in Tokyo that brought this concept to life: Ajito ism.

Ajito ism is located in the busy Shinagawa area of Tokyo and has earned distinction for pioneering this unique East-meets-West Ramen dish (along with some others, like Mexican Ramen).  

In some ways, this shop may seem like a lazy man's fusion restaurant-- just take ramen and throw a bunch of pizza toppings (pepperoni, salami, olives, anchovies, etc.) on top.  Still, as with most things Japanese, a lot more thought went into it.  The proportioning of the ingredients, the flavor combinations, and the execution are all done in such a way as to make for the perfect fusion of flavors.  It is definitely more ramen than pizza, but it certainly takes some of the best elements of pizza to make for a memorable noodle experience.



Pizzaman


So if squid pizza and pizza ramen are both a little too strange for you, here's a quick and easy Italian-Japanese fusion snack that is a staple in my household.

Pizzaman is a combination of pizza and nikuman, steamed meat buns.  Instead of being filled with pork, onions, mushrooms, and other ingredients, pizzaman is filled with tomato sauce, cheese, and, occasionally, corn and/or pepperoni.  Pizzaman makes for a fantastic on-the-go snack, and if you're like me, it's something that you'll wish you could have handy on a daily basis.


You can find pizzaman at any convenience store for between 100 and 200 yen.  [Word of caution: Sunkus convenience store pizzaman have corn inside!]

Pasta

Last but not least are Japanese-Italian fusion pasta dishes.  At the very modest end of the spectrum is Japanese meat pasta that adds just a bit of miso to it to incorporate the quintessentially Japanese umami flavor.  At the opposite end of that spectrum are a variety of pastas that are about as Japanese as you can possibly make pasta.  Check these out:

Photo courtesy of Amazon.co.jp

Aburi Tarako (Broiled Cod Roe)

Kogashi Negi Shio
(Baked Mustard Salt)

Kobashi Ebi Shio
(Sweet and Salty Shrimp)

Dashi Kaoru Wafu Carbonara
(Fish broth-infused Japanese-style Carbonara)

Dashi Kaoru Natto
(Fish broth-infused Fermented Beans)

Kunsei Bacon Peperoncino
(Japanese-style Smoked Bacon Peperoncino)

All of these pastas have one thing in common: their manufacturer, Kewpie.  Kewpie is best known for its Mayonnaise, which in itself is a bit of a fusion, since it takes basic mayonnaise and adds Japanese vinegar to it.  Since becoming Japan's top-selling Mayo company, Kewpie has branched out to all manners of food products, including the sauces you see above. 

Most of these are take home varieties that you can get at convenience stores and supermarkets, but some restaurants offer similar varieties.  That is especially true for Kewpie pop-up restaurants that you come across in Japan.  Still, your safest bet for finding some of these unique pasta options is checking out mall food courts.  Almost every Aeon Mall food court in Japan will have an Italian restaurant that will offer some uniquely Japanese-inspired fusion pasta.

Other Super Mario Fusion Foods

In case none of those options strike your fancy, here are a few more Japanese-Italian fusion options that you can find in Japan:

Risotto

It's probably unsurprising that an Italian dish centered on rice also finds its fusion home in Japan.  Japanese fusion varieties may use locally grown white rice instead of arborio rice, or dashi (fish stock) instead of consomme.

Antipasto

Whereas Italian restaurants may offer slices of pepperoni, salami, prosciutto, anchovies, olives, etc., Japanese fusion options may include cured ham, croquettes, or other local vegetables and cheeses.

Gelato

This famous Italian ice cream is a popular dessert across the globe with countless different flavors available.  Japan uses this medium to showcase some uniquely Japanese options as well.  The most interesting one I've encountered is Niigata Brown Rice!

So there you have it...

...the "Super Mario" cuisine that was born in Japan but inspired by Italian heritage.  True, some of these may be a bit too odd for some of you travelers out there, but if you have even the slightest bit of curiosity and the adventurous palate to boot, I say zehi, give these a shot!



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Mmmmm that pizza looks good.