Hambāgu. Omu-rice. Napolitan spaghetti. These are examples of yoshoku: dishes developed in Japan that integrate Western influences. Go to a Japanese Denny's and you might enjoy a bunless hamburger patty with a "demiglace" sauce, an omelet stuffed with ketchup-flavored fried rice (then topped with more ketchup), and pre-cooked spaghetti that's stir-fried with ketchup. In true Japanese fashion, yoshoku are dishes borrowed from the West, embellished, and made into something entirely unique.
I'm not a huge fan of the aforementioned dishes, but two I do love are katsu (a breaded, deep-fried meat patty) and karē-raisu (curry rice— the stewed meat sauce was introduced to Japan by the British, served with rice, and is now a popular national dish typically made from a conveniently boxed roux). Put the two together and you have the irresistible Japanese dish called katsu-karē (katsu curry), and a great place to get it is Cutting Board in Seattle. It's available with a variety of deep-fried breaded items, from vegetable croquette to ebi furai (fried shrimp) to menchi katsu (breaded minced beef, akin to deep-fried mini hamburger patties), but my top recommendation is Japanese-Style Beef Curry with Tonkatsu ($10.99).
Tonkatsu, not to be confused with tonkotsu ramen broth, is a breaded, deep-fried boneless pork cutlet. It's a great dish on its own—delicious with a dab of Japanese hot mustard and tonkatsu sauce, and almost always served with lots of shredded cabbage to cut the heaviness of the meat. But it's also a smart idea to put that crispy pork in a pool of rich curry sauce. It gets a little soggy, but still retains the crunchy exterior that's so captivating, and the pork is still incredibly juicy inside. The fun challenge is keeping the balance of pork, rice, and sauce just right. In lieu of cabbage, katsu curry comes with a small salad for refreshing side bites.
While Cutting Board has a homey feeling (it's so casual that you order at the counter, with the cook then bringing the food to your table), surprisingly, only a handful of its customers are Japanese. Most of the rest are Westerners. This might help explain the preponderance of crazy sushi rolls on the menu, many with ingredients you won't find in Japan, like mango (and other fruits), jalapeño, spicy tuna, and fried calamari. Curious about these rolls, to counter the "turf" order of katsu curry, I complemented my meal with a "surf" order of two: the Chiba ($6.00) and the Hiroshima ($6.50) rolls.
The Chiba Roll comes with unagi (eel), macadamia nuts, lettuce, cucumber, tempura crisps, and teriyaki sauce. My dining companion, who is from Tokyo, informed me that Chiba prefecture is the leading producer of peanuts in Japan. She then laughed, explaining that you'd never put nuts in sushi in Japan. Typical of sauced eel, this roll is sweet, with those macadamia nuts adding crunchy texture.
The Hiroshima Roll is a softer affair, featuring the flakiness of cooked salmon (a sushi oddity for a Japanese person) with the slippery softness of cream cheese. The rest of the roll is comprised of lemon zest, cucumber, tobiko (flying fish roe), and wasabi, providing some citrusy and briny flavors, along with nasal heat. Hiroshima is known for its noodle-filled okonomiyaki and oysters, but lacking any of those items, neither of us could figure out the connection of the name to the roll. Nonsensical nomenclature aside, Cutting Board is a fine place to satisfy your yoshoku fix.
About the author: Jay Friedman is a Seattle-based freelance food writer who happens to travel extensively as a sex educator. An avid fan of noodles (some call him "The Mein Man"), he sees sensuality in all foods, and blogs about it at his Gastrolust website. You can follow him on Twitter @jayfriedman.