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Down in Tokyo

Wafu Burger

American Comfort Food Localized in Japan

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The rice burger has a layered structure which
allows it to hold ingredients like this kakiage tempura.
This could never be accomplished in an onigiri.

Quick, cheap, and casual—these three words are at the heart of fast food and they are the reason why it attracts so many people. But more importantly, there is comfort food rooted in every culture. Each country has its own version of fast food and vendor food culture, as well as its favorites.  For example, hamburgers, hot dogs and fried chicken in the U.S., fish & chips in England, kebabs in Turkey, crepes in France, and udon, soba, ramen and gyudon ( beef rice bowl) in Japan. In our internationalized society, such food cultures easily crossover and new flavors are spawned.

In Japan, the burger sandwich, an import from the U.S., is uniquely localized according to the country’s ingredients, taste buds and consumer behavior. Even American food chains that do business in Japan create inventive products marketed for the local taste. In July, Wendy’s introduced a wafu (Japanese style) chicken sandwich. Mizuna (a type of leaf) is used in its place of lettuce, and it makes a great match with the freshly fried chicken because mizuna’s texture is crisp enough to harmonize with the fried chicken’s crusty batter.  Also, the sauce made of grated daikon radish and ponzu delivers a summery flavor with the support of mayonnaise that has been spiced up by tougarashi (red pepper) and yuzu-koshou (yuzu citrus pepper).  The vege-chiki wrap (vegetable chicken wrap) is one of the seasonal flavors offered by Kentucky Fried Chicken in May. Charbroiled chicken is wrapped with burdock root, carrot salad and lettuce in a soft tortilla, and its teriyaki sauce with a touch of spiciness especially adds yakitori (chicken skewer)-like flavor.  The burdock root and carrot salad are dressed with sesame flavored mayonnaise, and its nuttiness really accentuates the wrap.

Japanese brands also keep contributing new flavors to the market. Probably the most inventive burger-inspired creation and the biggest hit in Japan is the kinpira burger from Mos Burger, which was introduced in 1990.  Mos Rice Burger (kinpira) is its official name, and as it implies the burger uses a rice pate (called a “rice plate”) instead of a bun.  What the rice pate contains is kinpira gobou, a hearty, comfort food for the Japanese. It is made of jullienned burdock root and sautéed with soy sauce and sugar, and its distinctively crisp texture is what makes this dish special. Since the Japanese have a tradition of eating onigiri (or omusubi) rice balls with toppings inside as fast food, the idea of rice pate seems natural to them. However, what is innovative about the rice burger is how it layers the ingredients, thereby including more than what is in the average onigiri. Since being introduced, the rice burger concept has became a standard of fast food, and many different flavors have made their debut, among them pork ginger, miso katsu (pork cutlet with miso sauce), tori tsukune (chicken pate), and kakiage tempura.

In terms of marketing strategy, it is not so easy to introduce new food items that appeal to the Japanese, as they are fastidious about food. But there are some keywords that can nudge them, which are “seasonal,” “regional,” “healthy,” and “limited time offer.”  Recently, “traceability” was also added to this list. Many fast food chains have started to emphasize their ingredients’ safety by claiming that they use “all domestically grown” ingredients.  It is not cost effective to provide a food product without using imported ingredients, but Japanese consumers are really influenced by the tagline “domestically grown.” As trends shift, American comfort food keeps evolving in Japan. It might not be far in the future that these sorts of  fusion burgers are enjoyed by people in the country they came from.

——— Reported by Noriko Komura

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Since Mos Burger employs a made-to-order system, you have to wait for about 5 minutes after you place your order. However, the reward at the end is tremendous: a steaming hot burger sandwich!  Just be careful not to burn yourself by eating it.  Make sure to use a paper wrap to protect your fingers from the heat as this young lady does.