Rengatei: The venerable Ginza eaterie is the birthplace of classic yōshoku such as tonkatsu and omurice.
Foodies also imagine that each nation has its own special eating habits. Ironically, one of the implications of the globalization of the cuisines of the world is the obsessive interest in national distinctions. National cuisines, in fact, are typically and have always been, combinations of native and imported ingredients.
A case in point is Japanese food. Go to Los Angeles or Berlin and diners equate sushi, tempura, tofu and udon with Japanese cuisine. They don’t want to know that a cheap and cheerful curry (originally from India), a plate of gyoza (originally from China) or a burger (from Germany via the United States) is likely to be found and excite Japanese People.
Yōshoku 洋食 is a good case. Although the name means ‘western food,’ it is a distinctly Japanese development, and one with a long history. After the Meiji Revolution of 1868, Yoshoku first became famous, when Japan was flooded with all things western. This of course after which foreign trade was opened after it had been forbidden for more than 200 years.
Rengatei in Ginza, originally founded in 1895 as a French restaurant, was one of the first restaurants in Japan to serve yōshoku. Rengatei claims to be the birthplace of two dishes that have come to be perceived as Japanese in nature. Tonkatsu (豚カツ) is the first, and omurice (pictured above オムライス) is the second.
A thick cut of pork served with Worcester sauce, rice and shredded cabbage are Tonkatsu. The first tonkatsu was served at Rengatei by Motojiro Kida, its second-generation proprietor, in 1899. The Italian cotoletta, which is a veal cutlet wrapped in breadcrumbs and deep-fried in vegetable oil, was the basis of his signature dish.
This was a bold move, because at the time, western food was not widely popular. Most Japanese had been vegetarians prior to 1868, since Buddhism banned meat consumption, and even after the meat ban was lifted, many Japanese tended to avoid western dishes in the belief that heartburn was caused by it.
An Italian would have preferred his cutlet to be served with cooked vegetables, but this luxury was not open to Rengatei’s head chef. It took time to prepare vegetables and there was a labor shortage at the time in Tokyo. So Motojiro Kida garnished his pork cutlets with finely shredded, easier-to-prepare cabbage.
In Japanese homes, Omurice quickly became a family favorite, much loved by children, and was taken to Korea and Taiwan in the first half of the 20th century by Japanese colonialists, where it remains popular to this day.
125 years after it first opened, Rengatei is still serving delicious fusion cuisine, and still serves delicious tonkatsu and omurice. On the comprehensive menu, they’re just two of the classic yōshoku dishes and a visit is humbly recommended.