1884 - First Japanese Restaurant in London

Think you were part of the Japanese food revolution in the UK? Think again. 

In 1884, London got its first whiff of Japanese cuisine at the International Health Exhibition, which followed on the coat tails of the Great Exhibition. Clearly even in 1884 somebody who had probably travelled widely had thought of Japanese food as a healthy option and attracted chefs from a restaurant in Tokyo called Isegen to come over to the UK. Even more amazingly, that same restaurant Isegen still survives in Tokyo.

A review in London's 1884 Morning Post  describes London's first experience of Japanese food located in the upstairs of the Bertram and Roberts' smoking pavilion. It's an interesting read (see full text here on the wonderful Cat's Meat Shop blog). Here are slightly edited highlights, some quite funny:

"The menu on Wednesday consisted of 
  • Sea cucumber and raw turnip salad. 
  • Miso soup broad beans, and aralia pinnatifida. 
  • Kuchitori, a side dish of mushrooms, radishes, and tomato mixed. 
  • Hachimono, a grilled or roast. Choku, dressed vegetables in vinegar. 
  • Han, boiled rice. 
  • Wanmori, soup of meat with vegetables. 
  • Sunomono, salad. 
  • Konomono,vegetables, salted or preserved in miso. 
  • Saké"

The Taste
"The pervading flavour of all these dishes is what the French term aigre-doux - bitter sweet. There is very little taste of the meat or fish left, it all being apparently carefully extracted and concentrated in the soups, which are excellent, but we English are not in the habit of taking two soups at once at the same dinner, as is evidently the Japanese custom. The saké is identified with the Chinese beverage of the same name, and very refreshing, but rather stronger and more intoxicating than most people would imagine".

The Volume
"It might be suggested, that a good curry or stew of a substantial character - and surely there must be such in the Japanese cuisine - could with advantage be added to the present menu, which to the majority, unaccustomed to the extreme recherché and ultra aestheticiem of the Japanese cookery, proves rather, to say the least, unsatisfactory. Several, [...] openly expressed their keen desire for a steak and one or two of the guests were still hungry enough to partake of an extra meal elsewhere".  

The Celebrity Chefs
The names of the Japanese cooks to whose art is due the fact that we in London can now dine as well according doubtless to Japanese notions as if we were in Yeddo (i.e. Edo period Japan), are Kiiti, son of Isegen, and Gensuke, chief cook of Isegen. It is certainly one of the things to do at the Exhibition to dine a la Japanoise ; and no one ought to omit partaking of at least one dinner in this aerial restaurant, which is perched so high up that it commands a splendid view of the gardens and buildings.

So there we are. Of course, you do get Japanese curry and it is a cheap, popular food in Japan. It was originally introduced by the Japanese Navy later on in the 19th Century, who had adopted and adapted from the British Navy, who in their turn had adapted from India. Now Japanese curry is even re-exported abroad as a distinct food.

Which reminds me of a funny story: When working in Japan my English/Pakistan friend and neighbour Akmal made an authentic curry for somebody who had helped us out when I sliced my thumb on a food grater (we'll save that story for another time). When collecting the empty Tuppaware the lady thanked him, said it was delicious but then just as he was about to leave she said, 'but quite different to real curry'. Puzzled, he asked what real curry might be, to which she presented him with a block of Japanese curry roux and told him the complex recipe of diluting the roux with hot water and then adding meat and veg of your choice.