Beef Bowls and KFC: Unique Japanese Comfort Food

Comfort food is a worldwide phenomenon, and is as unique as many people who enjoy it. In Japan, it takes on a particularly peculiar form.

Beef Bowls and KFC: Unique Japanese Comfort Food

Every country, every culture, and every person around the world has his or her own version of “comfort food”. It usually is not the healthiest option on the menu, but that is not why we love it, and that is not why we always come back to it. Comfort food at its heart is something meant to warm you up from the inside in cold times - literally speaking but also metaphorically - making you feel at home when you miss it and need it the most. Maybe your comfort food is something sweet that your grandmother used to cook, or the soup your mother would bring you when you were sick. Perhaps it is the first meal you learned how to make for yourself while away at university, on your own for the first time. Comfort food doesn’t even have to be homemade either, all it needs is to be something simple, warm, and full of as much flavour as nostalgia, and memories of simpler, better times.

Comfort food can also be one such personal feature that can immediately tell you where a person is from. This does not mean any given person’s comfort food cannot be appreciated elsewhere, beyond their home region: pizza is a great example of a comfort food that started out as a simple meal in the home kitchens of Southern Italy before spreading like wildfire to become the worldwide phenomenon that it is today. However, if someone were to tell you that their comfort food was clam chowder, there is a good chance that they grew up in the New England area, or if they chose French onion soup... well, you can probably figure that one out yourself. One common trait of comfort foods is that they often started out small: evolving from simple meals made of whatever was most readily available to the local population in the past into dishes that have become ubiquitous parts of the culture where they originated.

However, the age of globalization has made the traditions behind comfort food much more complex. For example, as someone who grew up in Canada, it might seem strange for me to say that something I consider to be comfort food is Mexican beef tacos.

Tacos haven’t the slightest connection to my home culture, and the closest Mexican restaurant to where I grew up was over a two-hour drive away; even so, that didn’t stop my mother from holding her very own taco night once every couple of weeks, and it’s a tradition that I still try to uphold wherever I go, however strange it may be. Another story about a more recently adopted comfort food can be told about Kentucky Fried Chicken in Japan, and particularly the special position it holds in the country around Christmas-time.

Christmas is of course not a native Japanese holiday, so when it was first brought to Japan from its various countries of origin, there was some confusion surrounding how it was meant to be celebrated. This piecemeal adoption process led to some peculiar interpretations. Most people who grew up celebrating Christmas would likely associate the holiday with close friends and family. However, Japanese Christmas has taken on the role of something more akin to a romantic holiday, meant to be celebrated principally by couples, more similar to how some might think about St. Valentine’s Day. Another curious tradition involving Japanese Christmas is their particular appetite for KFC. The fast food chain first came to Japan in 1970, and less than a decade later, KFC was as closely associated with Christmas as Santa Claus.

Many families in the United States and Great Britain choose turkey as their centrepiece for Christmas feasts; however, with turkey meat being nearly impossible to obtain in Japan until recent times, Japanese families turned to the next best thing when first figuring out how to celebrate Christmas: fried chicken. Nowadays, KFC restaurants around Japan begin their preparations for the massive demands of the Christmas season as early as July, and pre-orders by families who want to ensure they get to celebrate Christmas the “right” way are also made months in advance. If you were to ask them, many Japanese people would be surprised to learn that American and British families don’t celebrate Christmas with a bucket of drumsticks like they do, but it wouldn’t change their minds about their unique tradition either. I can’t say that I blame them; it is “finger licking good”, after all.

I have spent quite some time living in Japan myself, and although I didn’t climb aboard the Christmas-time KFC bandwagon, there was another Japanese comfort food that has forever secured a nostalgic place in my heart. After many a late night spent studying, or after coming home late from work, there was always one restaurant that I could count on to greet me with its warm, orange glow and an equally warm meal: that restaurant was “Yoshinoya”, and the comfort food, gyūdon.

To tell the story of this particular dish, one must begin all the way back in the 7th century. In the year 675, the Japanese emperor, Tenmu, officially decreed that the consumption of meat - which included horse, chicken, and most importantly for our story, beef - was forbidden during the harvest season. The reasons behind this decree were complex, but were significantly influenced by the recent arrival and adoption of Buddhism from the continent, and particularly its tenets of reincarnation. Soon this meat ban was extended to last all year round, and would be enforced throughout Japan for over a millennium to come. It wasn’t until 1872 when, during the period of reforms that coincided with the Meiji Restoration, the consumption of meat was finally allowed for all Japanese citizens. People soon began experimenting with various ways to prepare and serve the newly accessible delicacy. Beef was held in high regard as the food of the elite; just because it was now legal doesn’t mean it was cheap. Some of this tradition of high-class beef still holds true today, as Japanese Kobe beef is world renowned not only for its taste, but also its high price.

One prominent example of a newfound way to cook and serve beef originated near the fish market in Nihonbashi, Tokyo in 1899. A man named Matsuda Eikichi (松田栄吉) was working at a sushi restaurant, and thought that he might be able to attract more customers if he began selling higher-class food, like beef. The invention he came up with was originally called gyūnabe (牛鍋), which can be loosely translated as “beef hotpot”. The beef was boiled in a pot with various vegetables and other side ingredients, then served over rice in an ornate porcelain bowl, to symbolise the high value of the dish as a whole. Despite suffering through the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 and seeing a quarter of the city of Tokyo reduced to ash by American firebombs in 1945, Matsuda and his restaurant “Yoshinoya” persevered.

After the war, Matsuda decided to change his business strategy and begin appealing to the average Japanese citizen. With beef imports from abroad legalised, he was now able to purchase beef at a much lower price, allowing him to now begin selling his trademark beef meals - now with the new (and current) name gyūdon (牛丼) or “beef bowl” - at a lower price as well. This change in approach resulted in the popularity of Yoshinoya beef bowls skyrocketing across Japan. In only the span of a single year, from 1977 to 1978, the number of Yoshinoya chain restaurants in Japan more than doubled, from around 100 to more than 200 total. By that time Yoshinoya had even expanded abroad, opening its first store in Denver, Colorado in 1975. Gyūdon had risen to become a beloved food of the people, and Yoshinoya was leading the charge, by holding true to their slogan: hayai, umai, yasui (quick, tasty, cheap).

However, in 2003, disaster struck. It was discovered that some beef imported into Japan may have been contaminated with BSE (mad cow disease). Yoshinoya immediately suspended all imports and sales of beef in its Japanese branches. For the next 4 years, all the Japanese people could do was wait with nostalgic minds and empty stomachs, until finally, in 2008, their beloved beef bowl returned. Currently, Yoshinoya is joined by many other popular 24-hour gyūdon chains, including Sukiya, Matsuya, and others. Their recipes may slightly differ, but they have the same goal at heart: to provide the people with a warm, simple meal, whenever they might need it. And if that’s not what comfort food is all about, I don’t know what is.


Text by

Tyler Cobb