Why 'B-grade gourmet' food is so important to Japanese culture

Photo via Getty Images/billnoll

Why 'B-grade gourmet' food is so important to Japanese culture

History + Culture

Why 'B-grade gourmet' food is so important to Japanese culture

“It’s like Japanese soul food,” my coworker said, describing yakisoba, a greasy mound of wheat noodles, cabbage and pork fried in Japanese BBQ sauce and topped with benishoga (pickled ginger) and aonori (powdered seaweed). Yakisoba is a classic example of Japan’s b-kyu gurume (B-grade gourmet) food.

Beige in color, fried in nature, condiment-laden and carb-heavy, b-kyu gourmet foods are in fairly stark contrast to the meticulously arranged bento boxes, tweezered sashimi arrangements and Michelin-starred fine dining that make Japan’s cuisine famous.

Yakisoba. Photo via Flickr/Yoppy

Takoyaki, for example, are fried dough balls filled with pieces of octopus and topped with mayonnaise and BBQ sauce; okonomiyaki is a cabbage pancake topped with mayonnaise and BBQ sauce; korokke is Japan’s take on a croquette; tonkatsu is a panko–coated and deep-fried pork fillet – and other dishes follow a similar style.  

The quirky “b-kyu gourmet” moniker draws on the same grading system rationale as b-grade movies: low-budget, lovable, and made in a short period of time. It was first used in a magazine article in the 1980s. Since then, the cuisine has evolved from a low-brow staple to having cult-like status.

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Tako means “octopus” and yaki means “grilled,” but takoyaki is greater than the sum of its parts. First, Japanese chefs toss octopus into an egg and flour batter with pickled ginger and green onion. Then, they fry the mixture into nearly perfect spheres using a special molded pan. They garnish their finished creation with Takoyaki sauce (similar to Worcestershire sauce), mayonnaise, green laver seaweed (aonori), and dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi). Takoyaki is popular all over Japan, but it began as Osakan street food in 1935. Multiple origin stories point to a vendor named Endo Tomekichi, who sold choboyaki, or fried batter cooked in a special pan. Octopus was abundant in the area, so he incorporated it into the batter and takoyaki was born. Dōtonbori, Osaka’s unofficial dining district, remains the best-known place for takoyaki in the world. These versatile dough balls are now sold both as street food and restaurant fare. Vendors make batch after batch of hot, greasy dough balls, stick a toothpick in each one, and sell them in paper trays. Some upscale restaurants also serve a version of takoyaki as an appetizer, often using larger portions of octopus and adding expensive toppings. Several takoyaki stands and restaurants along Dōtonbori Street (as well as other restaurants serving iconic Osakan food) adorn their storefronts with giant sea creatures. A gargantuan octopus usually signals there’s takoyaki for sale inside. https://www.atlasobscura.com/foods/takoyaki-octopus-osaka 📸 @theycallmesundown 🐙🍳🇯🇵🍢 #takoyaki #osakafood #dotonbori #japanesestreetfood #friedoctopusballs #atlasobscura #gastroobscura

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Although the cuisine was first acknowledged on a mass scale in the 1980s, many of the dishes themselves date back to the Taisho (1912-1926) and Showa eras (1926-1989), and in particular to two major events that impacted the way people ate during these periods: the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and WW2, respectively. The food shortages that followed these two disasters meant people needed cheap, filling meals – and with wheat readily available from aid donations, b-kyu creations were spawned.

Now the cuisine is not only widely available across Japan, found in specialty restaurants and family restaurants chains, but there’s also b-kyu maps, tourism guides, and b-kyu food festivals. The annual weekend-long B-1 Grand Prix is held to determine the nation’s top B-grade food, and has gone from 17,000 visitors in 2006 to almost half a million last year. 

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Several of the most famous B-grade dishes – like tonkatsu, ramen, and okonomiyaki –  have made their way into the mix of Japan’s culinary exports alongside more traditional cuisine like sushi, soba and tempura.

“They’re able to be eaten by everybody,” my coworker tells me – from a sushi chef on his day off to an office worker and a university student. This accessibility seems to be a major part of the appeal of b-kyu meals; not only are they cheap – coming in generally below the 1,000 yen ($10 USD) mark – but they’re quick to consume, and lack the layers of etiquette of the highly ritualized and highly priced traditional dining experiences like kaiseki and sushi. B-kyu food is casual and lacks pretense; there’s no special dress code, no special table manners and no food knowledge required.

Beyond price point and a relaxed dining style, b-kyu food provides a sense of regional cuisine, empowerment and discovery. My friend Taro, a chef in Tokyo, tells me: “Eating Hiroshimayaki in Hiroshima, I could feel the local spirit of Hiroshima and talk with locals.”

Food-obsessed Japan will happily turn a bowl of noodles into a weekend road trip, meaning b-kyu hype has the power to put places on the map. This is a potentially powerful tool for little rural towns struggling with dwindling populations and formerly low tourism numbers. The B-1 Grand Prix positions itself as a regional publicity project as much as a culinary festival – the winner of the first (2006) and second (2007) B-1 Grand Prix (Fujinomiya Yakisoba in the Shizuoka Prefecture) is estimated to have reaped 44 billion yen ($150 million USD) in tourism to the region as a direct result of the accolade.

Some shun the b-kyu trend as hype-heavy media fanfare that detracts from more authentic local cuisine, but a more commonly held perspective is that the dishes have a certain local charm. Itoigawa Yakisoba, from Niigata, is colored with squid ink and squid rings from locally caught invertebrate, for example, and Hida korokke is a croquette filled with wagyu beef from the famous Hida cattle.

As my friend tells me, “It can be kind of a doorway into discovering the local food of a town.” You may go to Niigata for the Itoigawa Yakisoba, but stay for the wappa meshi – rice cooked in thin stock and topped with local seasonal ingredients such as salmon, salmon roe and oysters, and then steamed in a cedar box, which is likely an OG bento box dating back hundreds of years. In Hida, you might go for the Hida katsu but discover hoba miso, a traditional dish of local vegetables and meat cooked with miso in a magnolia (hoba) leaf.

Hida beef korokke. Photo via Flickr/Kazuhiko Maeda

While it may not be the immaculate, refined UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage-listed washoku cuisine of Japan, if you look hard enough, and in the right places, you can still detect echoes of the hallmark elements. Dishes generally come thoughtfully (if not extravagantly) plated, often comprising the “five colors” – a balance of white, black, red, green and yellow – through toppings, side dishes or choice of crockery, and there’s the signature Japanese whitespace in plating. The b-kyu foods that gain popularity will have the attention to detail appreciated by discerning Japanese eaters: batters will be crisp, doughs fluffy and noodles al dente.

The dishes may be humble (very humble in some instances – like plain yakisoba-filled hotdog buns or rice bowls topped with karaage and drenched in barbecue sauce), but because they’re domestic creations, and part of an bigger cultural picture, are embraced nonetheless.

If you’re in Japan and want to eat some b-kyu food, look out for garish photo signage, or the queues.

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