Chuka: What Does Chuka Ryori Mean in Japanese Cuisine?
Japanese Chinese cuisine or Chuka is a style of Japanese cuisine served by nominally Chinese restaurants popularized in Japan in the late 19th century and more recent times.
There is much confusion as both Japanese and Chinese reject that this food is of their own cuisine, however, it is clear this food is found primarily in Japan, though now it is re-popularized throughout Asia from Japan as “Japanese cuisine”.
This style of food is again different from modern Chinatown Chinese food in Japan, e.g. Yokohama Chinatown.
Japanese cuisine is known for its unique flavors and dishes, but have you ever wondered where the word “chuka” comes from?
Chuka means Chinese in Japanese cuisine. It’s a borrowed word that’s used to describe Chinese-influenced Japanese food. The word “chuka” is used to describe dishes that are similar to Chinese food, or those that are prepared in a Chinese-style manner.
Let’s look at the word “chuka” and how it’s used in Japanese cuisine.
In this post we'll cover:
- 1 Chuka Ryori: The History
- 2 The Evolution and Flourishing of Chuka Ryori in Japan
- 3 Who is Chen Kenmin?
- 4 Where to Find Chuka Ryori Restaurants?
- 5 What Are Some Popular Chuka Ryori Recipes?
- 6 Conclusion
Chuka Ryori: The History
Chuka Ryori, literally meaning “Chinese cuisine,” is a style of Japanese cuisine that originated from modified Chinese dishes over the years to suit the taste of the Japanese. In a historical context, Chuka Ryori plays a key role in the cultural relations between China and Japan.
The term “chūka” is a short adjective that goes back to the early 17th century, when the Portuguese brought the kanji for “China” to Japan. Chuka Ryori was first served in port cities such as Nagasaki, where Chinese merchants and cooks were hired to help in setting up restaurants that catered to hungry Japanese customers.
The Evolution and Flourishing of Chuka Ryori in Japan
Chuka Ryori, also known as Chūka Ryori, is a Japanese term that translates to “Chinese cuisine.” It originated from the friendship treaty between Japan and China in the late 19th century, which resulted in a huge influx of Chinese settlers and established Chinatowns in major Japanese cities like Yokohama. Chuka Ryori was initially steeped in Beijing cuisine, but it quickly evolved to incorporate different regional Chinese cuisines, such as Szechuan or Sichuan, characterized by bold flavors.
The Short Decline and Resurgence of Chuka Ryori
During the Second World War, the popularity of Chuka Ryori took a steep decline, but after the war, the craving for Chinese food surged. This resulted in the opening of many Chuka Ryori shops, such as Rairaiken, which opened in Shinjuku, and Nakamuraya, which sold Chinese-style bread. The return of soldiers and settlers from China also brought back the taste of Chuka Ryori, and they set up stalls in black markets offering their signature dish, jiaozi, which are thick and chewy boiled dumplings.
The Customary Methods and Distinct Offerings of Chuka Ryori
The mandarin-style jiaozi was quickly popularized in Japanese households because it was relatively cheap and easy to make. Chuka Ryori is now considered a distinct cuisine in Japan, and it refers to Chinese-style dishes that have taken on aspects of Japanese cuisine. The seasonings and cooking methods have changed to match Japanese tastes, but the differentiation between regional Chinese cuisines remains. Some of the interesting mix of dishes that can be found in Chuka Ryori include:
- Gyoza, which are pan-fried dumplings that are a staple in Japanese cuisine
- Shaoxing, a type of Chinese rice wine that is used in many Chuka Ryori dishes
- Ramen, a Japanese noodle soup that has its roots in Chinese cuisine
- Mapo tofu, a spicy Szechuan dish that has become a popular Chuka Ryori dish in Japan
The Contemporary Incorporation of Chuka Ryori
Chuka Ryori has come a long way since its birth in Japan. Today, it is a cuisine that incorporates both Chinese and Japanese flavors and cooking techniques. Many Chuka Ryori restaurants specialize in recreating traditional Chinese dishes, while others offer contemporary dishes featuring a mix of Chinese and Japanese ingredients. The word “Chuka” has become a common adjective to refer to anything that has a Chinese influence in Japan, and it is a testament to the lasting impact of Chuka Ryori on Japanese cuisine.
Who is Chen Kenmin?
Chen Kenmin is a notable figure in Japanese cuisine, particularly in the realm of Szechuan-style cooking. He is known for bringing the fiery and authentic flavors of Szechuan cuisine to Japan and modifying them to cater to local tastes.
Early Life and Career
Chen Kenmin was born in Szechuan, China, but emigrated to Japan in 1957. He opened a restaurant in Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, where he initially focused on modifying his hometown’s cuisine to cater to Japanese tastes. However, he soon shifted his focus to Szechuan-style cooking.
Chen Kenmin’s biggest breakthrough came in 1983 when he made a TV appearance, introducing his popular dish, Mabodōfu, to Japanese housewives. This dish, which is easily found in supermarkets today, toned down the fiery flavors of authentic Szechuan cuisine to cater to Japanese tastes. Chen openly admitted to localizing his dishes, but his modified versions of beloved Szechuan dishes, such as Mapo Tofu, greatly contributed to their wide appeal and love in Japan.
Chen Kenmin’s Cookbook and Popularized Dishes
Chen Kenmin is also known for his cookbook, “Shisen Hanten,” which features many of his popularized dishes, including:
- Mapo Tofu: Ground pork, leeks, and garlic greens omitted, spicestwice cooked readily available sliced pork belly simmered in a spicy sauce.
- Mapo Ebi: An adaptation of Mapo Tofu, this dish features shrimp seasoned with ketchup, egg yolks, and doubanjiandan sauce.
- Dan Dan Noodles: A spicy noodle dish with ground pork, sesame paste, and chili oil, topped with scallions and Szechuan peppercorns.
Chen Kenmin’s addition of mirin to his version of Mapo Tofu gives it a milder flavor, while adding rayu allows diners to adjust the level of heat. His adaptation of Mapo Ebi with shrimp and the use of ketchup and egg yolks for creaminess is also a hit with readers familiar with Japanese cuisine.
Overall, Chen Kenmin’s love and understanding of adapting Szechuan cuisine to local tastes has greatly contributed to the wide appeal of Szechuan-style cooking in Japan.
Where to Find Chuka Ryori Restaurants?
Chuka Ryori restaurants can be found all over Japan, regardless of the population size or district. However, highly trafficked areas are more likely to have a larger number of Chuka Ryori restaurants. Some of the best places to find Chuka Ryori restaurants include:
- Situated on a busy street: Chuka Ryori restaurants are often found on busy streets, where they can attract a lot of customers. However, quieter shops can also be found in old, true hole-in-the-wall kind of places with furnishings that harken back to bygone years.
- Inconspicuous neighborly restaurants: Some of the best Chuka Ryori restaurants are inconspicuous and neighborly, nourished by locals and reached by word of mouth. These restaurants may not be highly trafficked, but they offer a real taste of Chuka Ryori.
- Nationwide casual dining chains: Some nationwide casual dining chains, such as Bamiyan, Gyoza no Ousho, Hidakaya, and Tofu no Mapo, offer Chuka Ryori dishes on their menus. These chains are often located in shopping centers and offer a variety of dishes that are localized to suit the tastes of the region.
Specialized Chuka Ryori Restaurants
Some Chuka Ryori restaurants specialize in particular dishes or regions. These restaurants offer a unique dining experience and are worth seeking out if you are a fan of Chuka Ryori. Some examples include:
- Ramen shops: Ramen is a popular Chuka Ryori dish that is often eaten late at night. Some ramen shops offer a variety of toppings, such as pork, shrimp, egg, and fried gyozanikuman.
- Donburi restaurants: Donburi is a rice bowl dish that is often topped with meat or seafood. Some donburi restaurants specialize in Chuka Ryori dishes, such as eggplant and pepper cooked with pork or shrimp.
- Izakayas: Izakayas are Japanese-style pubs that offer a variety of dishes, including Chuka Ryori. These restaurants often offer a wide selection of dishes that can be shared among a group, such as a bento box or a family-style platter.
Pairing Chuka Ryori with Drinks
Chuka Ryori dishes can be paired with a variety of drinks, including beer and wine. In Japan, Shaoxing wine and aged Huangjiu are popular choices for pairing with Chuka Ryori dishes. The historical context of these drinks plays a key role in their popularity, as they were brought to Japan by scholars who studied the Kanji and newfound goods from China in the early 20th century. Some Chuka Ryori restaurants offer a selection of drinks that span cultural relations between Japan and China.
What Are Some Popular Chuka Ryori Recipes?
Szechuan-style Mapo Tofu is a spicy and flavorful dish that originated in China but has been modified to suit Japanese tastes. It is made with tofu, ground pork, and a spicy sauce made with doubanjiang (fermented bean paste), Szechuan peppercorns, and chili oil. This dish is a favorite among locals and can be encountered in many Chuka Ryori restaurants.
Gyoza is a popular Japanese dish that originated in China. It is a type of dumpling that is usually filled with ground pork, cabbage, and garlic chives. The dumplings are then pan-fried until crispy and served with a dipping sauce made with soy sauce, rice vinegar, and chili oil. Gyoza is a favorite among locals and can be found in many Chuka Ryori restaurants.
Shrimp and Egg Bowl
Shrimp and Egg Bowl, also known as Ebi-don, is a popular Chuka Ryori dish that consists of shrimp and scrambled eggs served over a bowl of rice. The dish is usually topped with a sweet and savory sauce made with soy sauce, mirin, and sugar. This dish can be found in many Chuka Ryori restaurants and is a favorite among locals.
Gyozanikuman is a type of Chuka Ryori dish that is a combination of gyoza and nikuman (steamed buns filled with meat). It is a popular street food in Japan and can be found in many Chuka Ryori restaurants. The dish is made by stuffing a gyoza filling into a steamed bun and then pan-frying it until crispy.
Fried Rice, also known as Chahan, is a popular Chuka Ryori dish that consists of fried rice mixed with vegetables, meat, and eggs. The dish is usually seasoned with soy sauce and can be found in many Chuka Ryori restaurants.
Localized Chuka Ryori
Chuka Ryori has been localized in Japan to suit the tastes of the Japanese population, regardless of the size of the district or population. Some Chuka Ryori shops are situated on busy streets while others are nestled in quieter neighborhoods. The furnishings of these shops range from high-end to hole-in-the-wall kind of places. Regardless of the type of establishment, the real draw is the food, which has nourished locals for years. Some of the most popular Chuka Ryori chains in Japan include Bamiyan, Ousho, and Hidakaya, which offer a variety of dishes that specialize in a particular type of Chuka Ryori.
Chuka has many meanings in Japanese, but the most common is Chinese. It can also mean strange, unusual, or unfamiliar.
That’s why it may seem like an unfamiliar dish, but it has actually long since become a part of Japanese culture.
Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.