Kushiage: The History, Types, and Eating Manner of the Japanese Dish

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Deep-fried skewered pieces of meat and vegetables dipped in a sauce. Sounds delicious, right? It’s called Kushiage but what is it exactly?

Kushiage, or Kushikatsu is a Japanese food of skewered meat or vegetables, dipped in a panko batter before being deep-fried in a deep fryer, or “kushidai”. It’s usually served with a dipping sauce and often served in small restaurants as a way to make use of leftovers.

Let’s look at the history, ingredients, and preparation of this delicious dish.

What is Kushiage

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Understanding Kushiage and Kushikatsu

What is Kushiage/Kushikatsu?

Kushiage and Kushikatsu are essentially the same kind of Japanese dish. They are battered and deep-fried skewered vegetables, meats, and seafood. The only difference is that Kushiage is a more modern term used in Eastern Japan, while Kushikatsu is more commonly used in Western Japan, particularly in Osaka.

What are the Different Ways to Eat Kushiage/Kushikatsu?

There are different ways to eat Kushiage/Kushikatsu, depending on the region and the restaurant. Here are some of the ways:

  • Alternating between bites of Kushiage/Kushikatsu and slices of cabbage.
  • Choosing from a large tray of Kushiage/Kushikatsu and ordering directly from the chef.
  • Picking the right sauce and dunking the Kushiage/Kushikatsu straight into it.
  • Sitting at communal seatings and sharing a seasonal list of Kushiage/Kushikatsu.
  • Observing the important rule of not double dipping the Kushiage/Kushikatsu in the sauce.

What are the Instructions for Eating Kushiage

Some restaurants have English and other language instructions for eating Kushiage/Kushikatsu. Here are some of the instructions:

  • Warn travelers not to double dip the Kushiage/Kushikatsu in the sauce.
  • Sense the communal seatings and share a seasonal list of Kushiage/Kushikatsu.
  • Do not eat Kushiage/Kushikatsu with your hands. It is considered unsanitary.
  • Use chopsticks to eat the Kushiage/Kushikatsu.
  • Take care of any remaining bits of Kushiage/Kushikatsu on the skewer.

In conclusion, Kushiage/Kushikatsu is a delicious and popular Japanese dish that is enjoyed by many. Whether you are in Eastern or Western Japan, there are different ways to eat and enjoy Kushiage/Kushikatsu. Just remember to observe the etiquettes and enjoy the different specialized sauces.

History of Kushiage/Kushikatsu

The Humble Beginnings of Kushiage/Kushikatsu

Kushiage/Kushikatsu has a long and interesting history that dates back to the Taisho era in Japan. The origins of this popular food are unclear, but many people believe that it was born out of the need to provide a quick and easy way to eat filling food for manual labor workers.

The Proprietress of Daruma and the Origin of Kushikatsu

One of the most popular stories about the origin of kushikatsu comes from the Shinsekai neighborhood in Osaka. It is said that a small bar owned by a woman named Tatsujiro Suzuki’s wife, who was known as the “proprietress of Daruma,” began serving skewered, battered, and fried vegetables and seafood during the post-war era.

The Rise of Kushiage/Kushikatsu Popularity

As the popularity of kushikatsu grew, shops began to substitute flour for panko breadcrumbs to quicken the preparation process. In addition, many stores in the Tokyo area added meat to the skewers, and the tradition of dipping kushikatsu in a sauce made from hatcho miso, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and sugar was born.

The Controversy over the Original Method of Cooking Kushiage/Kushikatsu

There is some controversy over the original method of cooking kushiage/kushikatsu. Some people believe that the skewers should be battered and fried, while others think that they should be breaded and fried. Regardless of the method used, kushiage/kushikatsu is a great alternative to the usual fried food and has become a staple in Japanese cuisine.

How to Enjoy Kushikatsu: Tips and Tricks

Choosing Your Kushikatsu

  • Kushikatsu is hugely popular in Japan, and you’re likely to find it on many street menus. Prices can range from 100 to 500 yen per course, depending on the eatery and the ingredients used.
  • Some kushikatsu chain restaurants have English menus, but veterans suggest taking advantage of the chef’s recommendations if you’re feeling adventurous.
  • Look for a big menu with a generous selection of veggies and meats. The best time to eat kushikatsu is usually hot off the fryer, so pay attention to the turnover rate of the dishes.

How to Eat Kushikatsu

  • Kushikatsu is essentially breaded and deep-fried skewered meat, veggies, and other savory delights. The golden rule of eating kushikatsu is to never double-dip. Once you’ve dunked your skewer in the shared container of sauce, don’t dip it again.
  • Use chopsticks to transfer the kushikatsu from the communal plate to your own. Be careful not to touch the skewer to your plate or scoop extra sauce onto your dish.
  • Some restaurants provide a separate container for used skewers, while others have a tall cup on the counter for you to deposit them in.
  • Kushikatsu supposedly helps with digestion, so don’t fret about eating a lot. Just pace yourself and enjoy the flavors.
  • If you’re sharing a plate of kushikatsu with friends, it’s customary to offer the last piece to someone else. It’s also polite to pour beer for your companions before pouring your own.

Where to Find Kushikatsu

  • If you’re visiting Japan, you’re bound to come across a kushikatsu eatery sooner or later. One place to try is a chain called Kushikatsu Tanaka, which has locations all over the country.
  • One fun way to discover new kushikatsu is by telling the guys at the counter that you’re hungry and asking them to choose for you. That way, you might end up trying some secret menu items or slightly unusual combinations.

Common Types of Kushikatsu

Meat and Seafood Kushikatsu

Kushikatsu is a popular Japanese dish that consists of deep-fried skewers of various ingredients. While vegetables are a common filling, meat and seafood are also popular choices. Some of the most common types of meat and seafood kushikatsu include:

  • Quail: A popular choice in the Shinsekai neighborhood of Osaka, quail kushikatsu is said to have originated as a filling and high-protein alternative to vegetables.
  • Meatball: Made from ground meat mixed with panko breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, and neutral-flavored fillers like onion or eggplant, meatball kushikatsu is a filling and flavorful option.
  • Pork loin and chicken thigh: These cuts of meat are often battered and deep-fried to provide a crispy crust and soft texture.
  • Lotus root: A popular vegetable in Japanese cuisine, lotus root kushikatsu is a crunchy and slightly sweet option.

Organ Meat Kushikatsu

In addition to meat and seafood, organ meat is also a popular filling for kushikatsu. While some may find the idea of eating organ meat unappetizing, it is a common ingredient in Japanese cuisine and provides a unique flavor and texture. Some popular types of organ meat kushikatsu include:

  • Chicken liver: Often served with a sprinkle of sugar or a squeeze of lemon, chicken liver kushikatsu is a popular option in Osaka.
  • Pork intestine: Known as “motsu” in Japanese, pork intestine kushikatsu is a popular dish in downtown Tokyo.
  • Beef tongue: A specialty of the Hatcho neighborhood in Nagoya, beef tongue kushikatsu is believed to have been born in the Taisho era and is still offered at many kushikatsu restaurants today.

Vegetable Kushikatsu

While meat and seafood kushikatsu may be the most popular types, vegetable kushikatsu is also a common option. Vegetables are often cut into bite-sized pieces, battered, and deep-fried to provide a crispy and flavorful snack. Some popular types of vegetable kushikatsu include:

  • Onion: Served with a side of tonkatsu sauce, onion kushikatsu is a popular option in Osaka.
  • Eggplant: Often served with a sprinkle of salt and a squeeze of lemon, eggplant kushikatsu is a popular dish in Kyoto.
  • Lotus root: As mentioned earlier, lotus root kushikatsu is a crunchy and slightly sweet option.

Ingredients

Other Ingredients

  • In addition to meat and seafood, Kushiage/Kushikatsu can also include various other ingredients.
  • Some popular options include shiitake mushrooms, garlic, shishito peppers, and products such as prepared fish cakes like hanpen and kamaboko, smoked cheeses, and stuffed and minced ingredients.
  • Asparagus wrapped in bacon, chikuwa (fish cake) filled with hard-boiled egg, and mochi (rice dumplings) are also common ingredients.
  • Some restaurants even offer non-Japanese ingredients, such as jiaozi (Chinese dumplings) and beni shōga (pickled ginger colored bright pink).
  • Vegetables such as bell pepper and bamboo shoots are also used in some variations of Kushiage/Kushikatsu.
  • Horse meat and eggplant are also popular ingredients in some regions of Japan.

Regional Varieties of Kushiage/Kushikatsu

Kanto Region

  • The Kanto region in eastern Japan is believed to be the birthplace of kushiage/kushikatsu.
  • Shirotaya, a small bar in downtown Tokyo, is considered a pioneer in the kushiage/kushikatsu industry and specializes in blue-collar meat skewers.
  • In the Kanto region, kushiage/kushikatsu bars tend to be smaller and more numerous compared to other areas of Japan.
  • The standard kushiage/kushikatsu in the Kanto region is a single kind of meat or vegetable, alternately skewered with onion slices and battered in a premixed powdered egg batter and water.
  • Popular variations in the Kanto region include onion slices topped with grated yam for a softer texture and new types of kushiage/kushikatsu that are fried on a table-top pan.

Hiroshima Region

  • In the Hiroshima region, kushiage/kushikatsu is often made with rib meat and skewered with sliced onions.
  • The meat and onions are battered and fried in layers, creating a unique texture and flavor.
  • Canola (rapeseed) oil is commonly used for frying in the Hiroshima region.
  • Hiroshima-style kushiage/kushikatsu is often seasoned with a sweeter sauce than other regions, and pickled ginger is a popular condiment.

Other Varieties of Kushiage/Kushikatsu

Unusual Varieties

Kushiage is not just limited to the standard meat and vegetable skewers. Here are some unusual varieties that are worth trying:

  • Quail: A popular specialty in Nishinomiya, this skewer features a small, juicy quail that is skewered and fried to perfection.
  • Dumplings: Some kushiage places include dumplings on their menu, which are skewered and fried like any other kushiage.
  • Gingko nuts: This is a slightly unusual kushiage variety that is popular in suburban areas. The nuts are skewered and fried, and have a slightly sweet taste.
  • Sausage slices: Contrary to the larger sausage skewers, these slices are generally smaller and tend to come in larger numbers compared to other kushiage varieties.

Specialty Varieties

Some kushiage places specialize in certain types of skewers, and their owners have become pioneers in creating new and unique varieties. Here are some popular specialty varieties:

  • Shirotaya: This downtown bar is a pioneer in kushiage and is known for its blue-collar meat skewers.
  • Egg: Some kushiage places offer a single egg skewered and fried, which is a handy and fast option for a quick snack.
  • Onion: Alternately skewered with meat or vegetables, onion kushiage is a standard variety that is appreciated by many customers.
  • Cabbage leaves: Believed to prevent the feeling of dullness after eating too much fried food, cabbage leaves are a basic condiment that is often served in a large bowl for customers to help themselves.

New Varieties

Kushiage is a dish that continues to evolve, and new varieties are constantly being created. Here are some new types of kushiage that have recently appeared:

  • Powdered soy sauce: Encouraged by the need to bring variations to the table, some kushiage places have started using premixed powdered soy sauce instead of the typical liquid variety.
  • Grated yam: Added to the egg batter, grated yam makes the kushiage softer and gives it a unique texture.
  • Tartar sauce: This condiment is becoming more popular as an alternative to the standard ketchup and mayonnaise.

Eating Manner

Other Eating Manners in Japan

Japan has a unique culture of eating manners. Here are some other eating manners to keep in mind:

  • When eating kushiyaki (skewered meat), do not bite off the meat from the skewer. Instead, use your chopsticks to slide the meat off the skewer onto your plate.
  • When eating nabe (hot pot), do not drink the soup directly from the pot. Instead, use a ladle to pour the soup into your bowl.
  • When eating oyster, do not chew it too much. It is considered good manners to swallow it whole.
  • When eating gyoza (dumplings), do not dip them into the sauce too much. A thin layer of sauce is enough.
  • When eating in an izakaya (Japanese-style pub), it is common to order small dishes and share them with others.
  • When drinking alcohol, it is polite to pour for others and not for yourself.

Conclusion

So there you have it, the history, the differences, and the way to eat this delicious Japanese dish. 

Kushiage is a great way to get a variety of delicious fried foods in one bite, and it’s a fun way to socialize with friends and family. So, don’t be afraid to take the plunge and give it a try!

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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.