Hold the mayo

As a rule of thumb, many imagine that “American cuisine” abroad is something similar to the actual product; there are burger joints throughout Europe, for example, and the ubiquitous McDonald’s is always a safe bet for an American looking to quickly duck back into his or her native culture.

As a Carnegie Mellon student studying abroad, I expected the same — but things are a little different here in Japan; mainly, it’s the mayonnaise. The origin of mayonnaise in Japan, particularly its use in American food, is unclear; like many Americans, I was always under the impression that the official condiment of the U.S. was, in fact, ketchup.

At first, I thought it was just McDonald’s. I understood different cultures have different versions of McDonald’s; for example, you wouldn’t find a McTeriyaki Burger or a Shrimp Burger in the U.S., both of which exist in Japan. Some day later, though, when I wandered over to the local pizza joint, I was appalled to find corn and tuna pizza smothered with... mayonnaise.

After the pizza experience, I assumed American food was the only over-mayonnaised genre in Japan. In search of mayo-free Japanese food, I went to the takoyaki (fried octopus) stand. Relieved, I watched them grilling those delicious purple tentacles, mixing in spices, and — oh no — adding mayonnaise.

I wondered, will this reign of terror ever end? I went back to my host family and confronted my host father, who was, at the moment, building terraces of mayo on his pork cutlet.

“Why?” I asked, and I could almost see a glimmer of that eggy-white substance I so dearly despise in his eyes.

“Well, don’t Americans like mayonnaise?” he asked. “You like mayo, don’t you?”

Ah, and there is the rub. The Japanese already don’t use that many sauces, unlike Americans, where it seems like a sauce or condiment must be present at every table. In Japan, there are essentially three sauces for meat: donkatsu sauce (which is, literally, pork sauce), Worcester sauce, and mayonnaise. In America, however, there seems to be a sauce for every meal: A1 for steak, gravy for turkey, tartar sauce for fish, barbeque sauce for chicken, and mustard and ketchup for hot dogs and burgers. Unlike the Japanese, Americans hardly ever consume meat without sauce. In Japan, if a food doesn’t work with donkatsu, Worcester, or mayo, it is served with no sauce at all. Primarily, the Japanese eat fish, and if you were to suggest any sauce besides, well, nothing, they would look at you funny; sauces are reserved for “Western-type” food (a.k.a. “not fish”).

If you like your tartar sauce, I suggest you leave it at home in America — but if you like mayonnaise, you would definitely enjoy a visit to Japan. There’s an entire pile of mayo I scraped off my burgers just for you.