How the Japanese Appetizer Salad Became a Meal Starter Staple
If you’ve ever been to a Japanese restaurant in America, you’ve tasted the pleasure of the ritual before the main course. It starts with a piping hot bowl of miso soup and ends with something like a small salad: shredded cabbage drowned in a creamy sesame glaze, crunchy iceberg lettuce topped with a thick ginger miso sauce, or mixed greens with smooth wafu dressing.
You may have had a version of it on Spoon House Bakery and Restaurant, a wafu pasta establishment in Gardena, California, with a famous “dollar salad” consisting simply of lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and a thick dressing. Or maybe you had it in Rockville, Maryland’s Temari Japanese coffee, a precursor to a bowl of unagi donburi or katsu curry. You’ve definitely had it at your local mall sushi joint. As far as appetizers go, this is perhaps my favorite way to start a meal.
Japanese appetizer salad can often be overlooked, especially if slices of shiny sashimi and ikura jewels atop a wreath of sushi rice are on the way, but it serves a purpose beyond just a dish of filling. Salads become more complex and carefully crafted and work as an overview of the rest of the meal.
“When we think about eating in general, we always like to start with something light, bright and sour, because acid always pushes salivation into the mouth,” says Takahiro Sakaeda, one of the chefs and partners of the New York’s Nami Nori. “It whets the appetite, literally.”
Sakaeda kept this sour palate in mind when crafting his version of a Japanese appetizer salad. He was inspired by American steakhouses and the classic neighborhood salad, but wanted to add “Japanese sensibilities” to it.
The salad starts with a buttermilk dressing infused with nori oil, which is drizzled with iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and sushi rice crisps, with a dusting of smoked paprika and balsamic vinegar. “It’s a nice sour salad that’s quite refreshing, but also on the other hand, it has that buttermilk and that richness and a lot of umami,” he describes.
Sakaeda is unsure where the Japanese starter salad comes from. For him, it’s a Japanese-American phenomenon, something he didn’t really experience growing up on Long Island or visiting family in Kumamoto. He relegates these salads to what he calls “suburban sushi concepts.” “Growing up, and even when I visited Japan, the idea for a salad was to cut tomatoes and then drizzle soy sauce over them,” Sakaeda laughs.
But for chef Tetsuya Okuda of Momoya Soho, salads are the quintessence of a Japanese meal. “Traditionally, in a full Japanese meal, a small starter or appetizer – otoshi – will be served,” he says. “Slowly it evolved to start with a soup or salad as a light and fresh start.”
Like Sakaeda, Okuda had acid at the forefront of his mind when constructing Momoya Greens, a fruity salad made with beets, blueberries, grapefruit and crispy lotus root on a bed of mixed greens drizzled with a green apple and yuzu soy vinaigrette. “When composing a salad, there should be different flavors and textures to create different senses and ensure there is no taste fatigue,” says Okuda. “All the components come together to add different layers to the dish.”
The salad gets its tanginess from the citrus and green apple vinaigrette, but the renkon chips provide a playful, textural element. “[I wanted] to create a salad that would set you up for the rest of the meal,” says Okuda. “This dish works well as an appetizer or can be paired with protein for a substantial meal.”
There are many styles of salads in Japan. They can be mixed with greens or contain Kogen cabbage, a native Japanese crop known for its sweetness and satisfying crunch. There are cucumber salads, potato salads and noodle salads. “In authentic Japanese cuisine, a mixture of seasonal vegetables is used with different preparations, whether pickled, grilled, simmered, fried or sautéed,” says Okuda.
But there’s no singular way to make an appetizer salad, whether strictly Japanese or Japanese-American, because food – even dishes as simple as freshly chopped vegetables and dressing – transforms constantly with new ingredients and ideas.
“But still, the whole idea is sour and light,” says Sakaeda, “helping you salivate before you start eating your main dishes.”
Green Apple Yuzu Sauce by Chef Tetsuya Okuda
- 6 ounces tamari soy sauce
- 6 ounces apple cider vinegar
- 6 ounces of mirin
- 2.5 ounces olive oil
- 3 ounces mashed green apple
- 3 ounces chopped and grilled onion
- 1.5 ounces of yuzu zest
- 0.6 ounce grated ginger
1. Mix all of the above in a blender. Serve over leafy greens.