Have you watched ‘Chūka Ichiban!’? Its prototype, a Sichuan cuisine chef in Japan who popularized mapo tofu and Japanese Chinese cuisine passed away earlier this year.

In Japan, there is a popular type of food called ‘Chinese cuisine’ and among them, mapo tofu is a representative dish. The popularity of mapo tofu in Japan can be attributed to the efforts of Sichuan chefs Chen Kenmin and Chen Kenichi. Earlier this year, Chen Kenichi passed away.

Why are Japanese people who don’t like spicy food with numbing effects so obsessed with mapo tofu? To understand this, we need to start with ‘Chinese cuisine’.

First of all, Japanese Chinese cuisine does not necessarily represent authentic traditional Chinese food. Around 1880, Chinese restaurants started to appear in Tokyo, catering exclusively to the upper class and being highly sophisticated.

In 1910, a restaurant called ‘Rairaiken’ opened in Asakusa, selling popular Chinese-style noodles, dumplings, and siu mai for the first time, targeting the general public with affordable prices. Since then, Chinese cuisine no longer remained exclusive to the nobility and became popular as a common cuisine known as ‘Chinese cuisine’.


However, when a kind of food becomes popular in a foreign country, it often undergoes ‘localisation’. Over the past hundred years, Chinese cuisine in Japan has gradually evolved into something that even Chinese people have not eaten before, and Chinese cuisine has developed its own unique style.

Nowadays, when people in Japan think of Chinese food, what often comes to mind is the kind of cheap and large-portioned ‘Japanese Chinese cuisine’ that is commonly seen as fast food or a meal for work.

In the manga series ‘Kodoku no gurume’,  the protagonist Goro Inogashiro often visits these types of Chinese restaurants, typically run by Japanese people, with modest and narrow storefronts that are packed with office workers during meal times.

So, what is the difference between Japanese Chinese cuisine and traditional Chinese cuisine? 

While the Japanese are not accustomed to eating spicy food, they have a deep love for Sichuan cuisine. The popularity of Sichuan cuisine in Japan owes much to a Sichuan native named Chen Kenmin, who became the first person to sell Sichuan cuisine in Japan, and his recently deceased son, Chen Kenichi, who inherited his legacy and played a significant role in establishing the current prosperity of Sichuan cuisine in Japan.

In 1958, Chen Kenmin opened the ‘Szechwan Restaurant’ in Tokyo, becoming the pioneer of Sichuan cuisine in Japan. Although Japanese people were already familiar with Chinese cuisine at that time, Sichuan cuisine was something entirely new to them. Chen Kenmin decided to make a name for his restaurant by serving mapo tofu.

Japanese love tofu and it often appears in miso soup, but the seasonings required to make mapo tofu were not available in Japan. Considering the Japanese taste preferences, Chen Kenmin abandoned the authentic spicy Sichuan-style mapo tofu and introduced a modified version known as Japanese-style mapo tofu, reducing the spiciness and creating a milder and more delicate flavour profile.

mapo tofu

After Chen Kenmin’s modifications, mapo tofu became highly popular, and to this day, it is among the top three favourite Chinese dishes for the Japanese. Alongside mapo tofu, two other Sichuan dishes, Qingjiao Rousi (stir-fried pork with green peppers) and Huiguo Rou (twice-cooked pork), are also widely loved.

The biggest contribution of Qingjiao Rousi lies in dispelling the Japanese aversion to green peppers. Japanese people had a dislike for green peppers, which even became a common gag in anime (such as in ‘Crayon Shin-chan’). 

As for Huiguo Rou, the authentic recipe calls for garlic sprouts, but it is difficult to find them in Japan, while cabbage is abundant. Therefore, Japanese-style Huiguo Rou replaces garlic sprouts with cabbage, which is similar to Sichuan’s Lianbai Huiguo, but with leaner meat and a milder flavour to cater to the local preference for lighter tastes. The final result is a dish of cabbage and stir-fried pork slices.

Besides these above dishes, there is another Sichuan noodle dish that is also loved by the Japanese, and that is Dandan noodles. Most Japanese can only tolerate mild spiciness, but even a small amount of chilli and Sichuan peppercorns can make them sweat and thoroughly enjoy the dish.

Dandan noodle

Once again, Chef Chen Kenmin introduced a modified version of Dan Dan noodles to cater to Japanese tastes. The traditional small bowl used in Sichuan was replaced with a larger bowl typically used for ramen, and the soup base was made by mixing sesame paste with a small amount of chilli oil, reducing the spiciness. Now, there are variations such as soupless Dan Dan noodles and cold-tossed Dan Dan noodles in Japan.

Japanese cuisine has a mild flavour meaning less oil and less spiciness, but in terms of texture, they enjoy rich and thick flavours. Therefore, dishes with sauce or soup are typically thickened with starch.

For example, Gan Shao Xia Ren (dry-fried shrimp) is a classic dish in Chinese restaurants, and it was ‘recreated’ by Chen Kenmin based on Sichuan-style dry-fried shrimp but adapted to Japanese tastes. Since Japanese people are not accustomed to doubanjiang (broad bean chilli paste), a significant amount of tomato sauce is added to balance the spiciness.

Tianjin rice

Another dish worth mentioning is Tianjin Rice, also known as Crab Roe Donburi. Fans of anime might think of ‘Dragon Ball’ when hearing about it, which shows the Japanese people’s love for this dish. Since they used the horseshoe crab from Tianjin, they named it Tianjin Rice. it is also very popular because it suits the Japanese taste for eggs.  

Moreover, three staple foods dominate the world of Chinese cuisine in Japan: ramen, dumplings, and fried rice. At dumpling speciality shops, you can find dumplings served with rice, and at ramen shops, there are combos with dumplings and ramen. When they mention dumplings, they generally refer to pan-fried dumplings.

Japanese dumplings

When walking on the streets of Japan, you will notice two types of signs: Japanese Chinese cuisine and Chinese cuisine. Although there is no clear distinction between them, the ones labelled Chinese cuisine is more likely to be more authentic, with the owners or chefs possibly being Chinese, while Japanese Chinese cuisine represents Japanese-modified Chinese cuisine.