How the Japanese Appetizer Salad Became a Staple Meal Starter

If you’ve ever been to a Japanese restaurant in America, you’ve experienced the pleasure of the pre-main course ritual. It starts with a piping hot bowl of miso soup and is completed with a small salad of some sort: shaved cabbage drowned in a creamy sesame glaze, crunchy iceberg lettuce topped with a chunky gingery miso sauce, or mixed greens tossed with slick wafu dressing.

You may have had a version of this at Spoon House Bakery and Restaurant, a wafu pasta establishment in Gardena, California with a famous “one dollar salad” that’s composed simply with lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and a chunky dressing. Or perhaps you’ve had it at Rockville, Maryland’s Temari Japanese Cafe, a precursor to a bowl of unagi donburi or katsu curry. You’ve definitely had it at your local strip mall sushi joint. As far as appetizers go, it might be my absolute favorite way to begin a meal.

The Japanese appetizer salad may often be overlooked—especially if slices of gleaming sashimi and ikura jewels atop a crown of sushi rice are en route—but it serves a purpose beyond just a filler course. The salads are becoming more intricate and thoughtfully crafted and function as a preview to the rest of the meal.

“When we think about eating in general, we always like to start with something light, bright, and acidic, because acid always drives salivation to come into your mouth,” explains Takahiro Sakaeda, one of the chefs and partners behind New York’s Nami Nori. “It whets the appetite, quite literally.”

Sakaeda kept this acid-forward palate in mind when crafting his version of a Japanese appetizer salad. He was inspired by American steakhouses and the classic wedge salad, but wanted to add “Japanese sensibilities” to it.

nami nori appetizer salad japanese new york
The nami nori salad is inspired by the classic American wedge salad and finished with a nori buttermilk dressing and smoked paprika. | Photo courtesy of Nami Nori

The salad starts with a buttermilk dressing infused with nori oil, which is drizzled atop iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and sushi rice chips—finished with a dusting of smoked paprika and balsamic vinegar. “It’s a nice acidic driven salad that’s quite refreshing, but also on the other side, it has that buttermilk and richness and a lot of umami,” he describes.

Sakaeda doesn’t quite know where the Japanese starter salad comes from. To him, it’s a Japanese-American phenomenon, something he didn’t really experience growing up in Long Island or while visiting family in Kumamoto. He relegates these salads to what he refers to as “suburban sushi concepts.” “Growing up, and even when I visited Japan, the idea of a salad was cutting up tomatoes and then just drizzling some soy sauce on it,” Sakaeda laughs.

But for chef Tetsuya Okuda of Momoya Soho, salads are a quintessential part of a Japanese meal. “Traditionally, in a complete Japanese meal, a small starter or appetizer—otoshi—will be served,” he says. “Slowly, it has evolved into starting with a soup or salad as a light, fresh start.”

Like Sakaeda, Okuda had acid at the forefront of his mind when constructing the Momoya Greens, a fruity salad that features beets, blueberries, grapefruit, and crispy lotus root on a bed of mixed greens that is drizzled with a green apple and yuzu soy dressing. “In composing a salad, there has to be different flavors and textures to create different senses and ensure there is no taste fatigue,” Okuda says. “All of the components come together to add different layers to the dish.”

The salad gets its acidity from the citrus and green apple dressing, but the renkon chips provide a playful, textural element. “[I wanted] to create a salad that would prepare you for the rest of the meal,” Okuda says. “This dish works well as a starter or may pair with some proteins for a substantial meal.”

momoya soho salad greens
The momoya greens feature beets and grapefruit slices and is topped with fried lotus root chips. | Photo courtesy of Momoya Soho

There are many different styles of salad in Japan. They can be mixed green based or feature 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 cooking, a medley of seasonal vegetables is used with different preparations, whether it’s pickled, grilled, simmered, fried, or sauteed,” Okuda explains.

But there isn’t a singular way to prepare an appetizer salad, whether it be strictly Japanese or Japanese-American, because food—even dishes as simple as freshly chopped veggies and vinaigrette—is constantly morphing with new ingredients and ideations.

“But still, the whole idea is acidic and light,” Sakaeda says, “helping you to salivate before you start eating your main courses.”

Yuzu Green Apple Dressing by Chef Tetsuya Okuda

Ingredients:

  • 6 ounces of tamari soy sauce
  • 6 ounces of apple cider vinegar
  • 6 ounces of mirin
  • 2.5 ounces of olive oil
  • 3 ounces of pureed green apple
  • 3 ounces of chopped, grilled onion
  • 1.5 ounces of yuzu zest
  • 0.6 ounces of grated ginger

Directions:
1. Mix all of the above together in a blender. Serve atop leafy greens.

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Kat Thompson is a senior staff writer of food & drink at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.

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