Fast Food, Not As you Know It: In Japan
One of the things that I love about travel is being able to see how the same fast food franchise can vary from nation to nation. But in Japan, it is even possible to access some fast food chains that can’t be found in Australia, or even outside of Asia. I think that trying different fast locations can be an excellent foodie foray for the budget traveller since most fast food is affordable and the quality is reasonably reliable. I somehow feel that experiencing regional distinctions this way is somehow more potent, since one can always directly compare fast foods in one country to another, thereby learning in short form how those cultures differ.
(The delicious lobster bisque in a bread bowl plus two of the delicious burgers you would find at any Wendy's in Japan. 2017.)
The American Wendy’s varies wildly from the Australian Wendy’s. Far from being ice cream focussed, it is a burger and fries chain that seems to outstrip McDonalds both in terms of variety and quality. I’ve so far only eaten Wendy’s in Japan, and I’ve seen how the quality of fast food of all kinds greatly improves in Japan, so I feel fairly confident that I’m not missing much. One of my favourite items on the menu is the Lobster Bisque in a Bread Bowl. It seems to be a permanent item on the Wendy’s Japan menu. I don’t remember the name of every burger I ate in Wendy’s. But what I found is that every time I’ve ever gone, there was so much food I wanted to try, and not enough stomach to try it all.
What particularly fascinates me about McDonalds is how much it remains the same from country to country, and yet how starkly different it can be, too. I have it in mind to write another article like this so I can write in detail about how McDonalds varies in Taiwan and China. But I think the main showstopper, must-try item on the McDonalds Japan menu is probably the Ebi or Prawn burger. It is similar to a Fillet O Fish, except the patty is fully of prawns.
Kua’ Aina Burger
This is another high quality burger franchise. It seems to have come out of Hawaii. The menu reflects this in that it is full of pineapple options. Dishes are served in oblong wooden bowls. The desert menu is expansive and very high in quality. The Namba Parks branch had an in-store smoking booth when I visited. But it may be gone now.
(A mysterious, delicious creamy chicken pie from KFC Japan, 2017.)
The main thing I notice about KFC in Japan is that they place much heavier emphasis on the cultural and historical connection with Colonel Sanders, and to a lesser extent, the southern states of America. Well, heavier in comparison to Australian KFC locations. It’s not unusual to see a statue of the Colonel outside Japanese KFC locations, and these statues may be dressed in Traditional Japanese clothes or other variations dependent upon theme. The original recipe chicken tastes the same to me, and even seems to have exactly the same texture. But the Japanese KFC menu tends to have more diverse, with soups and special pastries. One year, I managed to get a KFC chicken pot pie. It was delicious. In terms of presentation, Japanese KFC also wins ahead of its Australian counterpart. The packaging depicted in images actually corresponds to what you get in store. The boxes themselves are more complex and therefore provide you greater options for drink portability. The one critique I have of Japanese KFC is that it is often frequented by snooty teenage study groups who will laugh at you as you try to figure out the garbage system. It’s a complex process, since in Japan, rubbish will be divided into burnable and un-burnable categories; something that simply isn’t done in any other country that I am aware of.
The first time I encountered a Mos Burger, I was in Taiwan. This was long before burgers made with unconventional buns were so common. So, I was keen to try a rice burger with a fishy centre. But I found it unpleasantly fishy, with far too much seaweed inside. And so, for a long time I had a low opinion of Mos Burger.
That was till I visited Japan and I attempted to try everything on the menu. Everything I tried tasted fantastic. In particular, the fish burgers stood out to me. They tasted more or less identical to McDonalds fish burgers, but they seemed to be fresher and softer.
Another item I remember in particular was a limited-edition crispy chicken burger. It came with a whole wedge of fresh lime. The chicken by itself seemed somehow dull, but when covered with the lime juice it took on a whole new life, bounding with flavours that had no discernible relationship with the lime itself.
(Taiyaki being cooked on the street in Osaka. Absolutely delicious. 2019.)
The fast-food scene in Japan swarms with both international and locally developed franchises. But sometimes, in the streets, smaller independent street vendors will open up shop. It is typically safe to eat at such places, since Japan’s food safety standards are high. At such places it isn’t unusual to see foods like okonomiyaki, yaki-tori, taiyaki, fried noodles and even various forms of omelette. These will often be covered in copious amounts of kewpie mayonnaise and tonkatsu sauce. The prices are often very reasonable, and since the food is often locally grown, it will often be fresher and healthier than those of larger food franchises.
Other Places As you wander Japan you may notice other food franchises. But I am not knowledgeable enough to lead you through them. You may have to come and look for yourself.