I give one piece of advice to anyone who visits me in Tokyo: Eat spaghetti.
On one level, this is an analogy for a philosophy of mine: When visiting a foreign country, don’t stick to eating what’s considered “native” to the place. Foods that have roots elsewhere, and that have adapted to their new home, offer valuable perspectives on both cultures, shedding light on histories of immigration, assimilation, and — at times — enduring legacies of occupation and colonization. So, do yourself a favor and eat Chinese takeaway in India and kebab in Germany. And in Japan, relish curry rice, pizza, and petite French pastries — all products of different cuisines reimagined by and for the Japanese palate.
On another level, my advice is literal. When in Japan, you should 100 percent eat spaghetti — specifically, wafu spaghetti. “Wafu” refers to something that’s done in the “Japanese style,” and can apply to almost anything: Wafu toilets are Japanese-style squatting toilets; a wafu hamburger is made with Japanese flavors. So, then, wafu spaghetti is just spaghetti made “in the Japanese style.”
But what does that mean, exactly? It’s a whole category of various spaghetti dishes that are nudged with umami-laden soy sauce or butter emulsions, replace Parmesan with seaweed, or swap out basil for strips of verdant shiso. And while in Japan, Italian pasta dishes often get tinged with gratuitous assumptions of sophistication (a frequent phenomenon for things even vaguely associated with Europe and the West), wafu spaghetti is mostly seen as a pseudo-junk food, a comfort snack beloved by ravenous teenage boys — like neon-orange nachos or blistering pizza rolls. A wafu spaghetti shop tends to look more like a diner than a trattoria, with solo eaters lined up at a counter, hunched over steaming piles of noodles served with chopsticks for easier slurping.
Italian pasta was introduced to Japan during the Edo period (1603 to 1868), but spaghetti found its way into the mainstream Japanese diet via the U.S., not Italy. During the American occupation of Japan post-WWII, spaghetti featured heavily in military food rations. By the 1960s, the noodles were officially trending, first through menus at local kissaten (casual coffee shops), and eventually as part of the 1980s “Itameshi Boom” (Itameshi is a portmanteau of the words Italian and meshi, slang for “meal”), which marked Japan’s new obsession with Italian cuisine. Today, it’s easy to find spaghetti in both Italian and Japanese preparations almost anywhere in metropolitan Japan. And like I said, you should definitely seek it out. Here, then, is a brief taxonomy of the major styles of wafu spaghetti, and where in Tokyo to slurp them.
Tarako (“Hole In the Wall”) Spaghetti
The most archetypal style of wafu spaghetti is tarako. Hot strands of al dente pasta are tossed with briny pops of tarako (salted pollack roe), butter, and a splash of soy sauce, then garnished with shreds of crackling nori. To eat tarako spaghetti in Tokyo, go to its birthplace: Kabe no Ana (literally “Hole in the Wall”) in the Shibuya neighborhood. It was founded in 1953 by Takayasu Narimatsu, who was introduced to spaghetti by then CIA Far East Secretary Paul Bloom, who hired Narimatsu as a server at diplomatic gatherings where foods from around the world were on display. His was one of the first spaghetti restaurants in Tokyo, and quickly became popular among members of the U.S. military, American expats, and curious locals.
The early Kabe no Ana menu had only three items: Spaghetti A (spaghetti with meatballs for 200 yen, or $1.85), Spaghetti B (spaghetti with no meatballs and extra pasta, 150 yen or $1.40), and Spaghetti C (regular spaghetti, no meatballs, 100 yen, $0.93). But as the story goes, a customer brought in a tin of caviar he’d received as a gift to see if it could be used as a spaghetti topping. The resulting caviar spaghetti was a hit, but too expensive to keep producing, so the more affordable tarako was settled upon as a compromise, resulting in this nationally beloved dish. Today, tarako spaghetti can be ordered plain or with a few additions, like shimeji and matsutake mushrooms, or green onions and whitefish. Or try the fiery mentaiko spaghetti, where the pollack roe is liberally spiced, usually with chiles, before being twirled into the spaghetti.
Napolitan spaghetti (no, not Neapolitan) isn’t technically wafu, but rather youshoku or Western-style Japanese — the difference is subtle, and involves the use of Western ingredients, like ketchup, instead of Japanese ones like soy sauce. With zero relation to the Italian city of Naples, napolitan spaghetti is said to have been invented at the Hotel New Grand in Yokohama where General Douglas MacArthur stayed during the U.S. occupation. With limited supplies due to wartime shortages, hotel chef Shigetada Irie concocted the first napolitan spaghetti using what he had — canned tomato paste, spaghetti, garlic, bacon, and canned mushrooms — to impress his guests. The European-trained chef’s original recipe opted for a more traditional tomato puree, but as a ration staple, ketchup was more accessible and has since become one of the dish’s signature ingredients. The classic version sports mushrooms, green peppers, onions, and Japanese-style wieners, and ham or bacon, which are sauteed in butter or olive oil, and tossed with spaghetti and ketchup. This vibrant red nest of pasta is often served with a green canister of grated Parmesan cheese and Tabasco. If you’re lucky, it arrives teppan-style on a sizzling skillet blanketed by a barely set cloak of omelet.
For a heaping mound of sweet, salty napolitan, go to Sabouru 2 in Jinbocho, preferably after a leisurely morning of browsing the area’s many used bookstores. The napolitan here is a classic crimson, and comes in portions which seem gargantuan by Japanese standards and generous even by American ones. At lunchtime, a set of spaghetti with a small side salad and coffee will run you about 850 yen ($7.88), while just spaghetti with salad is 650 yen ($6). Need a palate cleanser? The melon cream soda is dreamy — a fizzing glass of bracing chartreuse soda topped with vanilla ice cream.
Considered a regional delicacy of Nagoya, ankake spaghetti is an adaptation of spaghetti Bolognese, and a direct product of the 1980s swell in popularity of Italian food. The “an” refers to a lush gravy used in Japanese-influenced Chinese cooking, made by thickening a broth with potato or cornstarch. In ankake spaghetti, this gravy is made with a tangy tomato base liberally spiced with white pepper, and comes with a variety of toppings including deep-fried panko-breaded prawns, mixed vegetables, and meats like sausage and bacon. The spaghetti itself is usually boiled slightly past the point of al dente, its softer, slightly swollen texture meant to mimic Asian noodles like yakisoba. It’s almost always served with chopsticks for better slurp-to-sauce ratio.
When I say ankake spaghetti is a regional delicacy, I mean regional — as in, it’s almost impossible to find outside Nagoya. In Tokyo you’ll find it at Pasuta de Koko, the spaghetti offshoot of the curry rice chain Coco Ichibanya. Order the classic Mila-can (929 yen, $8.60), scattered with sausages and thinly sliced green peppers, or if you’re really hungry, the Pork Picatta (827 yen, $7.66), which features a pork cutlet wrapped in a lightly browned omelet. Or if you aren’t feeling like ankake after all, try the also-great curry meat spaghetti: a ladle of curry loaded with ground beef, mushrooms, and peppers over plain pasta. The kids’ menu features a mini ankake spaghetti and a decent pint-sized napolitan. Afterward, go for a leisurely walk in nearby Hibiya park to stave off the noodle naps.
All the Rest
Beyond the above mainstays, there are more types of wafu spaghetti than you could possibly ever eat. Sour, fuchsia, springy umeboshi spaghetti, scattered with diced, fermented plums. Spaghetti in a pesto made up of yukari, or dried red shiso. Spaghetti dressed in butter and soy sauce, laced with tendrils of fresh silky squid. Hokkaido-style soup spaghetti, succulent with scallops and prawns. Gloriously gloopy spaghetti with pungent natto, a stringy slick of fermented soy beans.
If you’re going for a spaghetti gauntlet, there are two restaurants with vast enough menus to gorge victoriously. The branch of Spajiro located in trendy Shimokitazawa features an impressive variety of wafu spaghetti as well as youfu (Western-style) spaghetti. Sidle up to the gleaming wood counter and order a shallow bowl of spaghetti swimming in garlic-braised littleneck clams, or the Spajiro tarako spaghetti with its mountain of slivered scallions. A tip for the especially hungry: Spajiro lets you choose between small, medium, and large portion sizes without additional cost. If you’re truly famished, an extra 190 yen (about $1.75) will get you an extra-large.
As an alternative to Spajiro, the Yomenya Goemon location in the Yaesu underground shopping strip serves innovative takes on wafu spaghetti, like a pork shabu-shabu spaghetti drizzled in rich sesame dressing, a corned beef and spinach and soy butter spaghetti, and an uni and ikura spaghetti with soy sauce and olive oil. Then there’s the “‘3 Kinds of Nebaneba” style — neba-neba is an onomatopoeic word in the Japanese language used to describe things with a slimy texture, and the so-named pasta dish combines natto, pickled mushrooms, tororo (a sticky puree of mountain yam), and a raw-egg yolk topper for a gooey mouthful that requires significant slurping.