Tonkatsu sauce being poured over a pork cutlet. A cabbage salad with cherry tomatoes is on the side.

What's in a Sauce? Exploring the Popular Japanese Condiment

Have you ever seen “sauce-flavored” Japanese food and wondered what it is? Never fear – Nakama Noodles is here to help you unveil the mystery behind this mysterious condiment. Whether it be tonkatsu, okonomiyaki, takoyaki, or yakisoba, there's no question that sauce is an essential ingredient to add the finishing touch to a variety of Japanese dishes.

History of the Secret Sauce

Japanese sauce has a Worcestershire sauce base, the classic fermented British condiment used to flavor drinks like Bloody Marys and Caesars. The original ingredients include a combination of barley malt vinegar, molasses, sugar, salt, anchovies, tamarind, garlic, onions, and spices.

According to the official website for Bulldog Sauce, a popular brand of tonkatsu sauce, Japanese Worcestershire sauce has only been around for about 150 years. Emperor Tenmu prohibited the consumption of meat for 1200 years from the Asuka period to the end of the Edo period, but during the period of rapid industrialization and adoption of Western influence during the Meiji Revolution (1868-1912), Japan came to adopt Western-style cuisine and relaxed its attitude towards meat.

Emperor Meiji officially promoted meat consumption and introduced imported condiments to make it more palatable, including sauces and spices. The government-owned company Gyuba Co., Ltd., headed by Fukuzawa Yukichi, promoted a pamphlet called “The Theory of Meat Eating” to promote its consumption among commonfolk.

Pork was first introduced to Japan at the start of the Edo period (19th century) from China via the Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa), but it was not until the Meiji period (20th century) that it truly proliferated, with the 1872 publication of Katei Jitsuyo Saishin Wayo Ryori (The Latest in Practical Japanese-Western Home Cooking), the first to publish a recipe for Worcestershire sauce in Japan.

Bulldog's famous sauce featuring a cute stern-looking canine on its logo. Image via @monimoni8823 on Instagram.

The agricultural development of Hokkaido in 1873 also allowed for the production of onions and potatoes, common ingredients in Western cuisine and onions being a key ingredient in Worcestershire sauce.

In 1884, Gihe Hamaguchi, the seventh-generation owner of Yamasa Shoyu, began manufacturing the first Japanese-made Worcestershire sauce. He branded the new variety of soy sauce as Shinmi (New-taste) Shoyu in Japan and Mikado (“Emperor”) Sauce overseas, but it was a little too strong for the average Japanese consumer and he paused production.

However, the wave of Western culture had already taken root in Japan, and by 1894, he had resumed production of Mikado Sauce in the Kansai region and released two additional sauces: Nekojirushi (Cat Mark) Sauce and Shirodama (White Mochi) Sauce. By 1900, he had further expanded his product lineup to include Yaguruma (Arrow Wheel) Sauce and Inujirushi (Dog Mark) Sauce, MT Omachi Sauce, and Swan Sauce.

In the Chubu region, Kagome Foods began promoting its own Worcestershire sauce in 1908, spreading Western-style sauce to the nation. Inujirushi (Dog Mark) Sauce became the bestselling brand Bulldog Sauce. Like Worcestershire sauce, Japanese “sauce” contains a blend of vegetable puree and seasonings, with an acidic, sweet, umami, and spicy flavor all-in-one, but it has taken on its own distinct identity from the Western-style condiment.

Japanese Agricultural Standards (JAS) stipulates that among Worcestershire-style sauces, tonkatsu sauce (the sauce on top of fried pork cutlets) should have high viscosity and fiber and so-called “medium-thick sauce” (chūnо̄ sauce) should have a medium amount, while classic Worcestershire sauce should be runnier with less fiber.

Dishing It Out

Tonkatsu Sauce

The king of Japanese sauce – This condiment is popular for its thick consistency, sweet and savory flavor, and versatility – While it’s named after tonkatsu, or fried pork cutlet, it It’s extremely versatile and can be used for boiled dishes like nikujaga (simmered beef and potatoes). It also works great as a flavoring for yakisoba (stir-fried noodles and vegetables), hamburger patties, and fried chicken.

A restaurant worker pan-fries noodles and vegetables on a griddle.
Yakisoba is a popular dish of stir-fried noodles and vegetables with savory sauce that is a staple at Japanese night festival food stands. Image via Adobe.

Yakisoba Sauce

This sauce is made to compliment yakisoba, or stir-fried noodles with vegetables, and provides a salty, acidic flavor to compliment mayonnaise. The blend of vegetables, fruit, onion, and garlic and mild spiciness make it a versatile sauce to use at home for a quick helping of noodles or serve on the fly at a Japanese yatai or street food stall.

Find out why yakisoba is such a popular staple at Japanese festivals by trying it for yourself! Check out Nakama Noodles!

Nakama Noodles logo

Takoyaki Sauce

Takoyaki, or fried octopus balls, is a specialty of our hometown of Osaka. Topped with mayonnaise and bonito and seaweed flakes, Takoyaki sauce is an absolute must to round out this Kansai dish. Unlike other sauces, Takoyaki is known for prominently featuring bonito extract and soy sauce, giving it a more savory, fishy taste to compliment octopus.

Okonomiyaki Sauce

Okonomiyaki is the popular savory pancake dish containing eggs, flour, noodles, cabbage, and sauce! The two popular ways to make it include Osaka-style, in which the ingredients are all mashed together and fried on a griddle, and Hiroshima-style, in which the ingredients are carefully layered in a stack, but however you enjoy your okonomiyaki, sauce is an essential ingredient to round out the flavor.

Like Takoyaki, Okonomiyaki sauce has a strong Japanese dashi flavor, but is sweetened with ketchup and blended with oyster and Worcestershire sauce for a brinier flavor.

Pouring sauce onto okonomiyaki on a griddle.

Okonomiyaki is a popular savory pancake dish topped with savory okonomiyaki sauce, known for its briny flavor. Image via Adobe.

Popular Sauce Brands

Bulldog Sauce

Despite the name and label, no bulldogs were harmed in the making of this sauce. We think it’s probably named after Winston Churchill with its Worcestershire base. This sauce is often ranked the number-one Japanese sauce and can be found in Asian grocery stores worldwide. It’s so ubiquitous that Bulldog sauce is practically synonymous with “sauce” as a condiment itself among Japanese.

With the sweetness of fruit and vegetables and a refreshing acidity, it’s perfect for seasoning a variety of dishes. The most popular varieties are Medium-thick sauce and Tonkotsu sauce. We recommend the former for beef and vegetables and the latter for leaner protein like chicken and fish.

Otafuku Sauce

Another best-selling sauce abroad, Otafuku sauce features the logo of a lady and has several varieties, including medium-thick sauce, yakisoba sauce, okonomiyaki sauce, and Takoyaki sauce. Like other sauces, it contains a blend of vegetables and fruits, along with oyster extract and Japanese flavors like kelp and shiitake mushrooms.

A wooden ladle dipped into a bowl of medium-thick sauce.

Medium-thick sauce (Chūnо̄ sauce) is a Japanese-style worcestershire sauce with a runnier consistency than tonkatsu sauce, making it suitable for mixing into dishes like hamburger patties and yakisoba. Image via Adobe.

S&B Spice Curry Sauce

S&B is well-known for its instant curry and curry powders, but it is also popular for its other condiments, including sauce. This sauce has a strong saltiness and peppery flavor, making it ideal for those who don’t want something overly sweet.

Takahashi Sauce – Country Harvest Organic Medium-Thick Sauce

Fans say they cannot get enough of Takahashi Sauce no matter how much they pour. Made with organic vegetables, it has a mild herbal taste and aroma and is on the thicker side, making it suitable for fried seafood and meat dishes.

If you don’t have a Japanese grocery store nearby, you can stock up on popular Japanese sauces or try sauce-flavored yakisoba at MiauMall!

What is your favorite way to enjoy Japanese sauce? Do you have a favorite brand and why? Let us know below!

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