Expectations were not met – in many respects.
Ajinomoto is the top frozen food brand in Japan, and it is also sold in various European countries. Our Japanese-speaking reporter and traveler Ikuna Kamezawa often saw their gyoza while traveling, but she also found a selection of Ajinomoto products in stylish black boxes, including “Yakiniku” and “Teppanyaki”. Ikuna says they weren’t hard to find; if you check in a major supermarket or an Asian bazaar, you’ll probably be able to find them all over Europe. She found hers in France.
But there was something fun about those frozen meals. Although they had Japanese names for real Japanese food, the pictures did not match the names at all. The “Yakiniku” box – which should show slices of grilled meat, maybe with some rice on the side – clearly had a picture of yakisoba, or fried noodles, and the “Teppanyaki” box – which should look like grilled meat and vegetables looked like fried rice.
What was it about? Ikuna couldn’t stop wondering, so she bought a box with three different varieties see how they actually looked and tasted inside.
She started with “Yakiniku”, which cost €4.25 (613 yen/US$4.47). Inside was a bloated plastic bag filled with what looked like pasta and vegetables.
Ikuna poured the contents into the bowl…
Then put it in the microwave for five minutes.
Finished product it looked nothing like a yakiniku, despite the bits of beef it contained. Any way you look at it, it was a noodle dish, or maybe not even a Japanese-style noodle dish, based on ingredients.
Maybe they called it yakiniku because of the beef slices? The beef wasn’t as tender or tasty as the yakiniku and more like cheap cuts grilled over low heat for way too long (they were bone dry). In addition, the dish contained slices of three types of peppers and onions.
If it had a less specific label, like “delicious Chinese noodles”, Ikuna probably wouldn’t mind. But since his name was “Yakiniku”, Ikuna couldn’t help feeling that everything was not right. Why did Ajinomoto decide to give it such a name? Instead of answering her questions, this frozen meal only deepened the mystery.
The “Teppanyaki” the dish was the same price of 4.35 euros and like “Yakiniku”, the picture on the package did not match the name. It was clearly fried rice.
The dish had plenty of ingredients, including chicken, two types of peppers, edamame, green peas, carrots, onions, and corn. The rice looked like rice popular in Southeast Asian countries like Thailand: long and thin, unlike the short-grain rice common in Japan.
Although it looked pretty good the taste was so weak as if they had completely forgotten to salt it. The thick chicken was tasty, but Ikuna couldn’t help but think that basing the name “teppanyaki” on just that chicken was a bit of a stretch.
On the other hand, you can cook fried rice on steppan, or a Japanese frying pan, and perhaps this is a common image of Japanese cuisine based on the types of Japanese restaurants popular overseas. However, for Ikuna, who comes from Japan, the food that comes to mind the most with the word “teppanyaki” is meat and fish. She couldn’t help but be sad that Europeans might consider it Japanese teppanyaki.
The last one Ikuna tried was “Ramen Pulet” (chicken ramen), which is 3.5 euros (or 505 yen). In this case, the packaging actually looked like ramen, which was a relief.
This one also had paprika in it. Ikuna must have been wondering do Europeans really like peppers that much? Japanese cuisine, by comparison, rarely uses paprika, although it is sometimes found in Western-style dishes served in Japan.
The broth was…exceptional. It tasted a bit like Japanese tonkotsu, i.e. pork bone broth, but also a bit like a thick and creamy soup or miso soup with potatoes. Ikuna is used to ramen tasting differently in other countries, but most of the time the ramen she tried tasted good, just in an unexpected way. Unfortunately, the taste of this soup was too weak for her; if she wasn’t really hungry, she probably would never want to eat it.
This further perplexed Ikuna, who had to assume that Ajinomoto, originally a Japanese company, should have had the know-how to make really good frozen ramen, and they produced it instead.
Ikuna could only suppose these dishes were more suited to European tasteswhich was perfectly fine since she was in Europe. Despite the mysterious nature of the packaging, which did not match the name of the product, and the flavors not fully meeting her expectations, Ikuna had to admit that she had an interesting time testing them. She will always try Japanese food abroad because it is fun and sometimes even educational.