Salty & Sweet? Say What!?

Maple Bacon Long John
Glazed and Infused, Chicago

Do you like salty and sweet flavours combined? For the vast majority of westerners, the answer is a resounding YES! For this reason many visitors are probably surprised when they learn that this is a relatively strange concept to Japanese people.

In Japan, by and large, sweet goes with sweet and salty goes with salty; no mixing. I didn't think this could truly be the case at first, but daily life As well as talking to some friends and co-workers has led me to conclude that it's very true. One of my colleagues who was an exchange student in the U.S. during college even confirmed, "Oh, you mean like maple syrup and bacon? Yeah, those two do not go together." Gasp! What evil dost thou speak!?

Pancake Café Ohana, Sendagi, Tokyo. YUM!!
I obtained further evidence several different times while patronizing a pancake restaurant nearby my home. It's a "Hawaiian Pancake Café" so one might think, "surely they would understand this great marriage of salty and sweet?" Think again! On the menu is a smaller section for "on the side" items, but they're actually called "toppings" (because...what could you possibly want to order on the side, right? ^_^) One of the offerings is grilled spam since, after all, it's Hawaiian (fantastic, BTW, if you've never tried it). Every time I go to the restaurant I order something delicious like cinnamon-banana or caramel apple pancakes, AND a side-order (a.k.a. "topping") of grilled spam. Now keep in mind that there is also a main dish featuring spam because pancakes in Japan can be prepared either sweet OR salty. My order is not for the main though, just a small dish of grilled spam. Every time I place this order there's a sense of mild confusion in the wait staff's reaction (LOL!) followed by confirmation. "You want to order grilled spam? From the toppings menu?" (opens the menu and points to it...possibly concerned that I can't read Japanese too well) "Yes, please," I say. "Do you want me to bring it along with the other food?" To which I respond, "If you could please, yes." Finally the order is sent to the kitchen but still with a tiny bit of lingering hesitation.

This interaction does not bother or annoy me in the least; if anything it's a little bit amusing. It's a clear illustration, though, of how salty and sweet flavours are for the most part kept separate.

Reese's PB Cups mailed to me
from my good friend in Chicago.
So what are some other foods are caught in the crossfire of the feud between salty and sweet?
  • Those Maple-bacon doughnuts that are so popular overseas
  • Reese's Peanut Butter Cups (much to my dismay)
  • PB & J (and to some extent peanut butter in general, but more on that later)
  • Oatmeal (a couple of folks told me, "I might like it if it was salty instead of sweet.")
  • Bacon-wrapped pineapple
There are surely others, but these were popular in discussion.

Royce Mild Bitter
Chocolate Covered
Potato Chips
For the sake of thoroughness, I need to mention that I've been seeing a subtle, gentle shift toward acceptance. I've noticed, for example, that "ham and pineapple" ("Hawaiian") has been added as a choice on the menu at the famous national pizza delivery chain, Pizza-La. Snack foods like chocolate covered pretzels, honey roasted peanuts, and chocolate dipped potato chips have also fallen to favor recently. The explosive popularity of Chicago's well-known Garrett's Popcorn has also led thousands of Tokyo residents to enjoy the delight of Chicago Mix (caramel corn mixed with cheese corn). Maybe the future is looking up for salty and sweet in Japan after all?

Skippy Peanut Butter
The price is the same
as in the U.S. but the
jar is half the size!
Finally, back to peanut butter. Luckily for visitors and foreign residents alike, peanut butter imported from the US, both smooth and chunky, is available at almost every supermarket. Hopefully you like Skippy, because that's the only game in town (thankfully, it's my favorite). From what I can tell, however, this is primarily seen as a food for children. I don't know anyone else my own age who eats it. One should also note that this product should not be confused with the local product, Peanut Cream (ピーナッツクリーム). Peanut Cream is much softer, thinner consistency and much sweeter flavour, it's not really very similar to peanut butter. For me, both are absolutely delicious so I like to keep some of each around the house!

It would be false to say that it's impossible to get your sweet and salty fix in Japan, but it's far from commonplace. That which you will find is most likely imported from overseas or has its origins there. When all else fails there's always the option of getting in the kitchen and making it ourselves. (^o^)

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