San Francisco has one of the largest Japanese communities in the United States. The first Japanese immigrants arrived in the city in 1869 in search of economic opportunities and better living conditions, and just one year later, the U.S. Japanese Consulate was established. Though there were only 33 Japanese immigrants living in California at the time, this number grew to 79,000 in less than 40 years.
Early immigrants settled in Chinatown and the South of Market (SoMa) neighborhoods, where they set up businesses and built a community. After the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, the community relocated to the South Park and Western Addition neighborhoods, which is where the city’s famous Japantown is located.
Today, San Francisco is home to a vibrant Japanese community, with many restaurants celebrating Japanese culture and heritage. Here, we’ll take a look at some of our favorite Japanese dishes you can find in the city.
One of the most ubiquitous Japanese dishes is a piping hot bowl of ramen, a noodle soup dish typically comprised of sliced pork, scallions, menma (bamboo shoots), nori (seaweed), and a boiled egg. The broth is usually made with a rich soy sauce or miso base, which adds to its sweet, savory, and umami flavors.
There are thousands of ramen variations in Japan and all over the world, and San Francisco restaurants are known for putting their unique twists on the classic dish. Its origins can be been traced back to 400 CE, when Chinese immigrants arrived in Japan. At the time, the dish was called shina soba (which translates to Chinese noodle), but eventually, the Japanese replaced the name with ramen, which translates to pulled noodles. It gained popularity during Japan’s industrial revolution in the late 19th century when salarymen (Japanese white-collar workers) ate in ramen restaurants due to their affordability and comforting food.
Today, ramen is one of the most popular Japanese dishes worldwide. Making it is an art and can take several days, but you can achieve a similar version at home by making a simple broth out of sautéed aromatics, bone broth, and dried mushrooms, then adding ramen noodles and toppings. It’s the perfect comfort dish for cold San Francisco nights.
If you want to try authentic restaurant-quality ramen yourself, order a bowl from Shef Jerry, who offers tonkotsu miso ramen and vegetarian spicy miso ramen for those going meat-free. Jerry hopes to make authentic Japanese flavors and techniques accessible to everyone in his community.
Katsudon, an essential dish in Japanese food culture and tradition, consists of a crispy breaded pork cutlet atop a bed of warm rice. It’s often served with tonkatsu sauce, made of beef stock, soy sauce, mirin, and sugar. Despite the dish’s simplicity, each bite is packed with rich flavor and textural contrast, and it’s no surprise that it’s a popular comfort meal among locals in San Francisco. Its name comes from the Japanese combination of tonkatsu (pork) and donburi (large bowl), and it’s thought to have been invented in the early 1920s by a Japanese high school student. Today, Japanese students enjoy a bowl of katsudon the night before their exams, as katsu also means “to win!”
Udon Noodle Soup
In its simplest form, udon noodle soup is made with a Japanese soup stock (dashi) seasoned with Japanese soy sauce, mirin, sugar, and sake. It’s then mixed with thick udon noodles, which are made from wheat flour and salt. Another distinct feature is that this dish can be enjoyed either hot or cold!
Legend has it that the first udon recipe was created after a monk brought wheat milling culture and technology to Japan in 124 AD, which aided in the production of udon noodles. As the wheat milling process spread throughout the country, so, too, did the popularity of udon. Today, you can find Japanese restaurants all over San Francisco serving their own version of udon noodles. But you also can’t go wrong with homemade udon!
Shef Masa is a local food safety-certified cook in San Francisco who learned how to cook traditional Japanese dishes while growing up in Japan. He aims to share his passion and love for Japanese cuisine with everyone in the city, starting with his vegetable tempura udon. You can order this deeply comforting dish on Shef.com, delivered fresh to your door!