If laksa is to Singaporeans what ramen is to Japanese, then wafuu pasta, or Japanese-style pasta, would be the equivalent of a hearty bowl of bak chor mee. While it may be hard to imagine something as quintessentially Italian as pasta being a stalwart of the food landscape in Japan, these beloved noodles have deep roots in this country.
Half a century of pasta
Pasta has existed in Japan since the early Meiji Era, but only really started to gain popularity at the turn of the last century. The exact point in history when wafuu pasta began to exist as a thing is unclear, though many sources point to the post-war era as when wafuu pasta came into its own.
Spaghetti Napolitan, arguably the first kind of wafuu pasta available, was a result of the American occupation of Japan after the war. Its origin story, however, is apocryphal at best. Some claim that an American chef was inspired by locals eating stir-fried spaghetti with ketchup, and then proceeded to refine the dish into Spaghetti Napolitan as we know it today. Others attribute the origins of the dish to a yoshoku, or Western-style restaurant in Yokohama at that time.
In the years following, wafuu pasta experienced a surge in popularity. This was in large part due to the ingenuity of restaurant Kabe no Ana, which put typically Japanese flavors such as tarako, natto and shimeji mushrooms together with pasta to create the wafuu pasta classics we know today. The localized flavors were a hit with the Japanese, and the rest is history.
What is wafuu pasta?
Japanese pasta tends to be lighter than its Italian counterpart. Instead of rib-sticking meat ragus and creamy sauces, wafuu pasta utilizes condiments and ingredients that are common/native to Japan. Savory dashi broth, made with a combination of fish and seaweed stock, is often used as a base for wafuu pasta. Other popular bases include butter shoyu (butter and soy sauce), and mentaiko (spicy cod roe). Toppings are kept simple, usually featuring a couple of seasonal ingredients.
The 5 years I spent living in Japan were filled with precious pasta memories. Pasta in Japan is fancy enough for special days, yet familiar enough to be something to turn to for comfort. Wafuu pasta to me meant cosy mom-and-pop joints offering pasta and cake set meals, as well as memorable lunches with friends at a pasta restaurant just outside school that offered handmade pasta from time to time.
Wafuu pasta marked the passing of each season. When bamboo shoot pasta began appearing on menus, it meant that spring had arrived. The marriage of lip-puckering umeboshi and aromatic shiso kept me refreshed during the dog days of summer, which eventually gave way to autumn, pillowy kabocha gnocchi and savory mushroom pasta. In winter, I recall filling up on creamy tarako pasta after cycling across the city in the cold.
It has been a couple of years since some of us at Akadot TV have been able to visit Japan, no thanks to the pandemic, so picture our (my) delight when we found out that Nissin was going to provide us with their newly-launched frozen pastas for our year-end get together!
The moment of truth
It was time to try out the Nissin pastas. We had two mouthwatering flavors this time – spaghetti with garlic mushroom, and spaghetti bolognese. I must admit that I had some initial doubts about frozen pasta, but I had high hopes for Nissin and they did indeed deliver.
The contents of each packet are very simple – just frozen, sauced pasta in a plastic tray. The garlic mushroom flavor had a generous amount of garlic sauce, mushrooms and red/green peppers on top of a bed of spaghetti. For the bolognese flavor there was a red tomato sauce chock-full of onions and minced meat sitting atop spaghetti. Yum.
Both packets came with detailed instructions accompanied by pictures. According to the instructions, all we needed for savory hot pasta was just a few minutes of microwaving, so we got down to business immediately.
First up was the garlic mushroom spaghetti. Garlic lovers rejoice! The pasta packs a vampire-slaying garlicky punch, with lots of umami courtesy of the mushrooms. A short 3 minutes and 40 seconds was all it took to have the frozen pasta piping hot and ready to eat – great for those hangry nights. The pasta also came in a very presentable plastic tray that doubled up as a serving dish. This means one less plate to wash!
This is a dish that is good on its own, but also lends itself to a variety of mix-ins. We used shredded nori seaweed this time, which added texture and put the wafuu in the pasta. For those with a longing for Japan and its tasty wafuu pastas, this is a speedy way to stave off those cravings until a Japan VTL actually happens.
The spaghetti bolognese was moreish and reminded me of the hearty meat sauce pasta that I would get in Japan to warm myself up on chilly winter days. Now, while the pasta on its own was already pretty delish, cheese made all the difference. Nissin recommends first heating up the pasta for 4 minutes, then taking it out of the microwave to heap 50g of cheese on it, and then heating up the cheese-topped pasta for another 1 minutes and 20 seconds.
This was magic. Even before the pasta was removed from the microwave, the smell of cheese alone raised our hunger levels exponentially. When it actually came out of the microwave, audible bubbling sounds and all, it is safe to say that not much could stand in the way of Akadot and cheesy meaty spaghetti bolognese.
I’ve seen microwave meals go horribly wrong, but both pastas tasted as though they were freshly cooked on the spot. The ease of preparation is also worth mentioning – simply tear off a small corner of the package and pop the whole thing into the microwave, no small sauce packets or boiling water involved. (Small sauce packets and static electricity never did go well together.)
For something that fills the stomach and makes the tastebuds happy all under 5 minutes, what more can you ask for?
A big thank you to Nissin for feeding the Akadot TV team with delicious pasta! The pastas are available at selected supermarkets and on RedMart.
About the author
Translator, writer, and all-around multilingual person.
Always on the lookout for interesting people and projects in Japanese/English/Chinese.