Soy sauce, roe, miso, seaweed and even wasabi are all ingredients you can find in wafu (meaning Japanese-style) pasta dishes. "It might sound kind of wacky initially, but the flavours work perfectly," says Jessica Thompson, a Tokyo-based Australian food writer who's behind the city's pop-up restaurant Ichigo-Ichie.
Classic pasta dish elements like tomatoes and Parmesan are very rich in umami, the "fifth taste" that was discovered in Japan. The most common wafu pasta in Japanese restaurants is mentaiko (spicy pollock roe) spaghetti, which is full of umami.
"Instead of using cheese or herbs as a garnish, you use things like nori or salmon roe or dry shiso," says Ume Burger co-founder Kerby Craig, who is about to open a wafu pasta restaurant in Sydney.
"It might sound kind of wacky initially, but the flavours work perfectly."
Takashi Otani, who runs pop-up restaurant Limited Green Table in Tokyo, has grown up with this type of pasta. "I went to study in the United States and I missed Japanese food, but I didn't have much money. I'd buy pasta and make it Japanese-style. It's easy; I’d put oil and soy sauce and wasabi and ginger," he recalls.
He still cooks pasta with Japanese ingredients now that he's back in Tokyo. He also takes his young sons to a wafu pasta chain called Spajiro where their favourite spaghetti comes with shimeji, bacon, soy sauce and butter.
Wafu pasta in Japan
Wafu pasta took off after the end of the Second World War because of America's influence. The tomato ketchup-based spaghetti Napolitan, invented in Yokohama, was one of the first wafu pasta dishes popularised.
But with time, Japanese-style pasta developed its own identity. "Italian-American cuisine tends to have a lot of sauce and cheese on its pizza and pasta, whereas Italian-Japanese is more about the actual pasta than the sauce. The sauce just accentuates the pasta. It's more restrained with the ingredients and flavours," explains Thompson.
Restaurants specialising in wafu pasta are often casual chains like Spajiro and Yomenya Goemon. "It's a salaryman-type of cuisine. There are high-end versions of it, but generally, it's cheap fare," says Craig.
"One of the things that makes Japanese pasta really work, aside from the flavours working seamlessly, is the understanding of texture in Japanese cuisine. The rice needs to be al dente so the same principle is applied to pasta. You won't find soft pasta here, it's always cooked al dente, even if it's a 500 yen bowl [AU$6.25]," says Thompson.
High-end restaurants tend to stay closer to classic Italian recipes, but do favour the ubiquitous sea urchin.
Wafu pasta in Australia
In Melbourne, you can eat mentaiko spaghettini and curry katsu spaghetti at Cafe Blush.
Located in Melbourne and Brisbane, Japanese restaurant Wagaya offers three types of wafu pasta (scallop, mentaiko and sea urchin).
In Sydney, the mentaiko pasta made with a soy sauce and lemon base is a signature dish at Double Cross Espresso Bar in Crows Nest.
In the spring, Craig will open Pasta Wafu in Haymarket, a joint dedicated to handmade Japanese-style pasta. "We'll have a mentaiko pasta, something like a wagyu miso Bolognese spaghetti, and we're playing around with a vegetarian pasta. We'll also have specials like uni [sea urchin] and cream spaghetti and mushroom dashi pasta," he says.
Wafu pasta at home
If you want to try your hand at wafu pasta, it doesn't have to be complicated.
"Think of what you'd put in a donburi [Japanese rice bowl]. Keep the same taste combination, but substitute pasta for rice. If the donburi tastes good, it should work for pasta too," says Otani, who likes to turn his natto and soft-boiled egg donburi into a pasta dish.
Thompson has tested a lot of flavour combinations. "After I had wafu pasta at a restaurant, I became a bit obsessed and started experimenting," she says.
She likes several combinations - soy sauce, butter, mushrooms and miso; umeboshi, olive oil and sesame seeds; and yuzu kosho with butter. She also suggests using aonori (powdered seaweed) to replace Parmesan.
Make sure the pasta is cooked al dente, throw in your favourite umami-rich Japanese ingredients and you're good to go!