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Japanese Mashed Potatoes: The Potato Salad Winning Our Cookouts Right Now

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Mashed potatoes, meet potato salad.
Mashed potatoes, meet potato salad. Photo by Bobbi Lin

Call me weird, but I have a thing for tangy, vinegar-laced Japanese mashed potatoes.

Yes, you read that right. My favorite mashed potatoes aren’t that luxuriously silky pomme purée, which, in all its artery-clogging half-pound-of-butter-per-pound-of-potato, is often lauded as the pinnacle of mash. Nor is it the chunky “smashed” potatoes that try to be, but never quite seem to be in vogue. And it sure isn’t the cheesy, dirty mash I’ve ordered one too many times after those late, regrettable nights out.

No, my favorite mash comes from a place that’s quite possibly the antithesis of what mash represents—familiar, often slapdash, and deeply rooted in the American and European culinary imaginations. It comes from, of all places, Japan.

Allow me to explain.

As a kid, I traveled to Japan a lot. (Yes, I have crazy parents who would willingly lug a fussy, screamy five-year-old along for their travels.) And though my memories of my childhood trips to Japan are hazy, there’s one thing that I can still remember as clear as day: these potatoes.

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While fresh sashimi and bento boxes might come to mind when one thinks of Japanese food, there’s a lesser-known subsect of cuisine known as yōshoku (loosely translated to "Western-influenced"), and this is where my beloved Japanese mash resides. Yōshoku is a catch-all category for Japanese versions of Western, especially European, dishes, many of which were borne out of the burgeoning trade routes during the 19th-century Meiji Revolution of Japan, which ended the nation’s 220 years of self-imposed embargo.

Over the years, many dishes have come to fall under yōshoku, from Japanese curries (influenced by the curries brought over by the British navy) to castella cakes (a take on the Portuguese pão-de-ló), from pork katsu cutlets to borrowed French dishes like croquettes (known as korokke) and hamburger steaks (hambagu).

Despite the many savoury, deep-fried yōshoku foods that would make the typical nugget and French fries–loving kid go giddy with excitement, for the five-year-old me, it was the Japanese mashed potatoes that truly won me over.

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Based on appearance alone, there isn’t anything particularly striking about Japanese mash. It looks just like any ol’ British pub fare. But have a spoonful of it, and you’ll immediately be hit by its surprising zing. Because unlike the buttery mashed potatoes commonly served in the West, mashed potatoes in Japan have rice vinegar and Japanese mayonnaise, or Kewpie, folded through them in place of butter and cream, lending a delightful tang. This tartness in a way lightens the ordinarily glutted mash, resulting in a well-balanced, delicate side dish—so much so that I can probably have a whole quart of it and still want more!

In many of the yōshoku establishments I’ve visited along the streets of Shibuya and Ginza in Tokyo, the mash is served in myriad ways. Some places serve it cold, some serve it warm, some have peas and carrots folded through it, making it taste closer to a potato salad than a traditional mashed potato. Some spike it with bits of ham or bacon. But no matter the variation, they all have that vinegar-y pop to them.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Adding vinegar to mashed potatoes might seem strange, but I promise you that once you try it, you’ll never look back. As the acid-loving author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat Samin Nosrat puts it: "When you're eating…things that maybe aren't balanced properly with acid, then it's not going to make your mouth feel full and delicious… When you eat something that's properly acidic, it will make your mouth smack with deliciousness."

So the next time you’re looking for a little mouth-smacking magic in your potatoes, try spiking them with some acid!

Japanese Potato Salad

Japanese Potato Salad

Yi Jun Loh Yi Jun Loh
Serves 4 to 6
  • 5 potatoes, Yukon Gold or russet work best
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise, preferably Japanese Kewpie
  • 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon salt, for seasoning the water, plus 1 teaspoon for the actual mash
Go to Recipe

Hello, summer. you're still here.

Do you recognize these Japanese potatoes? Tell us what you think of them in the comments below.

Automagic Spring Menu Maker!
Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Potato Salad