Discover more from ingredient by Rachel Phipps
The rich Japanese mayonnaise that adds richness, umami and tang to everything it touches (and which I urge you to add to your next batch of meatballs!)
Welcome to ingredient, where once a month I take a deep dive into some of my favourite seasonal and store cupboard ingredients. This month I’m focusing on Kewpie mayonnaise: the rich, tangy, addictive mayo that doubles as one of Japan’s favourite condiments.
For paid subscribers click here for my recipes for a Mortadella Banh Mi Sandwich, my (Not) Japanese Potato Salad, and my Magic Ingredient Meatballs in Lettuce Cups.
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I spend so much time explaining to people the joys of Kewpie - the rich, thick, yellow Japanese mayonnaise that comes in a uniquely thin squeezy bottle I knew I had to dedicate an entire column to it, explaining what it is and it’s joys so I have somewhere handy to link to whenever I (repeatedly) mention it’s charms. Kewpie is certainly one of my kitchens MVPs.
If you turn to the ‘Essential and Unusual Ingredients’ section at the front of my book One Pan Pescatarian you’ll see both how many Asian flavours permeate my cooking, and that Kewpie Mayonnaise has by far the longest entry:
I rarely keep regular mayonnaise in my fridge, instead I keep Kewpie, a Japanese brand of mayonnaise that comes in a red-topped, soft squeezy bottle which you can now find in the Asian section of some of the bigger supermarkets (if you can’t find it in the aisles try the sushi counter), Asian supermarkets and, of course, online. It’s a little different to what we’re used to, made with just egg yolks (rather than the whole egg), rice wine vinegar instead of industrial distilled, and (ironically as I go to efforts to buy my furikakewithout it) added MSG, which makes it just slightly addictive in flavour. There has been a lot written about MSG, which is a common ingredient in Asian cooking. There is a strong argument that all the bad press it received is rooted in a historical suspicion of unfamiliar cuisines, rather than having a sound nutritional basis. Personally, I prefer my food as additive-free as possible, so long as it does not compromise on flavour. Kewpie mayonnaise is one of those instances where, as it is so delicious and such a versatile ingredient, I’d eat it regardless of what was in it. Life is about balance, after all.
(I might also add, depending on the brand malt or apple cider vinegars might also appear.)
What I did not do in my book was explain what exactly Kewpie tastes like. Well, take the taste of regular mayonnaise from a jar. I buy light Hellman’s (Best Foods I think in some parts of America) if that helps. First, tone down the vinegar taste. Kewpie is much better balanced, it just does not have that harshness. Yes there is still a good amount of tang in there, but it is much more welcome, much less harsh than you’d get with another mayo. Then amp up the richness: you’re more in the ball park of homemade mayonnaise here. Then add a savoury edge regular mayonnaise does not usually have, probably because it has been overpowered by all that distilled vinegar. That’s Kewpie, which, in my mind is the Queen of pre-made mayonnaises (though there are some fancy French ones I’d not say no to either!)
Even J, hater of all things made with or accompanied by mayonnaise, likes Kewpie.
Once you’ve tasted it, you’ll just want to use it everywhere you would have before reached for regular pre-made mayo: my first taste of it was a summer luncheon at my friend Ed’s house where he plonked it on the table to go alongside a side of cold poached salmon. I was hooked.
Also, Kewpie is fun. The one time I could only find it in a Western-style bottle I was mightily upset. There is just something about holding onto the very thin, floppy plastic that is just so pleasing, adding to the dining experience with a theatrical flourish mayonnaise is only otherwise capable of when freshly made, infused with saffron and plonked down on a table somewhere in the South of France with lots of delicious, crisp, seasonal and local things to dip into it alongside an ice cold bottle of pink.
That red nozzle is also functional: using it allows for a steady yet thin stream of mayonnaise perfect for decorating and drizzling, but unscrewing it will reveal a star shape great for squeezing fatter ribbons and for easier culinary application.
It is worth noting if you live in the US to seek out imported Japanese Kewpie for the true flavour and experience; it is also made in California, where yeast extract is used in place of the MSG. I’ve not found an instance yet of someone who has tried the side by side comparison and preferred the American version.
In Japan, Kewpie is a wildly popular condiment kept on hand for dipping and seasoning (it has been the best selling mayonnaise in Japan since production started in 1925 - it is so beloved you can visit Kewpie cafes, and a Kewpie museum) just how we’d deploy regular mayonnaise or a trusty bottle of tomato ketchup; find me a British home without a bottle of Heinz Tomato Ketchup (those who buy Daddies brand have something wrong with their tastebuds...) The reason I mentioned check the sushi counter for it in British supermarkets is it is the mayonnaise that is drizzled onto some of the fancier sushi rolls (and what I put into my Spicy Tinned Tuna Rolls), and it is also the thing that often finishes off my beloved Okonomiyaki cabbage pancakes. It is what lends that unique flavour to classic Japanese potato salad, and their famous egg sandwiches. Also, the mayonnaise in most good homemade sriracha mayonnaises? That’s Kewpie.
I also use it to add tanginess to but also to soften the glaze on my Korean Fried Chicken Wings. We’ll set historic tensions between Korea and Japan aside for a moment to just focus on the food: Korean food also loves Kewpie mayonnaise.
For this months recipe, I’ve both done some experimentation, and leaned into places I love to use Kewpie (other than just generously drizzled, along with sriracha, atop a trashy late night bowl of Kimchee Fried Rice) to showcase its’s versatility.
First, we have my Mortadella Banh Mi Sandwich. This is the Vietnamese-inspired Banh Mi sandwich I make when I want a delicious sandwich for lunch, not the lemongrass-infused Tofu Banh Mi in my book, or the more traditional pork-forward version I’ve shared over at BBC Food. I’ve leant into the usual pork and pate filling here by using generous slices of Italian mortadella: a savoury, rich meat that holds up well to other flavours but also has that pate-like flavour that I think is perfect in invoking something a bit more common, and I’ve taken the quick pickles and the sriracha I always include to add a bit of a kick alongside plenty of herbs. But it is the Kewpie that brings this sandwich together, marrying the different flavours whilst also adding it’s own kick and creaminess. Kewpie is excellent in a sandwich where a lot is going on: case in point from One Pan on the previous page (pg 78) my Pea and Courgette Burgers with Kimchee just would not be the same without it.
Next, meatballs with a secret ingredient. Making mini meatballs, the problem is not just that the minced meat comes in such a big pack so you end up with a load of them, but also that you can’t half an egg, so how on earth do you bind just a small batch? Well, the answer is mayonnaise.
For future reference, use 1 large egg per 400g-500g of mince, or 3 tbsp of mayonnaise per egg. Which means, for a smaller batch you can use just 1 1/2 tbsp of mayonnaise for 200g-250g of meat. And you can see where I’m going here, right? Not only are the meatballs I’ve piled into my Ginger Meatball Lettuce Cups packed with fresh ginger and coriander (a version of my Ginger Pork Meatballs with Green Curry Coconut Sauce), but I’ve bound them with a healthy dollop of Kewpie that adds tanginess as well as yielding some of the moistest, tenderest meatballs I’ve ever made. Move over ricotta: mayonnaise meatballs have come to town.
Finally, a potato salad. I’ve called this potato salad (Not) Japanese Potato Salad as Japanese Potato Salad is a whole thing in itself, but what I have done here is take my mother’s sublime Jewish Potato Salad recipe and recalibrated it as a celebration of Kewpie yielding a rich, addictive potato salad loaded with allium which, once we get there, I promise you you’ll have on repeat all summer.
An abbreviation for the American sporting term ‘most valuable player’.
A Japanese seasoning blend of sesame seeds, seaweed, often dried herbs and sometimes also MSG I love to sprinkle on almost everything Asian inspired.