Why You Should Be Obsessed With Japan's Kewpie Mayo
The cult-favorite Japanese mayo is a favorite among chefs for a reason.
Mayonnaise is a magical ingredient. It makes the outside of your grilled cheese extra crispy, your chocolate cake luscious and moist, and your tuna/chicken/potato salad sing. That being said, not all mayonnaises are created equal. Sure, you’ve got your standard Hellmann’s, your Duke’s, your avocado- and olive oil-based fares. But in the gastronomical kingdom of mayonnaise, only one reigns supreme -- and its name is Kewpie.
You may have seen Kewpie mayo before. It has a distinctive baby for a logo (lifted from the works of cartoonist Rosie O’Neill) and comes in a spectacular soft-squeeze bottle. It’s the creamy concoction you drizzle on your okonomiyaki, squeeze onto your temaki sushi, and dip your karaage -- Japanese-style fried chicken -- in. It looks more yellow, and dare I say, golden, than your average mayonnaise and it has a much creamier and luxurious consistency.
Kewpie mayonnaise, which was invented in 1924, is now a household staple in Japan. Kewpie creator Toichiro Nakashima first encountered mayonnaise on a culinary trip to the United States. He brought back the mystical condiment in hopes of creating a delicious and nutritious accompaniment to vegetables for Japanese society. Little did he know the obsession that would build surrounding the condiment. In 2017, Kewpie reported that its consolidated net sales exceeded 500,000 million yen (a bit over 4.5 billion US dollars), a 1.7% increase from in net sales from the prior year. Condiments were at the forefront of these sales, which were “driven by growth in overseas sales of mayonnaise and dressings.”
But what exactly is it about Kewpie mayo that makes it so magical?
It starts with the eggs. In Japan, eggs are a hot commodity -- the average person eats 320 of them a year. And it’s no surprise: the eggs in Japan are utterly delicious. They have a deep orange yolk, which is said to be indicative of the health of the hens laying the eggs. Free range chickens tend to lay eggs with much darker yolks than caged chickens. These eggs are the base of what makes a great mayonnaise. In Japan, mayonnaise is made with only the yolks, as opposed to American mayonnaise which typically uses the whole egg. The egg yolks are what gives Kewpie mayonnaise its deeper yellow color and its fuller, almost custard-like texture.
In addition to superior eggs, Kewpie also uses a different vinegar in its recipe. American mayonnaises use distilled vinegar that gives a certain acidic flavor to it, whereas Japanese mayonnaise relies on either apple cider or rice vinegar for a more subdued, sweeter tang. Japanese mayonnaise also has the addition of a not-so-secret ingredient that immediately makes everything taste better: monosodium glutamate (otherwise known as MSG). Even David Chang, the chef behind the Momofuku empire and host of Ugly Deliciouscalls it, “the best mayonnaise in the world because it has MSG.”
MSG is a bit of a vilified ingredient in culinary spaces. As pointed out by Vox, it’s all “thanks to an unfortunate cocktail of racism, xenophobia, and a disproportionately influential 1968 letter to the editor in the New England Journal of Medicine which many believe -- in most cases, totally erroneously! -- that MSG has made them feel sick.” All the myths you’ve heard about MSG -- about how it gives you a headache, makes you sick, makes you dizzy -- have been debunked. Unfortunately, the aversion to MSG still exists stateside, which is why Kewpie’s US branch leaves it out of their made-in-America version.
Not all is hopeless, though. Food writer Kevin Pang notes that the American reincarnate tastes “about 90 percent as good as the Japanese version. … The differences between the two versions is roughly that between U.S. and Mexican Coke: Only obsessives like [himself] would spot out the subtle contrasts, but for most others, even 90 percent of a superb Japanese mayo is still 100 percent better than anything Stateside.” The irony is that Americans are recreating a Japanese interpretation of an American product; the globalization of food continues to produce new and tasty offerings. In addition to that, the Japanese version can still be purchased at Japanese-specialty supermarkets -- Mitsuwa Marketplace, one of the only nationwide Japanese grocery chains, carries it (or on Amazon if you don’t live near a Mitsuwa).
The final step that secures Kewpie mayonnaise’s spot in the hierarchy of mayo is the emulsification process. This bit is so important that Kewpie has a picture of their mayonnaise compared to homemade mayo under a microscope on their website, portraying how small the oil droplets are in their version. As Kewpie has shared, “Emulsification enhances the mouthfeel.” Using specialized proprietary machinery, the unique blend of eggs, vinegar, and oil are whipped intensely until they form the beautiful consistency that is second-to-none -- creamy, luscious, and smooth.
Kewpie mayonnaise -- and its signature tube bottle with a red cap -- is now a cult favorite. Uniqlo, the worldwide Japanese casual wear brand, collaborated with Kewpie for a line of mayo-themed shirts. People opened Kewpie-centered restaurant pop-ups, serving dishes like mayo-drizzled pizza and mayonnaise milkshakes. The condiment company even has a shrine-like museum in its honor in Tokyo.
Chefs all across the nation are also obsessed with the stuff. Niki Nakayama, the chef and owner of iconic Los Angeles kaiseki restaurant, n/naka, notes that "because [Kewpie] is a lot richer and creamier than regular mayonnaise it can be used as a standalone condiment just for the flavor.” This is why Kewpie is often used as a dip for chicken karaage where the mayo can be mixed with assorted spices, like curry and chili powder, thus creating new sauces. Kewpie can also be substituted for American mayonnaise in coleslaw, used as a binding agent for tater tots and burgers, and loaded into cakes for extra moisture. And, of course, it’s unsurprising to find the Japanese mayonnaise stuffed with imitation crab in California rolls and drizzled across baked sushi rolls. Chef Tim Phung of Zen Sushi in downtown Sacramento shares similar sentiments to Nakayama, describing Kewpie as “the king of mayonnaise.”
If you’ve never tried Kewpie mayonnaise before, your fridge definitely needs a bottle. Kewpie wins in all categories -- texture, flavor, history, and an easy-to-disperse bottle. It’ll improve your potato salad, your sushi night, your burgers, and your dipping sauces. It is versatile and satisfying -- and nothing short of delicious.