Mayonnaise haters: Just. Go. Away.
Everyone else knows a life without mayonnaise isn’t worth living. That’s why you’ll want to discover the world’s most delicious mayonnaise.
It’s called Kewpie, and it’s had a hold on Japanese home cooks and sushi chefs the world over for more than for 90 years.
“It’s the king of mayonnaise,” says sushi chef Tim Phung of Zen Sushi in downtown Sacramento.
The special sauce zigzagged back and forth over America’s sushi rolls? Kewpie mayonnaise. It’s found from sushi restaurants of quiet reverence to the corner Japanese cafe.
Easily found in Japanese and Asian markets, the mayonnaise is branded by a kewpie-looking baby doll with outstretched arms. The container is unmistakable – soft plastic that resembles the inner bladder of hiking hydration gear. No knife, spatula or spoon required. All you have to do is squeeze.
Mayonnaise, codified in the French repertoire of classic sauces, is a cold emulsion that calls on egg yolks to bridge the worlds of oil and vinegar.
“Japanese love things foreign and European,” says Judy Inaba of North American Trading in West Sacramento, a wholesale importer of Japanese products, who always has Kewpie on hand at her house.
“We eat tons and tons of vegetables, and we get tired of soy sauce,” Inaba says. That’s when she reaches for an easy squirt of Kewpie. For heat, she mixes it with Sriracha.
Kewpie’s irresistible flavor is different than other mayonnaises. After sweet, sour, salty and bitter, it is imbued with umami, the fifth taste discovered in 1908 by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda when he extracted glutamate from kombu, a kelp that flavors the savory Japanese broth, dashi. To spell it out, Kewpie has monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Before you get in a snit about your MSG allergies, it’s likely you’ve consumed Kewpie mayonnaise for years without a twinge of discomfort. It’s on the lettuce in your bento box. It’s folded around squares of rare, seared tuna before the dish gets garlic and radish sprouts. You’ve also ingested naturally occurring glutamic acid in sun-dried tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, chicken, corn, cheese and potatoes.
Many have attempted to replicate the Kewpie taste. A few years ago, a story on the website Serious Eats revealed a DIY version of Kewpie as an unapologetic MSG carrier. Along with standard MSG, Aji-no-moto (the Japanese Ac’cent) and Hon Dashi, the homemade version, at first had the pale appearance of ordinary Best Foods mayo until a few shots of mahogany-hued malt vinegar deepened the color to ivory.
Kewpie’s ingredients are printed on the bladder: vegetable oil, egg yolk, vinegar, salt, monosodium glutamate and spices.
“The Japanese are so addicted to umami in their food, if something doesn’t have enough umami, they feel something is missing and walk away unsatisfied,” says Eric Gower, co-founder of Breakaway Matcha, a San Anselmo importer of fine Japanese green tea.
Gower spent 16 years in Japan teaching cooking and writing cookbooks. While there he saw Kewpie mayonnaise on nontraditional Japanese foods.
“Once you eat a lot of Japanese food, you get used to this savory, brothy flavor,” Gower says. “They strive to get as much umami as possible into every dish. “They’ll squirt [mayonnaise] on pizza in patterns, in concentric circles. It’s listed as an ingredient like peppers and onions.”
Japanese-style mayonnaise is its own tradition that’s made the Kewpie “love-around-the-kitchen-table” company profitable. Traded on the Japanese stock exchange, Kewpie Corp. is a conglomerate with sales as of 2014 of $554 billion that also makes pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.
Zen Sushi chef-owner Jason Hom says anyone who trains to be a sushi master will see mayonnaise in training materials. “Most cookbooks recommend Kewpie.” Phung, his chef, makes new sauces by mixing Kewpie with wasabi, garlic and other spices.
“I have it at home,” Phung says. “Hot dogs, ham and cheese, a breakfast with bagel, smoked salmon and Kewpie.”
Kewpie may be the most delicious mayonnaise in the world, but thanks to that squeezable bladder, every time it’s used, it’s all about the squirt. Unscrew the cap with the hole, and you’ll see a star tip so you can squeeze mayonnaise as if you were piping buttercream on a cake.
A Japanese-made mayonnaise in squeezable packaging
- Find it: Oto’s Marketplace, 4990 Freeport Blvd., Sacramento, or any large Asian market that carries Japanese products
- Cost: $5 for 17.64 ounces