by Joseph Warren
“This is Seattle food. For Seattle people. This is what we eat here. Seattle people eat teriyaki. This isn’t Dallas.”
-Boo Yul Ko, co-owner, Manna Deli & Teriyaki (Edge)
I grew up in Seattle, Washington in a family with two adopted Korean-American siblings. As such, my parents established a family tradition of regularly taking us to Korean restaurants. On most days, kimchee and rice were part of every meal, but on the weekends we drove up Aurora Ave N. and “went to Korean Food.” Instead of announcing Korean food, the signs for the two or three places that we went most often predominantly advertised traditional Japanese fare of teriyaki and sushi. The Korean options were only revealed later on the menu. While my parents usually ate chicken or beef bulgogi and my siblings and I generally ordered bibimbap, we also loved teriyaki. The teriyaki these restaurants served, the teriyaki I knew, varied from establishment to establishment but followed a pretty specific model. Huge amounts of chicken, beef or a combination of the two lay on a bed of white rice with an additional ball of rice on the side. Some places made their sauces with pineapple, some with citrus, some with ginger, but every teriyaki sauce was unapologetically sweet and liberally ladled over the meat and the rice.
It wasn’t until I was an adult, living nearly a thousand miles from my Seattle home that I realized that the teriyaki I had grown up eating was something special. Outside Seattle, the teriyaki I tasted inevitably led to disappointment. Instead of being a restaurant’s primary product, it was usually a just menu item among other Japanese foods. It had less sugar, more salt, and far more restrained portions. I remembered my childhood restaurants and wondered what made the origins of Seattle teriyaki so remarkably different. Was it that I had been eating Korean-style teriyaki all along? I decided to investigate.
Seattle teriyaki is considered, by some, to be the city’s signature food, like Chicago hot dogs, New York thin-crust pizza, or Philadelphia cheese steaks. I quickly learned that Seattle-style teriyaki established itself into the region’s diet soon after its introduction in the 1970s. Barely twenty years after it was created, Seattle’s distinctive teriyaki style was nominated in the local paper as the city’s “signature dish”.
And my guess that the very distinct form of Seattle teriyaki had been Korean based was not entirely off: I learned that while Korean influence has been important, even dominant, Seattle teriyaki has been driven by many (primarily thought not exclusively) immigrant ethnic groups.
In an extensive 2007 article documenting the history of Seattle Teriyaki, Jonathan Kauffman traces the prototypical teriyaki history. Almost as interesting as the places where the history can be found is where the history cannot.
Teriyaki did not exist in the most likely places. The Nihonmachi neighborhood, a Japanese community in Seattle from the end of the 19th century until the WWII internment, had no teriyaki restaurants, nor did the pre-war Japantown section of Seattle.
After the war, and the return of the detainees, teriyaki foods were on a small number of menus. Bush Gardens, the swanky Japanese restaurant in the city’s International District attracted former internment camp detainees and Caucasian GIs who had developed an appreciation for Japanese food while stationed abroad. The restaurant served teriyaki steak from 1957 onward. Canlis, the city’s most famous fine dining establishment, has included a teriyaki beef dish on their menu since their beginnings in the 1950s.
Toshihiro Kasahara’s 5 Item Menu
The contemporary Seattle teriyaki plate generally consists of a three-compartment clamshell container. For most of my life, the container was Styrofoam though it is now a more environmentally conscious cardboard. In the largest compartment, there is the meat on its bed of rice. In the smaller compartments are a perfectly formed sphere of rice and a vegetable; usually a cabbage or lettuce salad. This standard was established by the father of the modern Seattle teriyaki, Toshiro Kasahara.
In 1976 (though Elizabeth Rhodes’ 1992 article on the subject says 1977) Kasahara opened Toshi’s Teriyaki Restaurant. Kasahara, a Pacific Northwest business school graduate originally from Ashikaga, Japan, imported the now ubiquitous containers from Japan. He created a sauce that broke tradition by using sugar instead of sweet rice wine, much like Hawaiian teriyaki.
The menu consisted of the following items:
- Teriyaki Chicken
- Teriyaki Beef
- Tori Udon
And during dinner hours, also:
- Teriyaki Steak
- Japanese-style chicken curry
The prices ranged from $1.85 to $2.10.
The success of Toshi’s Teriyaki lead Kasahara to open a second store, this time focused exclusively on takeout. He expanded by, essentially, flipping the shops he opened. He would start a shop, bring it to a level of profitability, sell the shop, and open a new location, rarely owning more than two at any given time. By 1992, he had opened ten shops.
Yasuko Conner, the first employee of Kasahara’s second store, bought one of the shops, changing its name to Yasuko’s and starting her own ever-expanding chain of, at their height, nine restaurants. Similarly, a man named K.B. Chang purchased one of Kasahara’s stores and began quickly opening and “flipping” stores also (semi-legally) called Toshi’s. Kasahara eventually began to sell franchise rights and to train new shop-owners.
The success of these stores, and the many stores they inspired, is astounding. Kasahara could only guess how many Toshi’s he’d opened over the years (the guess being thirty) and the number of teriyaki places in the greater Seattle area can only be estimated. In 1992, there were 107 establishments within Seattle’s King County with “teriyaki” in their names. By 1996, the estimated number of King County teriyaki places was up to 175. By 2007, there were 519 restaurants with “teriyaki” in their name, in the state of Washington and more than 100 just within the city limits. In John T. Edge’s 2010 article, he cites the number of teriyaki stores within the city limits as a more conservative eighty-four. He also notes that there were, at the same time, only about forty Burger Kings, Wendy’s, or McDonalds.
When Toshihiro Kasahar was selling and franchising Toshi’s Teriyaki shops, the new owners came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds: Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Caucasian, Indian, and Korean-American.
“I’m glad it’s many nationalities,” he told The Seattle Times’ Elizabeth Rhodes in 1992. “That means more people are interested in my business and see it as an opportunity.”
Since the food’s early growth in the 1980s and 1990s, the variety of ethnic and cultural influences on Seattle Teriyaki has dramatically expanded. There are Hawaiian teriyaki restaurants. Vietnamese Phở shops (another ubiquitous Seattle fast food option) often sell teriyaki, as do local hamburger places and Thai restaurants. A Somali restaurant in Tukwila (a suburb near the airport) serves a halal chicken teriyaki and a Vietnamese restaurant serves beef short ribs with lemongrass as, “The Best Teriyaki In Town.”
Tokyo Garden, near the University of Washington, is owned by a Nepalese immigrant with a chef originally from Puebla, Mexico. Among their offered dishes are Nepalese dumplings, Japanese dumplings, sushi, and, astonishingly enough, corn dog teriyaki.
Korean American Influence
The immigrant group with the largest impact on Seattle teriyaki was, as I suspected initially, Korean. After the passing of the Hart-Celler act of 1965, altering the system of immigration to the United States, Korean immigration boomed. Between 1970 and 1980, the Korean population in Washington’s King County increased by 566%, compared with 412% in the rest of the nation.
Many of the Toshi’s and Yasuko’s stores were purchased by Korean Americans. Other Korean natives, such as Chung Sook Hwang, opened unaffiliated shops of their own. In 1983, Hwang opened what would become one of my favorites, Yak’s Deli on a corner in the Freemont neighborhood.
In her 1992 article, Elizabeth Rhodes tells the story of Chang Sook Hwang (not to be confused with Chung Sook Hwang), a New York City deli owner. Chang received a call from a friend advising that teriyaki shops in Seattle were a moneymaker. Despite not knowing what teriyaki was until arriving in the Seattle, Hwang’s shop attracted crowds of customers.
In addition to dramatically increasing the number and popularity of teriyaki places, the Korean-American owners influenced the way teriyaki sauce tasted.
“We Koreans made it more interesting for people.” Kyung La (Sarah) Ahn explained to Jonathan Kauffman. “The Japanese only have three ingredients for seasoning: sugar, soy sauce, and vinegar. We have twenty to thirty ingredients for making seasoning. Teriyaki tastes much different.”
While I’m not convinced that the Toshi’s restaurants’ sauces were quite as simple as Ahn described, the influence of Korean cooks is evident. Ginger, garlic, and sesame oil all play a role in sauces that do, in some ways, resemble Korean bulgogi marinades.
While many restaurants have a pretty simple menu, some (such as the ones my family frequented during my childhood) have secondary Korean menus.
It could be said that a city’s signature food is defined by its arrival in other places. When “New York Style” pizza or “Chicago Style” hotdogs are available at the Dallas Ft Worth airport, you can be sure that it has achieved that status. The earliest Seattle teriyaki missionary I could find mentioned was in 1996, the single Toshi’s franchise outside of the greater Seattle area in Phoenix.
In 2002, Seattle area natives Eric Garma and his cousins Rodney and Allen Arreola opened Teriyaki Madness in Las Vegas. They purchased the Korean/Seattle-style recipes, the plans, and the rights to the name “Teriyaki Madness” from a local store where they had eaten growing up, and used the image of an Asian Elvis impersonator to cement a distinctive brand. There are currently seven Las Vegas stores, and they have begun the work of setting up franchises throughout the Southwest.
In 2010, businessman and Seattle ex-pat Paul Krug opened the first Glaze Teriyaki Grill in New York City.
“I lived here (NYC) for seven years and noticed New York was missing teriyaki,” Krug explained. “There’s a ton of Japanese restaurants in New York that offer teriyaki, but it’s a lot more expensive and doesn’t taste nearly as good as it does in Seattle.”
Glaze’s Seattle-style Teriyaki has developed a following. As research for this paper, a coworker and I visited a Union Square Glaze shop. The food, as well as the shop itself, is very much like Seattle, if a little bit more self-consciously stylish.
Several years ago, for reasons irrelevant to this paper, I stopped eating meat. I have never regretted this choice nor have I had any real temptation to abandon it. The only meat that I have longed for in that time is Seattle teriyaki chicken. While I’ve yet to be convinced to change my vegetarian ways, I have become, like Paul Krug and Eric Garma, something of a Seattle teriyaki missionary. The first time my future wife came to Seattle, the priority after meeting my family was to drive up Aurora Ave N. to buy her the Korean (and Japanese, and Hawaiian…) -inspired chicken that was such an important food during my childhood. When two friends were in Seattle for their honeymoon, they asked if there was anything they should be sure to do. I recommended getting teriyaki at least once. To my delight, their Facebook pages documented at least one, sometimes two teriyaki meals per day of their Seattle trip, each from a different store. I think that it is safe to assume they enjoyed it.
Blake, Judith. “Teriyaki — Secret Is In Sauces For Popular Fast Food.” The Seattle Times 12 June 1996: n. pag. Seattletimes.com. The Seattle Times, 12 June 1996. Web. 24 Oct. 2012. <http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19960612>.
Edge, John T. “A City’s Specialty, Japanese in Name Only.” The New York Times 6 Jan. 2010, New York Edition ed., sec. D: D1. The New York Times. Nytimes.com, 5 Jan. 2010. Web. 4 Oct. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/06/dining/06unit.html>.
Giudici, Carey. “Korean Americans in King County.” HistoryLink.Org The Free Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History. HistoryLink.Org, 31 May 2001. Web. 10 Oct. 2012.
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Kugiya, Hugo. “A Seminal Moment for ‘Seattle Teriyaki’ | Crosscut.com.” Crosscut: News of the Great Nearby. Crosscut.com, 30 Dec. 2010. Web. 4 Oct. 2012. <http://crosscut.com/2010/12/30/food/20502/A-seminal-moment-for-Seattle-teriyaki/>.
Raskin, Hanna. “Local Teriyaki Pioneer Is Back at the Grill.” The Seattle Weekly 9 Feb. 2012: n. pag. SeattleWeekly.com. Seattle Weekly, 9 Feb. 2012. Web. 10 Oct. 2012. <http://blogs.seattleweekly.com/voracious/2012/02/local_teriyaki_pioneer_is_back.php>.
Raskin, Hanna. “Teriyaki’s Expansion Plotted by Seattle Natives – Seattle – Restaurants and Dining – Voracious.” The Seattle Weekly Blogs. The Seattle Weekly, 13 Feb. 2012. Web. 10 Oct. 2012. <http://blogs.seattleweekly.com/voracious/2012/02/teriyakis_expansion_plotted_by.php>.
Rhodes, Elizabeth. “Teriyaki Takes The Town — Everybody’s Making It, Including Many Small Delis.” The Seattle Times 12 June 1992: n. pag. Http://seattletimes.com. The Seattle Times. Web. 10 Oct. 2012. <SeattleTimes.com>.
Susskind, Jonathan. “Votes Split on Which Dish Says Seattle.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer 10 June 1992: C1. Web. 10 Oct. 2012.
Joseph Baruch Warren holds an MA in Media Studies from The New School. He works for the Eugene Lang College budget office and takes occasional Food Studies classes at The New School for Public Engagement.