How Potato Salad ended up in Japan
Potato salad probably isn’t the first thing you think about when you’re naming off Japanese dishes, but it’s been around for at least 160 years. It’s believed to have evolved from a Russian dish called Olivier Salad, which explains why it includes a high ratio of other ingredients relative to the potatoes.
Since its introduction into Japan, potato salad has become a staple of Japanese home cooking, and it’s often served alongside fried foods like Tonkatsu and Karaage. My version has enough veggies and protein to stuff it between two slices of sandwich bread to make Potato Salad Sando (ポテトサラダサンド), which is a popular sandwich that’s often sold in convenience stores around Japan.
Table of contents
Why this recipe works
- By boiling the carrots with the potatoes, it not only makes them tender, but it also brings out their sweetness
- By slightly overcooking the potatoes, it makes them dissolve as you’re stirring the salad together. This gives the salad a creamy texture while ensuring each bite is well seasoned.
- Salting the onions and cucumber tames the onions while removing excess water from both vegetables, which gives them an extra crunchy texture.
- Including boiled eggs, adds enough protein to this that you can sandwich this and turn it into a meal.
Ingredients for Potato Salad
- Potatoes – While you can use any kind of potato, I like to use waxy potatoes (as opposed to starchy ones) for this dish like red potatoes, white potatoes, or baby potatoes. These give the finished salad a smoother, creamier texture.
- Carrots – Many Japanese Potato Salad recipes call for adding raw slices of carrots to the mixture, but mine already has plenty of texture from the onions and cucumbers, and I like to boil relatively big chunks of carrots with my potatoes. This improves the nutritional content of the salad while giving it a great color and mild sweetness.
- Onions – Raw onions can be pretty pungent, so I tame them by salting them first. This takes the harsh edge off of them while giving them a great texture. For a little more color, you could also use scallions or red onions.
- Cucumbers – Adding salted cucumber is the key to the great texture of Japanese Potato Salad. You want to use a cucumber with tender skin and not too many seeds: like Japanese, Persian, or English. Salting them draws out excess water from the slices which not only keeps your salad from getting soggy, it also turns their crisp texture crunchy (kinda like pickles).
- Ham – Ham lends some salt and protein to this salad while giving it an extra splash of color.
- Boiled Egg – adding boiled eggs to the salad, makes it more colorful while adding a ton of protein. This is optional though, so you can leave it out if you like.
- Mayonnaise – Japanese mayo is the key flavor of Japanese-style potato salad. The most famous brand is Kewpie, and it comes in a tall plastic tube with a red top. Tastewise it’s more tangy and eggy than American mayo, and it has more umami. If you want to make this plant-based, several makers (including Kewpie) make a plant-based mayonnaise.
- Rice vinegar – Although Japanese mayonnaise tends to be tangier than its Western counterparts, it’s still pretty rich, which is why I add rice vinegar to keep the salad from becoming too cloying. Other relatively neutral vinegar will work here as well.
- Other seasonings – The other seasonings are to taste, but I usually add some extra salt and sugar to the dressing. For a little spice, I like to add either white or black pepper to my potato salad. For this version, I’ve added a generous dose of freshly cracked black pepper because it goes so well with the rich eggs.
How to make Japanese Potato Salad
The first thing you want to do is wash and peel your potatoes. Be sure to keep them submerged in water, so they don’t discolor. Cut the potatoes into 3/4-inch cubes. They don’t have to be perfect since they’re going to get mashed up, but you want to get them to roughly the same size, so they cook through at the same rate. Put the cut potatoes into a pot of cold water.
Peel the carrots and cut them into 1/3-inch cubes. Add these in with the potatoes and then put the pot onto a stove over high heat.
When the water comes to a boil, turn down the heat to maintain a simmer and cook the potatoes until they are fall-apart tender. Slightly overcooking the potatoes is the key to a creamy potato salad, but be careful you don’t have the heat up too high, or your potatoes will fall apart in the water.
While the potatoes cook, you want to slice up your cucumbers, chop the onions, and salt them. This gets them to release excess moisture that will keep your salad from getting watery. For the onions, this also mellows out their pungency. For the cucumbers, salting them makes them crunchier.
To make the dressing, just whisk the mayonnaise, vinegar, sugar, and salt together in a large bowl.
When the potatoes are tender, drain them well and then add them to the dressing while still hot. Now you can mix this together very well. If you’ve cooked the potatoes long enough, they should mostly disintegrate into mashed potatoes, but it’s okay to have a few chunks. Be careful not to mash the carrots.
By now, your cucumbers and onions should have released a bit of water, but you want to release even more liquid by massaging them with your hand. Then you can gather them up and squeeze them well with your hands to remove as much liquid from them as possible.
Add these into the potato salad along with the ham, and then you can stir it all together until everything is evenly distributed.
The boiled eggs go on top of the potato salad to garnish it, and you can finish it off with a generous amount of freshly cracked black pepper.
Other Japanese Salads
Japanese potato salad has two significant differences from its Western cousins. The first is that it’s seasoned with Japanese mayonnaise, which gives it a more tart and savory taste. The second difference is that in addition to potatoes, there are many other vegetables and proteins added, which make it more colorful and add a ton of different textures to the dish.
Potato salad is transliterated into katakana as ポテトサラダ. This is pronounced in 6 syllables as follows:
po like pole
te like temp
to like toad
sa like socks
ra like romp
da like dot
This recipe will work with other types of mayonnaise, but you may want to increase the amount of vinegar to compensate for milder varieties of mayo.
Yes, it’s fairly easy to make a few substitutions to make this plant-based. The main thing is to substitute an egg-free Japanese style mayo, which several brands make, including Kewpie.
For potato salad
potatoes (~10 baby potatoes peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes)
carrots (~ 1 carrot, peeled and cut into 1/3-inch cubes)
cucumber (~1 Japanese or Lebanese cucumber, sliced)
onions (~1/8 small onion, finely diced)
ham (cut into 1/4-inch squares)
evaporated cane sugar
hard boiled eggs (peeled and quartered
Black pepper (to taste)
Put the cubed potatoes and carrots into a pot filled with water and bring the water to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook the potatoes until they are tender (about 15 minutes).
While the potatoes and carrots cook, put the sliced cucumber and onions in a bowl and sprinkle with about 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Stir this together to ensure the veggies are evenly coated and let them sweat.
Prepare your dressing by whisking together the mayonnaise, rice vinegar, sugar, and salt.
When the potatoes are soft enough that they easily fall apart, drain them well, and then add them to the dressing while still hot.
Stir this together, until the potatoes are mostly mashed up, but don’t mash the carrots.
Massage the cucumbers and onions until they turn translucent and then squeeze them between your hands to remove any excess liquid.
Add the squeezed cucumber and onions to the potato salad along with the ham. Stir everything together until well combined.
Plate the potato salad and then top with the boiled eggs and a generous amount of black pepper.