Some food brand rivalries are so large they are both binary and ubiquitous as the brand themselves. *Sips Coke*. Other brands, like Kewpie, have found a recipe for success in the minutiae, garnered chef devotees and reached a level of cult status. Mix it all together and Kewpie may have the winning formula to put the rivalries to rest.
The Devil’s in the Details
I hear what you’re thinking, “It’s just mayonnaise.” Yes, it’s mayonnaise- oil, eggs, lemon juice or vinegar and seasoning. Yet as any chef or home cook worth their weight will tell you, “it” has everything to do with the ingredients and how you use them. In this case, it starts with the egg yolks. According to the company website, Kewpie contains four yolks per 500 grams (about the size of a standard bottle of Kewpie). By comparison, Hellmann’s contains both egg yolks and whole eggs as does Kraft mayonnaise and Whole Foods Market’s 365 brand of mayo. Kewpie’s yolk only approach and their very specific emulsification metrics create to the final weighted velvety mouthfeel, but it is the yolks that give Kewpie its distinct custardy hue.
Mise en place for egg salad.
If the yolks were the jab in this mayonnaise fight, monosodium glutamate (MSG) is the devastating cross. Kewpie produced in Japan contains MSG and God bless them for it. After all, it was a Japanese researcher, Kikunae Ikeda, who identified that glutamic acid (glutamate) produced the fifth element of taste- umami. LA Times food columnist Lucas Kwan Peterson put it this way in his piece Is This the World’s Best Mayonnaise? “The addition of MSG means Kewpie makes the taste of whatever you’re using it on….pop a little bit more. Those fries are going to seem more potato-ey. The fried chicken will seem more juicy and flavorful.” If Miracle Whip has a “zing” then the MSG in Kewpie is an Emeril Lagasse style “BAM!” and I’m here for it.
Unfortunately, MSG has been vilified in the US due to-in my opinion- anti Asian racism. Although misinformation about MSG has been disproved, the damage has been done. The Food and Drug Administration requires manufacturers to list added MSG as an ingredient. Kewpie’s California based American division, Q&B Foods, found a work around. They replace the added MSG with a food product with naturally occurring MSG; yeast extract.
The almost lack of MSG is not the only difference between the American Kewpie and the original. Kat Thompson points out another small difference in her Thrillist article What is Kewpie Mayo? Why Everyone is Obsessed with Japanese Mayonnaise. According to Thompson, “[Japanese] 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 wine vinegar for a more subdued, sweeter tang.”
A Cult Leader
Kewpie is a thing – a big thing. My chef husband introduced me to Kewpie a few years ago. At that time in 2018, Kewpie Corp posted net sales of approximately 5.5 billion USD worldwide (573 billion JPY) with 118 million USD (12.3 billion JPY) earned in the US respectively. Giving Kewpie a 2.3% slice of a market valued at 5 billion USD.
Financials aside, Kewpie enjoys a certain level of cultural relevance. A simple Google search turns up pages of articles ranking Kewpie in the hierarchy of mayonnaises. More articles name drop influential chefs sharing how they incorporate Kewpie into dishes. Then there’s Mayo Terrace in Tokyo. A mayonnaise museum featuring a gigantic wooden “dome” shaped like a 450 gram Kewpie bottle complete with red cap and star tip opening that serves as its door.
By my count, that little red cap is one of three elements that give Kewpie what every good cult leader requires- an iconic look. The second is the bottle itself. This marriage of form and function resembles a stretched water balloon with a blunt heavy bottom. The plastic is surprisingly pliable- almost supple. Squeezing a mostly full bottle reminds me of those pinscreen toys from mall gadget stores like Brookstone. Finally, there’s the Kewpie itself. The winged putto with his cowlick, big eyes and open arms. 50% kawaii , 50% creepy and 100% memorable. Regrettably, the American Kewpie packaging is less than memorable. Sure, all the elements are there, but the remix has reduced the US image to that of a run-of-the-mill squeeze bottle.
(1) Design element of Kewpie bottle. Image from Kewpieshop.com( 2) Drawing of Kewpie by Rose O’Neill. Image from The State Historical Society of Missouri (3)Image of Japanese Kewpie from Kewpieshop.com (4) Image of American Kewpie bottle from Kewpieshop.com
I cannot attest to the taste difference between the original Kewpie and the American version. For that comparison I return to Kat Thompson’s article. She quotes food writer Kevin Pang who in part claimed, “…The difference between the two versions is roughly that between U.S. and Mexican Coke: Only obsessives…would spot out the subtle contrasts…”. I’m not sure if I would call myself an obsessive, but I usually prefer the original over the remix 90% of the time.