It’s What’s for Dinner

I need to rant a little about this.  To be clear about this, I LOVE JAPANESE FOOD.  But I get so tired of Japanese people talking about it.

A friend of mine passed on a link to an interesting, translated article written by a woman who had lived in the US and shared her advice for Japanese visiting America.  Its a great article, and I recommend it for laughs.  However, the only one I can say I agreed with completely was #8.  Otherwise, I felt most of them said more about Japanese people than they did about the US.  However it was #1 I had the most trouble with.

“American food is flat to the taste, indifferent in the subtle difference of taste. There is no such thing there as a little “secret ingredient.” Sugar, salt, pepper, oils, and routine spices are used for family meals. There is no such thing as purely U.S. cuisine, except the hamburger, which isn’t made at home so much. There is almost nothing special to eat based on the different seasons of the year. Basically, they like sweet, high fat, high calories things.”

Lets get past “American food is flat” which I think probably should have been translated as “lacks depth” because I think most people with tongues would agree American food has stronger use of flavor, herbs and spices.  The average working class Kenji does NOT have some magically refined pallette that allows him to taste the subtle umami of the yakitori he noms down in between puffs on his ever-lit cigarette.  Hence the immense popularity of more flavorful western dishes in Tokyo with average people.

I get the general assumptions this makes and it falls in line with a lot of stereotypes about America, many of which I even happily promote.  That America is the land of the deep-fried, mayo-covered cheeseburger pizza, but Japan is a land of refined tastes and culinary mastery.  My experience in Japan and the US found neither of these to really be based in reality.

Surveys of families in Japan show that year in and year out the most eaten food in the Japanese home is mild Japanese Curry, almost always made out of a pre-packaged curry roux. Other perennial favorites include nikujyaga (a simple meat and potato stew), spaghetti, heavily salted grilled fish and rice in one form or another, typically stir-fried, donburi, or as a rice ball.  I love all of these foods, but none of them really say culinary mastery to me.  The typical Japanese home cooked meal, like in any country, is a product of costs and necessity.

Food quality varies from family to family and from house to house more than it does nation to nation in my opinion.  I think a lot of the impressions we get about Japanese or American home cooking comes from TV or the experiences of people on home-stay.  But a lot of these experiences don’t really make for good generalizations.  Home-stay and TV families are not the “norm.”  In Japan, I soon tired of salarymen whose primary food source were grilled chicken wings, beer and ramen telling me how healthy Japanese food is.  They would often decry the influence of “American fast food” but somehow fail to mention Yoshinoya, Matsuya, Lotteria, Freshness Burger, Mos Burger, First Kitchen, Gyoza no Ohsho, Hotto Motto, Pepper Lunch, Sukiuya, convenience store food and others.  As though it were McDonalds that had single-handedly undermined the health of the nation.  Which, by the way, is a strange argument to make.  “If only we didn’t eat all that American food that we like we wouldn’t be eating so much junk.  Damn you American tasty food!”  Yeah, Haagen Dazs makes you fat by making ice cream too delicious.

A British friend of mine once pointed out that British food doesn’t suck.  British people rarely, if ever eat “British food” in restaurants though.  Rather, they eat food from their vast array of colonies.  From my time in London I can agree.  I had amazing food from every corner of the empire.  Indian, Chinese, Middle-Eastern, African food was authentic and abundant.  All of this eclectic and tasty variety was fantastic for a foodie like me.  So, it begs a question: which is more British?  Curry?  Or fish & chips?  I know which is the stereotype.  When Japanese people chant, “Ohhh… British food is terrible,” I ask if they tried Vindaloo or kebabs.

As Americans, we readily believe many stereotypes about Asian food.  Generally, when I need to buy Asian ingredients, they are most often found in health food stores or organic markets.  We seem to make a false connection that because Asians are typically thin Japanese food is healthy.  The first Yoshinoya I ever visited was in LA and served steamed vegetables.  In the American market they promoted themselves as a healthy alternative to capitalize on the myth of healthy Japanese cuisine, but Yoshinoya in Japan is far from a healthy alternative.  I think Japanese weight probably has to do more with a mix of social pressure, portion sizes and genetics.  Because trust me, they have plenty of home grown junk food.

The basis of almost all Japanese cooking is referred to as “SaShiSuSeSo” Sa (satoh=sugar), Shi (shio=salt), Su (su=vinegar), Se (shoyu=soy sauce) and So (miso=fermented soy bean paste).  But if we are being honest, soy sauce and miso are basically just salt.  In fact, if I had to describe Japanese food simply I’d say “salt” or “buy blood pressure medication.”  The author claims that American food lacks “a secret ingredient” but I assure her we also have salt.  Try finding a Japanese person who can differentiate between thyme and tarragon or a jalapeno and a habanero.

One of the dirty little secrets Japanese people don’t like getting out is that the vast majority of Japanese people can’t really tell the difference between less common sushi.  Typically, Japanese can’t even read the kanji names for the less common fish, so menus are typically in hiragana, their phonetic spelling.  Beyond choosing favorites like tuna, salmon or eel they’ll just leave it to the chef to serve whatever he decides.  Then again, most Japanese also can’t write the kanji for soy sauce.  Seriously, ask one to do it.  In fact, (as explained to me by a sushi chef) most people really just like soy sauce and wasabi.  That, and most people at (non-conveyor style) sushi counters in Japan are really there to drink and socialize.  Oh, and sushi is far less commonly eaten than, say, ramen, or even hamburgers in Japan.

But in America, sushi has an elevated image it doesn’t really deserve.  A big misconception comes out of the cache of exoticism. Japanese people tend to feel that because they had spaghetti they know everything about Italian food.  Or that because they went to Disneyland they visited America.  To their credit they are a curious people with an eagerness to try new things, but they don’t really try to understand beyond the surface.  I conducted an informal survey over thirteen years.  Whenever a Japanese person would tell me they liked “Italian food” I’d ask them to name a noodle other than spaghetti.  Not a single person could.  Yeah, I guess I’m kind of a dick.

Americans tend to assign a certain positive status to things that are “exotic.”  I noticed a Chinese restaurant in my hometown had switched to Chinese-Japanese cuisine and added a sushi bar.  I asked the Chinese owner why and he responded bluntly, “I can charge more for Japanese food.”  Basically we pay a surcharge for the mystique of it.  This is true for other cuisines as well.  We will pay enormous amounts for French cuisine but not for Mexican.  Though, at the end of the meal, which would the average person rather eat every day, regardless of cost?

As a big foodie myself another irksome habit of the Japanese is to forget where their ingredients come from.  Ingredients are the most important part of cuisine.  Japan cannot sustain itself with domestic food production.  Japanese food is largely made up of Atlantic and Mediterranean fish, Russian and Alaskan seafood, American and Australian beef and so on.  If you ever meet a person from Shikoku, they will undoubtedly mention the “famous” sanuki-udon, which, basically, is exactly the same as every other udon noodle soup.  One of the things they seem to forget about this mystical wheat noodle is that virtually all of the wheat used to make it comes from Russia, Australia and the US.  Since udon is made from two ingredients, I suppose what makes it special is their tap water.

Lastly, I have to disagree with the authors comment that “There is almost nothing special to eat based on the different seasons of the year.”  Well, actually I don’t disagree with it.  Rather, it just doesn’t matter to a nation as geographically diverse as the US.  Wow, four seasons.  Well, we have six time zones.  Japan is a geographically tiny nation, yet they actually dedicate TV programs to discussing how different the rice balls are in one prefecture compared to another. Oh my goodness!  What variety!  Anyone who lives in Japan will soon grow tired of the meme “In Japan, we have four seasons.”  Slow clap.  I personally love the fact that Japan has four seasons, but this is not a talking point.  Only the moon doesn’t.

What America does have is vast regional differences.  Differences that remain largely unknown to most Japanese visitors who typically only eat at known fast food places, their hotels or at Disneyland.  Soul food, Cajun, New England, Tex Mex, Hawaiian and other unique local culinary traditions thrive across the States.  When she claims there is no unique American foods (besides the hamburger), I have to wonder: where is she eating?  Certainly not where the locals do.

I saw an interesting interview with one of the original Iron Chefs.  He made an interesting point that Japanese cuisine is in a bit of a culinary coma. Essentially, he noted that when Japanese people go out to spend a lot on a fancy dinner, they will invariably spend it on VERY traditional meals.  There is no market for the culinary avaunt guard.  In large international cities across the world, foodies are more adventurous with their food budget.  These more adventuresome eaters have supported new, exciting trends like molecular gastronomy.  Japan has fads like “tomato ramen” or “chicken gyoza,” but purely as brief marketing ploys.  Fresh, new ideas can’t survive in the high end market.  As a result, the talented and forward thinking Japanese chefs leave to set up shop in places like NYC, where diners are willing to try new takes on the tired SaShiSuSeSo combinations.

I’m not trying to argue that Americans don’t eat crap.  We do!  In large quantities.  In the modern industrialized world most busy people on a budget do.  Americans more than any other country tend to embrace this fact and own it.  Hell yeah, I eat processed cheese.  And no, I do not want to see how that sausage is made… because it is tasty and I don’t want to know what the “secret ingredient” is.

What do you think?  If American food is “flat to the taste” why do people across the globe love to eat burgers and fried chicken?