Friday, February 1, 2008

Authentic Absurdity

by Devin Stewart
link here

Making the world safe for Japanese food?

I love Japanese food—it is one of the great exports of Japan. I am fortunate to live across the street from a restaurant that serves meals that closely resemble those eaten in Japan during lunchtime. As part of their teishoku (set meal) menu, you can even get chicken namban, a fried chicken dish that originates from Kyushu and is topped with tartar sauce. Tartar sauce, of course, is an egg-mayo combination that comes from the Russian Tartars… no wait actually, some claim it was invented by the French. It is also believed that, like Castella, chicken namban came to Japan through Portuguese sailors whose boat accidentally reached Japan in 1542. Which brings me to my point:

What is “authentic cuisine”?

To my dismay, an organization under the auspices of the Japanese agriculture ministry is starting to travel the world, looking for restaurants serving authentic Japanese food and rewarding them with seals that display chopsticks with a cherry blossoms and a rising sun in the background. Public relations alert! One of the criterion for authentication is that rice grown in Japan be used. The use of California rice makes sushi in the United States more affordable and environmentally friendly. (My local restaurant, which uses California rice, said it was not interested in certification.) Never mind the implied trade protectionism here, the whole argument is absurd.

Another criterion is that Japanese soy sauce is used rather than Chinese soy sauce, a sauce that originated in China. (The head of the nonprofit behind these efforts Yuzaburo Mogi is also the CEO of Kikkoman, Japan's top soy sauce maker.) I wonder if Japanese mayonnaise is required for chicken namban… after all mayo is thought to be from Spain. The real absurdity of this authentication drive is that it is logically deficient. How far back do you go in history to determine the origin of a food? Is chicken namban Japanese or Portuguese or Spanish? Frankly, it is hard to think of a culture that doesn't have some kind of fried chicken dish.

How about sushi? In an interview with Policy Innovations, Sasha Issenburg says the use of tuna was partly inspired by American steaks and traces it back to a flight from Prince Edwards Island:

I trace the birth of modern sushi to the day in the summer of 1972 when Japan Air Lines carried four Canadian bluefin to Tokyo's Tsukiji market, the first time Atlantic fish had arrived in Japan by air. In a sense, contemporary sushi culture was born as much on the shores of Prince Edward Island as in any Japanese restaurant.
Iseenburg also says that the California roll, snootily dismissed as a “vile imitation ” by the AFP, has been around about as long as the tuna roll. This AFP paragraph is particularly controversial, implying that Japan doesn’t want to be associated with trends coming from its neighbor across the East Sea:

Japanese officials and tourists have voiced growing alarm at what they see as vile imitations of their cuisine overseas, fearing that Japanese food will go the way of Chinese cuisine in North America and Europe.
Growing alarm?

Meanwhile, pubs (izakaya) in Japan are serving innovative dishes that mix various cuisines, riffing off of traditional Japanese meals. I don’t think anyone is alarmed by this creativity. In New York City, Momofuku, a restaurant with a Japanese sounding name, serves ramen, another dish with origins in China, and mixes Korean, Chinese, and Japanese influences to create its noodle dishes and its signature Berkshire pork steamed buns. The buns are filled with boiled pork, called kakuni in Japan, popular throughout Asia. There is no alarm. Instead, lines to get into this restaurant stretch outside the door.

Writer Bill Bryson shows in his book Made in America that many of the dishes we believe are from Europe, such as spaghetti and meatballs, hamburgers, and hot dogs, were likely invented in the United States. Can you imagine an American group traveling the world certifying authentic hamburgers with a seal perhaps depicting an American eagle clutching a fork and knife?

Aside from its absurdity, the real problem is that this effort is part of a provincial mentality that will push Japan to become a “forgotten power,” as it was put recently by Japanese participants at the World Economic Forum. Japan should be expanding and globalizing, not shrinking, regulating, and retrenching. Yet, openness is still a taboo subject in Japan. The Forum website captures it succinctly as it summarizes some of the possible policy responses to Japan’s shrinking population crisis:

Several remedies to Japan’s population decline are under discussion. First, the government can provide incentives for families to have more children, perhaps through tax benefits or via the provision of day-care facilities, which would enable women to remain in the workforce. Second, the gap can be partially filled by expanding the workforce to include older workers and women. This will require businesses to encourage a more flexible and open working environment. Third, Japan could open itself to large-scale immigration. However, this option requires a serious debate within Japanese society, which so far has been avoided.

(Photo Sushi Lunch by Harris Graber.)

Notice the avocado.

1 comment:

Aramis said...

Phenomenal article. Someone should post the criteria on some of the other heavy certifications out there. It would be great to compare.

E.g. Italy's DOP, France's Relais and Chateaux, etc.