While doing fieldwork in Japan, I received a strange email message from a restaurant owner in a small fishing town that sits on the Southern coast of the island of Shikoku. The message explained that in an effort to revitalize the local economy, high school students had adapted the local specialty of seared tuna (katsuo tataki) into a burger. The burger was certainly not on the list of the dishes I was planning on investigating but I went along with it. When I arrived at the school, I was greeted with a full TV crew and a writer from the local newspaper. With the help of two high school student, we lined up a dozen locally baked buns flavored with dried bonito flakes, smeared tartar sauce with locally grown Japanese ginger bulb (myoga), carefully placed a leaf of lettuce and a slice of tomato and finally stacked slices of seared tuna which had been fished the same morning. As I prepared to bite in the burger, the cameraman, intent on pleasing his audience, focused on my reaction. I looked in the direction of the high school students their eyes full of hope, thought about the restaurant and the community of this small town. “Delicious,” I said with my mouth still full and, just like that, I had inadvertently endorsed a new regional dish.
In Japan, homemade miso soup has the most umami (photo by fto mizno)
The first time I heard about umami, I had started working in a run down sushi shop on top of Nob Hill in San Francisco. I learned how to steam Japanese rice and season it with the appropriate balance of sweetness and sourness. I cleaned and gutted small fish as I was not to be trusted yet to cut the more expensive fish. The head chef also took the time to explain how to make the staple miso soup. The most important part of the process was to dissolve the light brown miso paste in dashi Japanese fish stock. When I inquired to why I needed to add this mild tasting fish broth to the soup, the chef gave me one word: umami. Instead of trying to describe the elusive taste, he poured some of the soup he had just made in one cup. Then, he mixed a bit of miso paste with some hot water. I tried the soup with no broth first and then tried the umami rich miso diluted in broth. They both tasted exactly the same to me. Six years later, I sat at a sushi bar in Montreal on a cold winter night, a perfect night for a miso soup. However, the soup I was served was off. It had no umami. Over the course of a few years, I had discovered a new taste anchored in Japanese culture.
Do you you really want to disappoint this guy? (photo by Joe deSousa)
The self-proclaimed aficionado parked at the sushi bar adds more wasabi to his little soya sauce bowl turning the mixture into sickly green mud. He then drops a piece of sushi in the mixture. I see the delicate construction brake apart as the rice soaks up more and more of the sauce. The sushi chef, neck veins twitching, his expression frozen in an impossible display of self-control, as he watches his guest with a smile. Sushi and other imported Japanese foods have gained much popularity in recent years. Discovering new food horizons is more than just sampling the exotic, it is also respecting the culture around which it developed. The best strategy to do so is to quietly observe Japanese people around the table learning from your own mistakes. For the less fortunate, here are a few useful pointers in order to not offend a Japanese host.
Out the window, sparsely populated luscious green mountains and valleys streamed by giving the impression we had left Japan.
“Do you like meat,” asked Yasu my Japanese friend who was driving.
“I love meat. There isn’t much I can’t eat,” I boasted remembering my breakfast of smelly natto fermented soybeans.
We soon arrived at a small shop in the countryside. The shop, a Japanese owned Chinese restaurant, was a local institution serving the Kubokawa pork that was so famous in the region. We seated ourselves at a Japanese table so close to the ground I could barely fold my legs under it.
“Give us two full set menus and some of the raw as well,” ordered Yasu.
The waitress balanced a flat iron griddle on top of a portable gas burner. Although my mouth had been salivating at the idea of eating grilled pork chops, I froze when I saw the food coming out of the kitchen. The dark brown liver was sliced sashimi style and served over a salty citrus sauce. The honeycomb intestine was also served raw with a spicy sesame oil. On the grill, sizzled a sectioned heart, curly intestine and unidentifiable fat coated organ meat. Food culture shock is real. Here is what to expect when eating out in Japan.
Japanese cuisine first went global when sushi shops spread throughout the urban dining landscape. Today, ramen shops are rapidly taking over the restaurant scene of large cities across the world. The next big thing to come out of Japan is the izakaya. Izakaya is spelled 居酒屋 in Japanese which translates to sake shop where you can settle yourself. The first izakayas were nothing more than extensions to sake shop where people could sit down and drink the sake they had purchased. As drinking always involves some eating in Japan, these places soon became as renowned for their food rather than their drinks. Izakayas or aka chochin, as they are sometimes referred to by the red lantern that hang outside the entrance, are an ubiquitous part of Japanese culture that needs to be understood in its Japanese context.
Live octopus ready to be eaten (photo by Alice Cai)
The first time I ordered odori ebi, dancing shrimp, in a Japanese restaurant, I was not too sure what to expect. The order came as four pieces of sushi topped with prawn that whipped their tails like they were trying to swim away. This had not been the first time I had dealt with freshly caught seafood as people outside of Japan also enjoy live boiled lobster and freshly chucked oysters. However, Japanese cuisine takes it one step further when it serves sea urchins, octopus and sashimi fish so fresh they still move. In reality, this so-called live seafood is still moving only because it is is animated by reflexes. These dishes will disgust many foreign diners, yet, they are a real treat in Japan and are served only in the best restaurants. Why do people in Japan come to enjoy their seafood so fresh that it is still moves?
During its two hundred years of isolation, Japan pursued a policy that attempted to prevent foreign political and cultural ideas to penetrate the country. The goal was foremost to thwart the growing influence of the Catholic church by effectively cutting Japan off from the rest of the world. The law stated that Japanese leaving the country as well as foreigners entering Japan would be punished by death. This uncompromising edict did not stop the outside world from seeping into Japanese culture. As an island nation, Japan might at first glance appear to be a reclusive country with a culture very different from its immediate neighbor. However, the transmission of new cultural elements such as cuisine rarely respects national boundaries. In turn, these new crops or dishes were adapted to a new ecological and cultural environment. In the case of Japan, these transformations might not appear evident, as they became over time an integral part of the culinary culture. If we take a closer look at Japan’s cuisine, we will quickly realize that although these outside forces are far from obvious, they still manage to permeate the country’s culinary culture.