The Japanese love their food. And by that I mean their food. I suppose the same can be said of a lot of countries – that they think their own food is the world’s best – but the Japanese really do worship their own cuisine. On any given day there are several cookery shows on television where celebrities try various Japanese dishes and proceed to look like they are in the heights of sexual ecstasy as soon as the food touches their tongue. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of Japanese food is fantastic – I’m a big fan – but I can at least wait till I’ve swallowed before I need to announce my delight.
Most Japanese people I know are inordinately proud of their country’s food and are generally unshakeable in their conviction that it is the world’s best. They can even go into rapture about stuff with no taste, like tofu. With this national pride, however, comes one of Japan’s great paradoxes; that is, while people will go to great lengths to eulogize the merits and deliciousness of Japanese cuisine there are many who seem utterly shocked by the fact that I like it too. They think it’s lovely but expect me to hate it. I don’t know why that should be. I put it to a chap once. He had been talking about octopus and when I said I loved it, he showed great surprise. ‘Eeeeeeh!’ he said, ‘Can you really eat octopus?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I like it a lot. But you like it, too, don’t you?’
‘Of course,’ he said, ‘but I am Japanese.’
Naturally, people who are as proud of their cuisine as the Japanese get a bit upset when they see it being bastardized abroad. You know the sort of thing – Thai waiters serving chow mein in an ‘authentic’ Japanese restaurant in Idaho. In fact, it bothers them so much that some kind of body of inspectors was established whose job it was to go around the United States and issue certificates of authenticity to proper Japanese restaurants. They were nicknamed ‘the sushi police’. That was a few years back, but I recently read that a body also nicknamed ‘the sushi police’ were now giving certificates with regard to the freshness of fish used in sushi or sashimi and the conditions under which the food was prepared. Apparently, certain restaurants were preparing food in conditions which could cause hygiene problems. Something like that, anyway. I don’t know if this ‘sushi police’ is the same as the former ‘sushi police’ but it certainly seems a lot more sensible. If I eat in a restaurant I want to know that I am not risking food poisoning much more than I want to know the cultural ancestry of my chosen meal.
I don’t really think there is anything wrong with the first ‘sushi police’ either, but what I do find interesting is that very few of the Japanese getting upset about food being passed off as Japanese abroad seem remotely upset that food being passed of as French or Italian or whatever in this country have, in many cases, likewise been adapted to suit the local palate. Of course they have; it happens all over the world.
I’ve been to India and China and loved the food in both countries, but often it was markedly different from much of the Chinese food and Indian food that I’d eaten in the UK, or here in Japan for that matter. Maybe the Chinese and Indians get annoyed at what is served here and in Britain, but I don’t, and likewise maybe half the Americans dining in the faux-Japanese restaurants don’t actually care whether what they are eating is genuine Japanese cuisine or not. As long as it tastes good.
Last week I ate in a local Italian restaurant. I had a seafood pizza. Very nice it was, too, but it had dry nori sprinkled all over it, which I would guess isn’t traditionally Italian. None of the staff were Italian either, but I certainly didn’t feel the need to contact the Italian embassy and have them investigate immediately! You see, I pretty much knew what to expect as soon as I entered the restaurant, and I could easily have just turned round and walked out. I suspect that very few people walking into that restaurant would really be expecting a full-on authentic Italian experience.
I also wonder what the criteria would be for deeming the food ‘proper’. I say this because there is a rotary sushi chain called Kappazushi in Japan. As far as I am aware, it is Japanese owned and run and yet traveling around its conveyor belts are little plates with a sliver of hamburger meat atop vinegared sushi rice. Were the inspectors to come across that in America surely they would baulk at the crassness. ‘Yes,’ you might say, ‘but Kappazushi is just cheap and cheerful sushi. It’s not really aiming to be high-class dining.’ I agree, and you can pretty much tell that just by peering in. So, there you go. That’s maybe what you should do if you’re really seeking an authentic Japanese meal abroad; just have a wee look beforehand. Examine the menu, check out the decor, look at the prices, eye-up the staff. If you know what is authentic and really do care, you should be able to get a fair idea. If it’s just a cheap and pleasant meal you’re after, maybe it’s not that important.