Do you know Japanese Sushi?
It is Japanese food O-Mochi.
Can you eat Japanese Tempura?
This is Japanese Miso.
I can’t pinpoint, on my timeline, when exactly I first encountered Japanese food but I remember thinking: “Not bad.”
Now, twenty-something years later, nothing about that initial appraisal has changed. Japanese is…okay. It’s pretty good. It’s fine.
It’s Not Bad.
There are those who will go on and on, even those who have never lived in Japan (particularly those) about how immaculately conceived the Japanese gastronomic experience is. However, after 12 years in Tokyo and endless meals at every type of conceivable eatery the city has to offer, I’m still stuck at “Meh, not bad.”
Not to say I haven’t had some amazing food here. Not at all. But generally speaking, and speaking purely about Japanese cuisine, it applies.
Now, why is this? Is my palette so antiquated or, God forbid, American, that I simply cannot fathom the culinary delight which is Washoku? Perhaps. Perhaps my taste buds are too Euro-centric? I did after all spend my formative years split between America’s East coast and Western Europe. I clearly remember returning to America for the second year of high school and being appalled at what passed for breakfast. It was a horror show.
I’m not obsessed with the “Western diet”. On a day-to-day basis in my own life I eat very few processed foods. Fresh vegetables, meat and fish are all staples. I like GOOD food and although I realize this is very subjective, culturally something has to give. Is the Emperor wearing no clothes (Akihito, you minx!) and does the whole world worship Japanese food for no good reason? Or is there something more to it? In addition to this why do the Japanese feel compelled to worship their food, even Onigiri, a dish so simple it’s just some balled up rice with sea weed wrapped around it, as if it was the very physical manifestation of God?
“Can you eat Japanese Sushi?” She asked.
Well, we’re sitting in a Sushi restaurant and I just popped some Salmon in my mouth. You do the math and let me know what you come up with.
It might be a good idea to split Japanese food into two distinct classes and discuss them honestly.
Category One: Japanese Flag Ship Foods
Sushi, Tempura, Yakitori, Unagi…the list goes on. These are lauded and loved from Osaka to Oberammagau and back again. One never hears enough about the orgasmic experiences people, the world over, have while devouring these Japanese mainstays. What’s more is that I agree. Particularly with Sushi. My love affair with Sushi is long and runs deep. Many times I’ve found myself sitting at a Sushi bar, someplace in Tsukiji, while an obscenely fresh piece of Otoro seemingly melts on my tongue with a frigid beer to wash it down at six in the morning.
My observation though is as follows: Most Japanese people, day-to-day, just don’t eat any of these foods.
Last month, after having this discussion with a friend we both agreed to ask every Japanese national we met at work when the last time they had eaten sushi was. It was a busy Wednesday at work and I spoke with 28 people. 3 of them had eaten Sushi in the last week. My friend had similar results with 18 people polled and 2 having had Sushi within the last week.
Anecdotal yes, but instructive. The food that the world so reveres from Japan is all show food. It isn’t what the country gets by on at all.
Contrast this with countries like Italy, Germany, England and Thailand. Italians eat Carbonara and Pizza; it isn’t reserved for graduation ceremonies. The krauts are always drinking beer and eating sausage. What self-respecting Englishman doesn’t want to have a Cottage pie and a pint after work, and when I lived in Thailand, we all ate Pad Thai and other famous Thai dishes on the regular.
Logically the next question is “What do the Japanese actually eat?”
Category Two: Peasant food
“Ohayou! Can’t wait to eat! What’s for breakfast?”
When I imagine the scowling faces and the soul-broken dead eyes of the typical salary-man in the morning I totally get it: Waking up to a bowl of rice, some Natto, Kimchi, a fried egg and Miso Soup would make me want to jump in front of a train as well. I’ve had these dishes many, many times. I’ve had these dishes prepared and served in many different ways. The end result has been the same: Uh, No.
I know, at this very moment some of you Gaijin Heroes are swooping in to fight the good fight and inform me about how ignorant I am. Well, I would like to preemptively block your courageous assault with a scientific fact:
Natto smells like a sweaty dark butthole and tastes about the same. But you’re more likely to get a kiss after tossing that bad-boy than you are after choking down another pack of fermented broken dreams.
This is why the packs come with both soy sauce and mustard because nobody, especially not the people worshiping it, have any desire to woof down straight Natto in the A.M.
Lunch and a typical dinner don’t improve much at all. Rice, Miso soup, blandly grilled fish, pickles etc are all traditional Japanese fare which is commonly consumed. Add in the occasional “curry rice” which is depressing, and the standard conbini and bento shop take away and one is left with a quite solid excuse to aggressively take up alcoholism.
Which many do. I would love to see the definition of “Functional Alcoholic” in Japanese. It must be something like this:
I understand these foods are “healthy” for the most part, but why is that? In the end so much of Japan’s famous longevity boils down to simple portion control. The Japanese just don’t eat as much as Western people. Sushi lovers, you’re sitting at the counter. Now, look to your right and then to your left. How many plates of Sushi have the other patrons had? If you are in Japan, typically, 5 or 6. Now, how many plates have you had?
Sushi can have between 280 and 360 calories per plate. The rice has added sugar. The guy next to you has eaten 5 plates. You have had 15. Do the math, I dare you. You can get a 2 piece with a large sweet tea from Bojangles and that’s about half the calorie count you just put down with that healthy Sushi.
The Japanese can afford to have a few high calorie Sushi meals as well because their peasant meal plan of rice, pickles and bland soups will put them in a massive caloric deficit until they drink to the edge of death at the next company “nomikai“.
We have established that the image and the reality aren’t the same.
So finally I ask…
Why the deep and trembling worship of these simple and, some might say, boring foods?
I don’t know. I can’t figure it out. “Healthy!” Yeah, yeah. But that’s primarily down to portion control (which is eroding) and probiotics in the diet (also vanishing); Taco Bell, anyone?
I have no answers. Something cultural perhaps? Or the same reason everyone said foreign skis wouldn’t work on Japanese snow?
I’m not making this up: Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking I dare you, try it yourself.
I’ve been to many, many places and have never encountered anyone, any group of people, who so deeply revere what are essentially the day-to-day chow of the masses. And most of the places I have been had food I would consider, easily, to be far more enticing and often far healthier then what the Japanese insist is magical about some pickles and rice.
At this point I’ve lost my patience and instead of explaining that most Japanese food I encounter reminds me of something, both in taste and smell, that I might find in my Grandmother’s kitchen, just slimmier, I have opted to nod and give my stock answer.