Japanese Cuisine: Innovation and a Hidden Diversity
Amherst’s Japanese department has an annual winter Curry party at Tawa-sensei’s home along with a sushi party in the spring, which I always made sure to take advantage of. Besides that, my experiences with Japanese food before coming here were limited. NYC restaurants can be pretty expensive for one, but finding one that is actually authentic has its own challenges. Amherst and the Northampton have a couple of restaurants too but selections there can be few and oversimplified.
I wrote that I had a big appetite on my application’s housing questionnaire, fearing that portions would be too small. For some reason, I had this image that Japanese people were able to maintain their figures so well because they were eating way less than Americans. I was horribly wrong. During my first few days here I was eating way more than I really wanted to, and I wasn’t sure of how to communicate this without offending my host family. When I finally brought myself to break the news to my host mom, I made her day by explaining that I had written about having a big appetite after seeing how little samurai ate in the traditional movies. My servings were cut down but I still have to ask for less every now and then. Till this day, my host mom jokingly uses this story whenever she introduces me to someone.
A traditional Japanese meal will consist of a bowl of white rice, followed by miso soup, and tea. You then have fish or some sort of meat, different sorts of pickles, vegetables, and fruit. Things are generally not mixed though and the meal is characterized by its array of small plates, or compartments for bento boxes. There is an undoubtable reverence for the rice and one of the first things my host dad told me was that the Japanese way of eating it mandates that you empty out the bowl to the very last grain. The largest group of tourists here are from China and the most popular souvenir they take back with them are rice cookers.
My host parents are in their 60s and very proud of cooking traditionally as younger generations shift more towards what they consider westernized meals. For example, rice, miso soup, and fish are replaced by “western” counterparts of eggs, ham/bacon, and bread. I sometimes find myself craving a bowl of raisin bran (hey, it’s rich in fiber), but I am glad of actually taking the time to eat a full breakfast here. Although it’s delicious, it takes a certain set of skills (still working on them) to skin and eat an entire fish using chopsticks at 7am AND still catch your train on time.
I feel like I am eating way more, but my diet here is a lot healthier than what it was back home. The family eats organic foods and my host mom actually buys the rice from her sister’s farm. One thing that has surprised me though is that we drink so much less water and liquids in general, even during the hot summers. After weighing myself for the first time in three months, I was shocked to find I had lost 10 pounds.
Along with most other things in Japanese homes, there is a resounding mottainai philosophy for food (there’s even a Wikipedia for it). This stems from an awareness of the country’s limited resources which becomes evident in pricing for things such as fruit. You could be trying to connect with tradition by eating Japanese udon only to find out that the wheat it is made from was grown in the states. Japan gets so much of its resources from abroad, relying substantially more on the Middle East than we do for oil imports, and in exchange it exports things such as cars and the popular gaming consoles we grew up with.
Staple foods vary by location but include things such as okonomiyaki, takoyaki, ramen, and my favorite, sukiyaki. You can eat these meals at home but also find them at yatai’s, or food stands, whenever you find yourself at a fair or market. Foods also vary by season, and since it’s finally starting to warm up here (currently in the 50s and the plum blossoms are starting to bloom), we are starting to put away the nabe pots.
I am encountering several foods I’ve never eaten before, so I’ve pledged to give a dish at least 3 tries before giving up on it. This has worked out for the best as I’m now trying things that I never would have thought of eating. There is one thing that I just could not learn to love though and that is natto. Chiho and Kaho love the fermented beans and it’s supposed to be really good for you, but for me, it’s a no no zenzen dame!
A night out for dinner can bring you to a yakiniku tabehoudai, izakaya, kaitensushi or some of Japan’s own fast food chains such as Mo’s Burger, Matsuya, Saizeria, or First Kitchen. There are theme restaurants as well as cat cafes, maid cafes, and even owl cafes. You’ll also find American chains like Burger King, McDonalds or KFC. However you’ll always find a twist on things from abroad. Burger King here had the black burger promotion for a while, McDonalds just started selling a series of Hawaiian burgers, and the KFCs have statues of the kernel himself standing out front (which they even dress up as Santa Claus for the holidays!) There are things from the original American menus too but they taste slightly different, dare I say a little healthier.
You also notice that Japan’s efficiency also seeps into its food industry with jidouhanbaikis just about everywhere. In these vending machines you’ll find snacks, sodas, water, coffees, and milk teas. Some have colder partitions dispensing ice cream bars, and in the winter you can buy hot drinks from them as well. From some vending machines, you can actually watch behind a glass panel as it prepares your drink and then slides the panel open for you to grab it. There are machines that sell cigarettes, while others sell alcohol. I never imagined I would see bottles of wine being sold from a vending machine. Restaurants also have these machines so that you to pay for your meal at the door and just hand the staff the ticket stub that prints out.
You will find in Japan a sort of reinterpretation of foods from abroad. The bacon in the western style breakfast is not as crispy, the fried eggs a lot firmer. I was surprised to find that cheesecake was so fluffy, fuwafuwa. The katakana alphabet is used for foreign words, so they use it for Hamburger but there are two types: a hambaagu is sort of like a fancy patty but referred to as a Japanese steak while a hambaaga is a regular burger. Curry here is a trademark meal but it is nowhere near the level of spice that you usually associate with the word. Mayonnaise is used as a condiment that you put on salads, and it has a different taste because of the vinegar that they use to make it. One of my favorite treats is a toasted melon pan that is sliced in half and then stuffed with a slab of icecream. It melts all too quickly and tastes nothing like melon, but oh how delicious it is. You can also find these tasty chocolate filled fish shaped pastries called taiyaki at festivals and markets.
Japan is often considered a mono ethnic nation but it actually also has many outsiders who have for one reason or another found their way here. This creates opportunities to try cuisines from other countries with, of course, twists of their own to accommodate to Japanese pallets. So far I’ve visited Chinatown in Kobe, Koreatown in Osaka, and this past weekend I visited the Brazilian community in Nagoya. I’m not Brazilian, but I was able to find the rice and beans that I grew up with there and immediately felt at home.
The community also had immigrant Peruvians and as we spoke to each other in Spanish I caught myself “acting Japanese”. I had mixed feelings about this. On one hand I thought “Woah, I have been here for way too long!” but on the other hand I took it as a sign that I have been making an effort to integrate with my surroundings, even if subconsciously. I remember that in one conversation the person assumed I had immigrated for work just like them, and they asked me if I had any family here. I responded that I didn’t and they immediately took pity on me, imagining that I must be lonely settling down alone for an indefinite amount of time. This interaction helped me finally reason why my mom worries so much about me being here. She immigrated to the states in a similar fashion during the 1980s, and so she imagines that I may be going through some of the same hardships in a country even further away without any relatives. The trip to Nagoya was an opportunity to eat delicious food and learn about the nikkeijin community, but I also gained more of an awareness about the sort of home I grew up in, beyond any American identity.