Food in Japan is a curious beast. It is at times a gloriously wonderful thing, beautifully, even artfully constructed from an array of ingredients while remaining remarkably simple. At other times it’s a cup noodle. But at least the Japanese have a clear idea of what Japanese cuisine is. From snack to fine dining there runs a thread that identifies the creation as Japanese through and through.
But that’s a lie, if I’m honest. Generally it is far easier to identify something as being part of Japanese cuisine than to do the same with British food. It’s there in British food, I just think that it has become much more internationalized as immigration and empire has completely altered the make up of British cuisine. Japan, a considerably more homogenous nation than the UK perhaps has a more singular culinary identity, but it is by no means Japanese to the bone.
Japanese cuisine, like every other nation in the world is open to the effects of globalization. Their attempt at an Italian style pizza can be found in every supermarket and many restaurants. In most cases it doesn’t compare to the original, or in my mind the American variant but they love it nonetheless. I used to work in an Italian restaurant, scrubbing baked on lasagna off of pans, pizza dough from plastic trays and dodging flying frying pans flung haphazardly towards the sink with a trajectory that were I not quick on my feet would have taken them straight through the back of my head. Health and safety, which is to say, my health and safety were not always cared for, but one thing they made sure was right was the pizza oven; four hundred degrees plus, the required temperature for a true Italian pizza. Here in Japan, the oven sits at 220 degrees. It’s a somewhat soggier creation.
I recently discovered from an article by Paul Greenburg, that even tuna of all things is not in the least bit traditional fare in Japan. The fat tooth required to crave and devour such a fatty, muscular variety of fish flesh was acquired with the introduction of beef into the Japanese diet only some fifty or so years ago. So quickly have they cultivated this taste that the Bluefin Tuna is all but buggered, avoiding extinction wise. As such, even something as Japanese as sushi and sashimi is not spared from the whim and caprice of the global market place. Topping that rectangle of rice with a wedge of tuna flesh simply wouldn’t have occurred to the Japanese a hundred years ago, it would have been too heavy a dish. Now in Kappa Sushi they put a hamburger on top along with a healthy dollop of mayonnaise.
Then there is ramen. The slurpy noodle. An incredibly popular dish in Japan that finds its origins in China. Ramen joints are a late night thing for me. Steaming bowls of noodles, meat, a few bits of veg and half an egg floating in a brothy mix while delicious at the right time (approximately just under one too many beers into a night out) hold slightly less appeal to me come the sober light of day. Though I’ll admit that this is in part a weather thing. In the stifling humidity of the Japanese summer a heavy dish like ramen doesn’t appeal all that much. But come winter, being huddled over the bowl will take on a whole new dimension of culinary pleasure. There is an additional benefit to this too. While at times I feel self conscious in Japan eating something as delicate as sushi while simultaneously trying to shove it in my mouth in one mouthful as the Japanese do, slurping noodles, face barely above the bowl while sat at a counter is about as relaxed and informal as Japan gets. It’s a welcome break.
I’ve had some weird and wonderful eating experiences in Japan. I’ve eaten intestines hot off the electrical griddle at a house warming party in Shizuoka city, Hiroshima style Okonomiyaki (see Hiroshima post for description of the wonderful dish) off of the teppan in a restaurant that was little more than an old ladies living room and shabu shabu (cooking thinly sliced meat and vegetable in a boiling pan of water then dipping them in sauce) at a friend’s dining room table while sipping sake with her father.
One event that tends to come to mind though is the time I ate dinner at a small izakaya (bar/restaurant) in Shibuya, Tokyo. Having already eaten my friend and I tried to turn down the chef’s initial effort but to no avail. It was delicious, it was beautiful and beyond it being green and containing some tuna I couldn’t tell you what it was. I tried to tell the man I was full when the second dish arrived. I’m glad he didn’t believe me because it was tataki, slightly seared slices of tuna, and it is incredible. My mouth waters at the very thought of it. Finally he asked me whether I like tako (octopus). I nodded. This was a mistake. He reached into a blue plastic bag behind the counter and proceeded to pull out a live baby octopus that immediately wrapped its tentacles around his arm. Frantically I told him not to start cutting and blow torching the poor thing up in front of me. Not that I have a problem with eating meat in any way, I just don’t see why an animal should die when someone isn’t going to eat it. Fortunately, the chef put the poor little blighter back in his blue bag and bucket, slowly pulling the little suckers from his arm.
I had a slice of him later. Not bad. A little chewy if you must know.