Should Japan Police Sushi? (ASIAN 258)
Updated: Feb 25
The question is a real one. It was something that the Japanese government actually considered only a few years ago.
In 2006, the Japanese government decided it had to act. The number of Japanese restaurants overseas had swelled, reaching in the tens of thousands. Some officials were thrilled (what a great opportunity, they thought, to exercise "soft" power). Others were alarmed.
On their travels abroad, Japanese officials discovered that the "Japanese" food often looked and tasted wrong. They investigated. Much to their horror, they discovered that there were few Japanese cooks in "Japanese restaurants" across the globe.
Then someone came up with a brilliant proposal: Why not certify “genuine” Japanese restaurants overseas?
The benefits were obvious. A certification system would help the consumer, who otherwise would not know better. Authentic Japanese food would then stand out against the rest. More importantly, the system would protect the national brand.
In case you're wondering, this was all for naught. The next year, the Japanese government abandoned the policy and disbanded its army of sushi police.
But the proposal to certify Japanese restaurants is still worth considering. At the very least, it offers some food for thought (yes, the pun is intended). More importantly, it raises questions about the meaning of authenticity (our last key word of the term).
So what is authentic Japanese food, you ask? Is it food that looks and tastes exactly as it does in Japan? Is it purely Japanese food, food devoid of foreign influence? Or perhaps just food made by Japanese chefs, for Japanese mouths?
The odds are good that you already love sushi. Perhaps you have popped into Totoro for a quick lunch, or gone on a date at the Slurping Turtle?
When I was a kid, things were different, however. Sushi was special. It was exotic enough that the world was divided between sushi lovers and sushi virgins. I would have to plead with my dad to go out for sushi. People my grandparents' generation refused to eat the stuff. No seaweed and raw fish for them. But that was thirty years ago. Nowadays, sushi is almost as common as the burrito. You can grab a box of it at Kroger or at the convenience store. CVS sells futomaki.
We Victors™ are not alone in our esteem for sushi. In 2017, there were more than 4,000 sushi joints in the US. Sushi, of course, is far more than an American fad. It's also popular in Europe and Latin America. A billion Chinese also have a craving for the stuff. This is the premise of the anxiety-ridden documentary for today (the full-length feature is on Canvas).
Sushi is washoku 和食, traditional, indigenous Japanese eating. It's important enough that UNESCO made it an Intangible Heritage in 2013.
Washoku can be tricky to put your finger on -- even though we have little trouble imagining a traditional Japanese meal. Right now, I bet you can see the raw slices of fish laid out on a bed of steamed rice, the bowl of miso, a serving of seaweed or spinach salad.
At least one prime minister has tried to capture the essence of traditional Japanese cooking -- on Youtube. He characterized washoku as a serving of rice and soup, plus three sides. Usually, one of those is fish.
Washoku may be most easily grasped through contrasts -- something facilitated by the Japanese language. Japanese distinguishes washoku from those foods with foreign origins.
But there’s a lot more. Picture cream stew and sweet Japanese curry. The latter, of course, represents a local Japanese adaptation of the British rendition of a South Asian dish. There’s also pasta with sprinklings of nori, fried chicken or karage, omuraisu (Japanese omelet), and the many faces of pizza. Mayo pizza, cheese and honey pizza, butter soy sauce clam pizza, pizza with marshmallows. Yes, marshmallows.
Washoku also stands in contrast to chuka 中華, or Chinese-styled foods. Chuka could be ramen, chahan (fried rice), gyoza, tantan men, and mapo tofu. A number of you have asked about the gyoza: that came to Japan from North China during World War II.
The tripartite division, of course, gets muddy upon closer inspection. Picture a bowl of miso soup with small cubes of tofu floating in the broth. The soy, of course, came to Japan from China during the Heian era (794-1185). In those days, people called it “Tang curds,” after the Tang dynasty (618-907).
Tempura is also washoku. So too is hambāgu. I don’t need to tell you where these came from. Go back a week or two.
Then, there’s the matter of sushi, the ultimate washoku experience. It’s easy to imagine that sushi is a timeless Japanese tradition. But it’s not very old. The modern raw fish and rice combination appeared sometime in the late seventeenth century – after tempura. What is more, sushi used to be a pungent fermented fish called narezushi. To make it, cooks buried the fish with rice in the ground for up to 3 years.
Guess where this practice of food preservation came from? Sushi has a distant cousin in Shunde, southeast China (here's the recipe).
The sushi police do have a point. Well, sort of.
If you have invested your life in making great sushi, it can be disconcerting to find it in CVS. As one Japanese minister, Matsuoka Toshikazu, put it, “What people need to understand is that real Japanese food is a highly developed art. It involves all the senses; it should be beautifully presented, use genuine ingredients and be made by a trained chef.”
What’s more, the sushi on this side of the Pacific diverges from what you find in Japan (at least thirty years ago). Just contemplate the California roll.
On the face of things, the avocado and cream cheese doesn’t look like traditional Japanese fare. Because it’s not. Its presence reveals the forces of local adaptation. Sushi chefs working in North America tweaked the recipe to fit with the local palate. Since older Americans have trouble eating raw fish, that had to go. Hence, the popularity of faux crab and cooked eel. But this was not the only change. American sushi became spicier, sweeter, and even healthier. In some places, brown rice replaces the sticky rice. The brown rice ain't delicious, but it is better for your glycemic load.
The US, in fact, is the home of many sushi inventions. There’s also Spider, Philadelphia, and Caterpillar. As one might expect, these foods work well with the American palate. They not only have loads of cream cheese and avocado, but also smoked salmon.
Americans are not alone in enjoying new kinds of sushi. The Dutch take their sushi with salted herring. Singaporeans demand curry. Mexicans add serrano peppers.
Some of these creations are the work of ethnic Japanese chefs. Take the man behind the California roll, Mr. Tojo. Don’t believe the name. The California roll did not originate from California. Tojo was a chef in Vancouver. He came up with the avocado, cream cheese, and faux crab combination because some of his customers had trouble stomaching raw fish. He soon noticed that the roll was especially popular with Californians.
The Japanese government has recognized Tojo for his efforts to promote Japanese cuisine abroad. In 2016, they made him a “cultural ambassador.”
Non-Japanese cooks, too, are part of the sushi landscape. But the Japanese government has not showered these chefs with praise. Matsuoka, in fact, denounced them in his statement. “What we are seeing now are restaurants that pretend to offer Japanese cooking, but are really Korean, Chinese, or Filipino.” This led him to conclude, “We must protect our food culture” -- by which he meant, “We must protect our food culture from those people.”
Sigh. My cousin, who lives in Boston, is one of those people.
Matsuoka’s remarks were insensitive -- at best. But they are still revealing. They tell us that he not only demanded that Japanese food taste the same everywhere, but also imposed a racial requirement. Real Japanese food can only be made by people with Japanese genes.
People didn’t care for Matsuoka’s remarks. The media called him out for it. Even I am offended.
Hurt feelings aside, the problem remains. What is authentic Japanese sushi?
Obviously, you can find chefs who only make their rolls with raw fish, old-fashioned ingredients, and rice. A few years back, I participated in a demo, sponsored by the Japanese consulate. The chef showed us how to make cucumber maki. She explained how she spent several years just perfecting the techniques for producing the sweet, vinegar rice, and getting the texture just right. The woman also showed us how to roll the sushi: which side to spread the rice and how much cucumber to add. Naturally, the demo was eye opening. The subtle flavoring offered a bold contrast to the stuff I could get down the street. Her sushi had no spicy mayo, deep-fried eel, or sweet sauce. Just meticulously prepared rice and a fresh cucumber.
But Japanese consumers eat more than cucumber maki or sashimi these days.
California rolls are also popular in Japan. There’s also a market for other examples of “authentic American sushi.” Some restaurants serve Spider, Philadelphia, Caterpillar, Spicy Tuna, and even Sexy. Yes, you heard me right. That’s a thing in Japan. There’s a restaurant called Inside Out Rolls (a reference to the fact that American sushi has rice on the outside and nori on the inside).
Then there are the local riffs on the riff. Picture the avocado shrimp, demi-mayo hambagu sushi, sweet and spicy seafood sauce, and corn sushi with Japanese mayo. All of these pay tribute to the global fascination with sushi and Japan’s many culinary influences.
As you might expect, corn sushi isn’t much like the stuff you get at CVS. For one thing, it often serves with mayo, and the mayo is different: creamier, eggier, and sweeter than the spread you buy in the states.
So what is authentic sushi?
See ya on YellowDig!
Sources: Rumi Sakamoto & Matthew Allen, "There's something fishy about that sushi: how Japan interprets the global sushi boom." Japan Forum (2011). http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rjfo20
Katarzyna Cwiertka and Yasuhara Miho, Branding Japanese Food: From Meibutsu to Washoku (Hawaii, 2020).
Ishige Naomichi. The History and Culture of Japanese Food. Taylor and Francis, 2001. Kindle Edition.
Chunghao Pio Kuo, "An Untold Story of Raw-Fish Cuisine: Aquatic Environments, Culinary Characteristics, and the Shifting Tastes in Ming–Qing Guangdong." Draft.
Rath, Eric. "Some Tasting Notes on Year-Old Sushi: Funazushi, Japan's Most Ancient and Potentially Its Most Up-to-Date Sushi." Gastronomica (2020) 20 (1): 34–41. Podcast Version.
---- Oishii: The History of Sushi (Reaktion Books, [Forthcoming, 2021).