The Washington Post recently reported that the government of Japan is going to start checking out Japanese restaurants all over the world and handing out seals of approvals for those deemed to be serving â€œauthenticâ€ Japanese cuisine.
This rather extreme step (it sounds like something the snooty French would do) is the result of a recent visit by the country’s Minister of Agriculture, Toshikatsu Matsuoka, who went to a Japanese restaurant in Colorado and saw that the menu also featured Korean barbecued beef.
No, I don’t know which one, but many Japanese restaurants these days are owned by Korean or Chinese, and fewer and fewer servers at these restaurants speak Japanese, including the ubiquitous sushi chefs. That’s not just a problem in the Rocky Mountain west â€“ sure, there are great Japanese restaurants in New York City, but when I lived in New Jersey for a few months this year, I had an awful meal at a Japanese restaurant that turned out to be owned by Chinese and a passable one at one owned by Singaporeans.
I’ve written about this topic before â€“ this year and back in 1998, and this one about all the bogus sushi that’s served everywhere. I’ve also written about my family’s longtime penchant for going to Benihana for special occasions, even though Benihana rarely has Japanese chefs any more.
As someone of Japanese heritage who’s proud of my roots and loves having been raised with Japanese food and culture in my life, I admit I’m judgmental about my favorite cuisine.
I don’t like it when rice isn’t cooked just right, and I hate the gloppy fake â€œteriyakiâ€ sauce that’s served in many Japanese eateries â€“ even ones owned by Japanese. I agree with my Hokkaido-born mom, who grimaces at the thought of a California roll â€“ avocado in sushi? Rice on the outside of a roll? Huh? I think green tea should be served free of charge, and although I don’t do it at home, I think getting those â€œoshiboriâ€ hot towels before dining is a really cool tradition.
Having said all that, though, I’m torn over this issue of â€œathenticityâ€ in Japanese restaurants.
Sure, I’m the first to gripe â€“ and blog â€“ about bad, phony food. But the Japanese government’s indignation over a restaurant that’s probably owned by Koreans and serves bulgogi alongside teriyaki smacks as much of racism as concern over cultural authenticity.
Besides, the Ag Minister need only look at his own country’s penchant for absorbing other culture’s cuisine and then twisting the food around to suit Japanese taste buds. If you ever visit Japan, be sure to try an octopus pizza, or spaghetti with pickled plum sauce (I had this dish at a terrific restaurant in San Francisco’s Japantown just a few weeks ago). I’m sure the government of Italy will be sending out dining cops to check out these weird variations. In fact, the zillions of ramen shops all over Japan are probably not very authentic unless they’re owned by Chinese (ramen is originally from China).
Also, in this more multicultural era, why shouldn’t we accept variations on traditional cuisines? They’re like food mashups, edible versions of digital collages that take data from disparate sources like old art and new art, and mix ’em all up.
There’s also a practical reason for “new” Japanese food. The fact is, it’s probably hard to find Japanese chefs and servers outside of Japan, so I guess the differences in preparation and presentation are probably inevitable.
In the end, I just stay away from Japanese restaurants that I don’t like, never order California rolls and when I go to the Benihana near our house, I ask for the only Japanese teppan-yaki chef there. She’s one of only two women in the U.S. who are trained Benihana chefs, but she’s also one of the few Japanese in that position.
So, I take my authenticity wherever I can get it. But I won’t be looking for any official stamp of approval from the Japanese government. I can figure out the good places from the bad on my own.