Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | food & dining
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Considering that many -- if not most -- Asians are allergic to alcohol, it's amazing how much the culture of alcohol is part of society in Japan. I guess it's the same all over the world, but since I'm very allergic to alcohol, I'm just out of the loop when it comes to booze. You're probably familiar with the nightly practice of businessmen going out with their fellow "salarymen" after work and dining and drinking themselves into a stupor before trudging home to the families they hardly see. I can sip half a glass of beer and I turn bright red and splotchy, my eyes glow in the dark and I get dizzy as hell. It was hard to go out drinking in high school when my face gave myself away whenever I stumbled home and mom was up waiting for me. I guess if I were with co-workers who were all equally red, I wouldn't have been so self-conscious. Anyway, I recently came across what looked like a cool soft drink at Pacific Mercantile, the Japanese grocery store in downtown Denver, and I realized that Japan's alcohol culture starts earlier than I thought, and in insidious ways. I saw a display for bottles of a drink called "Kodomo no Nomimono," with a cute retro 1930s illustration of a child on the label, and the words, which translate as "Children's Drink" written out in hiragana, the simplified alphabet that's familiar to Japanese school kids. The bottles were on sale -- buy one, get one free -- so I bought one to try, and got one for my friend Jordan, the "Energy Examiner" for Examiner.com. He wrote about Kodomo no Nomimono, and found to his shock that the stuff is marketed as a beer for kids by its manufacturer, Sangaria, the makers of the popular lemonade-flavored pop, Ramune.

We just snuck out after a couple of hours of Denver's annual Asian Pacific American Heritage Month celebration, an event sponsored by Colorado's APA umbrella organization, Asian Roundtable. This free event has been going on for over a decade, and it's held every May in a community auditorium at the Well Fargo Bank building in downtown Denver. The Asian Roundtable represents two dozen APA organizations and for-profit companies as well as some individuals. Its member organizations sponsor the event, which runs from 11 am-4pm on a Saturday, kicking off with a buffet and then featuring several hours of performances. I was involved with this event when I was the president of the Mile-Hi chapter of the JACL, almost 10 years ago. Back then, I appreciated the event because it brought Asian communities together to learn from each other. I was surprised at the time that Asians knew so little about each other's cultures. One year the JACL brought some basic sushi for people to taste, and people kept asking me, "What is that?" (Sushi, or wasabi.) "What's the soy sauce for?" (The sushi.) "What does this taste like?" (Try it and see, lady.) Then it struck me -- Asians are so tribal and insulated from each other, that they don't know anything about the other Asian cultures. I admit, I didn't exactly grow up eating Filipino or Thai or Vietnamese food. But I've embraced all those cuisines, and more, every chance I get. Many Asians (especially older Asians) don't do this.

We had dinner last night at the venerable Denver Press Club with Jennifer 8.Lee and learned about Chinese food. The dinner was Chinese takeout, of course, from a DU-area eatery called "Hong Kong Cafe." It was pretty good. The dinner was organized by John Ensslin, president of the Colorado chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. The unfortunately small gathering was treated not only to good food and conversation, but a wonderful and entertaining presentation by Lee, a New York Times Metro reporter who has just published her first book, "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles," which is a peek at the cross-cultural pollination that Americans think of as Chinese food. First of all, change your idea of Chinese food. What most people in this country consider Chinese food is really Chinese American food. To underscore the point that Chinese food is more American than apple pie (as Lee asks, how often do Americans eat apple pie, and how often do they eat Chinese food?), the presentation begins with a startling fact: There are more Chinese restaurants in this country than McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's and Kentucky Fried Chicken combined.

Iroha ramen and gyoza I just had a great meal at our favorite restaurant in San Francisco's Japantown, Iroha. It's a noodle house that serves up a great deal: A lunch combination special of ramen topped with a couple slices of pork, and gyoza dumplings on the side. The restaurant is more crowded than usual, and filled with lots of non-Japanese who are here for the first time. That's because J-Town in general is hopping this weekend. It's the second weekend of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, or Sakura Matsuri. There are vendors with booths selling everything from junky trinkets to high-class jewelry, lots of food and stages of performers and martial arts demonstrations, all with a Japanese focus. But there's also a Japanese American undercurrent, with young people flocking to stores that specialize in anime and Jpop music. It's a cool mix of traditional and contemporary -- much like J-Town itself.

Hot stuff: Orochon Ramen lets you choose your level of heat. I opted for #3 and it was pretty damned warm.

When Erin and I were in LA last month, we ate dinner with her cousin Lisa Sasaki and her brother Eric and his wife Leah, at a very popular ramen shop, Daikokuya. The restaurant is one of several that specialize in Ramen on a block of First Street in Little Tokyo, just down the street from the Japanese American National Museum. The joint is hopping at all hours, with eager clusters of (mostly non-Japanese) people patiently waiting to enter, thanks to a couple of rave reviews including one from the restaurant critic from the LA Times, whose article is posted in the window. Luckily, we didn't have to wait too long to be seated. Lisa loves the combination specials: choose a ramen, and get a half-order of another entree, from tonkatsu pork cutlets and gyoza dumplings to fried rice. The fried rice was good, all right. Erin and I both thought the ramen itself (we ordered the chasyu ramen, topped with slices barbecued pork loin) was good but not awe-inspiring. The place was so popular and raucous, though, that it was simply a fun experience.

Erin and I went out to eat tonight at Thai Basil, a very popular restaurant in southeast Denver. We had eaten there a couple of weeks ago with friends and enjoyed the food, so we decided to give it a shot on our own. The food was fine once again -- we had chicken coconut soup for starters, and Thai curry lime beef and sesame tofu for entrees. But during the meal, it occurred to us that aside from one woman at a nearby table, we were the only Asians dining in the packed room. The servers were mostly Asian, but on the way in this time, I noted that the owner and much of the staff is Chinese, not Thai. These observations maybe are unimportant if the food is great, but I started wondering about the importance of authenticity in ethnic cuisine. First of all, does it matter what ethnicity the staff, owners and even maybe the chefs are, if they can make great Thai food, or Chinese, or Japanese or Korean? Shouldn't the end quality of the food be the measure of a restaurant's quality? Yes. And... I've had various ethnic cuisines served up by people not of the ethnicity and had the food fail the taste test. Even years ago in New York City, when I was in college, I was so desperate for Mexican food that I went into a Mexican restaurant in Greenwich Village, only to be served enchiladas with spaghetti sauce -- no lie -- poured over them. That's why that Pace Picante tagline works so well: "...from where? NEW YORK CITY?"

I've been drinking something that tastes like dirt. I've also been drinking something else that tastes like weeds. Both are supposed to be good for me. It's an Asian thing -- there's a cultural fascination in with potions and powders and pills outside of "Western" medicine and healthcare. I don't doubt that a lot of Eastern alternatives work, and not just acupuncture. Some of it is that foreign countries simply have different medicines. I grew up taking Japanese pills called "Ru-Ru" (more or less pronounced that way) because my mom used it for everything from headaches to colds and fevers and just plain old feeling icky. She still buys bottles of it when she goes back to Japan. The pharmacist at her hometown drugstore recognizes her everytime she returns to stock up on Ru-Ru and other Japanese drugs. Beyond pharmaceuticals, there are a lot of other health products marketed to Asians that might make non-Asians scratch their heads. Or just laugh. For instance, there's a popular tea called "Diet Tea" that shows up in Asian grocery stores. We've tried it, and it helps people "diet" by serving as a powerful laxative. You'll lose weight, all right. But it won't be from managing what you eat. Along these lines, I've been drinking up powders that were given to me: Aojiru and Ginseng Tea.

Glico caramels

In the U.S., snack food manufacturers in recent years have become creative, and come up with a variety of flavor combinations beyond the old barbecue-flavor potato chips or the nacho cheese flavored Doritos. Now you can get black pepper and olive oil Triscuits, or chili-lime flavored corn chips. But American palates probably aren't ready for some of the flavors that are available in Japan.