Hello Blog. Fascinating article (thanks Ryan) on how Japan is instituting “quality control” in Japanese restaurants abroad–by certifying them as “real” and “pure Japanese”. Sort of like the beauty contests in the Japanese community in Hawaii I read about a decade ago open only to people with “pure Japanese blood”…?
Anyway, I know Japan is a nation of foodies, but fighting against overseas restaurants tendency towards “fusion food”? Especially since, as the article notes, so much of Japanese food is from overseas, anyway? Tenpura, castella, fried chicken (“zangi” where I come from), even ramen! And what if J restaurants innovate, and want to offer something from another country on the menu (such a Chinese or a Vietnamese dish)? Will it have to be offered in J restaurants first in Japan before it can be offered in J restaurants overseas as “authentic Japanese cuisine”? Silly, silly, silly.
This culinary Balkanization seems to be yet another way to give some retired OBs some work after retirement–what better way than for them to take money from either the restaurants or the J taxpayer than by offering “certifications”? Anyway, enjoy the article. Food for thought. Debito
Putting the bite on fake sushi and other insults
Japan plans to scrutinize restaurant offerings abroad
By Anthony Faiola, Washington Post. Courtesy of MSNBC
Updated: 5:18 a.m. ET Nov. 24, 2006
TOKYO – On a recent business trip to Colorado, Japan’s agriculture minister popped into an inviting Japanese restaurant with a hankering for a taste of back home. What Toshikatsu Matsuoka found instead was something he considered a high culinary crime — sushi served on the same menu as Korean-style barbecued beef.
“Such a thing is unthinkable,” he said. “Call it what you will, but it is not a Japanese restaurant.”
A fast-growing list of gastronomic indignities — from sham sake in Paris to shoddy sashimi in Bangkok — has prompted Japanese authorities to launch a counterattack in defense of this nation’s celebrated food culture. With restaurants around the globe describing themselves as Japanese while actually serving food that is Asian fusion, or just plain bad, the government here announced a plan this month to offer official seals of approval to overseas eateries deemed to be “pure Japanese.”
Some observers here have suggested that the government’s new push for food purity overseas is yet another expression of resurgent Japanese nationalism. But the mentality in Japan also echoes a similar movement by several nations — including Italy and Thailand — now offering guidelines and reward programs to restaurants abroad to regain a measure of control over their increasingly internationalized cuisines.
So beware, America, home of the California roll. The Sushi Police are on their way.
A trial run of sorts was launched this summer in France, where secret inspectors selected by a panel of food specialists were dispatched to 80 restaurants in Paris that claimed to serve Japanese cuisine. Some establishments invited the scrutiny, while others were targeted with surprise checks. About one-third fell short of standards — making them ineligible to display an official seal emblazoned with cherry blossoms in their windows or to be listed on a government-sponsored Web site of Japanese restaurants in Paris.
‘A highly developed art’
Matsuoka, who took over Japan’s top agricultural job in September, is the mastermind of the new “Japanese restaurant authentication plan.” He said it does not always take a culinary sleuth to spot an impostor. “Sometimes you can tell just by looking at their signs that these places are phony,” he said.
“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,” he continued. “What we are seeing now are restaurants that pretend to offer Japanese cooking but are really Korean, Chinese or Filipino. We must protect our food culture.”
In recent years, few culinary traditions have witnessed the kind of global boom, and distortion, of Japanese food.
In the United States alone, the number of restaurants claiming to serve Japanese food soared to 9,000 in 2005, or double the number a decade ago, according to Japanese government statistics. The government projects that the number of Japanese restaurants worldwide will leap to 48,000 by 2009, more than double the current level.
Some have gone all-out to ensure authenticity. Masa in New York City imports its fish from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market while Umu in London regularly flies in the soft water of Kyoto, Japan’s old capital, to make its bonito fish broths. But they are largely exceptions in a world where the Japanese fear their food is being lost in translation.
In the United States, the proliferation of counterfeit Japanese foods now includes seaweed rolls stuffed with smoked salmon and cream cheese. In Canada, Vera’s Burger Shack in Vancouver is offering tempura-battered onion rings. As the recent test in Paris showed, even such gastronomic bastions as France can be guilty of sushi sacrilege.
“You will find restaurants here that serve salmon sushi with a little yakitori [charcoaled chicken] on the side and call themselves Japanese,” said Tsuyoshi Nakai, the Paris head of JETRO, Japan’s overseas trade promotion arm. “Then there are the ones serving what they claim is Japanese sake, but of course, it isn’t. What is it? I don’t know. But it smells, and tastes, very strange.”
High demand for real Japanese chefs
With the demand for real Japanese chefs far greater than the global supply in a nation with a shrinking population and few modern-day emigrants, many foreign owners of Japanese restaurants have turned to cooks from other Asian countries to add a faux touch of authenticity to their establishments. Pan-Asian restaurants have also begun adding more healthful and light Japanese dishes to their menus to cater to new tastes, some of them going as far as changing their names to the inevitable “Mt. Fuji” or “Sakura” to lure broader clienteles.
That has infuriated Japanese sushi chefs overseas, leading some — including those who formed the D.C. Sushi Society in the 1990s — to unite into advocacy groups aimed at protecting an elaborate form of cooking that is tradition-bound and highly hierarchical.
Officials here emphasize that it is not the race of the cooks they are concerned about, but the fact that such chefs are rarely properly trained and know little about the culture behind the food.
In Japanese haute cuisine, for example, the aesthetics of a meal — from elegant ceramic serving bowls to suitable flower arrangements — are considered as important as the food itself. Quality quashes quantity; a single mouthful of otoro — fatty tuna sashimi sliced just right — can sell for $20 in Tokyo sushi houses. Japan’s famously elaborate kaiseki ryori can take days to prepare and must be presented in small courses on plates and in color combinations that delight and amuse.
Most importantly, such meals must be prepared by highly specialized chefs — some of whom apprentice for years before they are permitted to cook for paying customers.
Makoto Fukue, the head of the Tokyo Sushi Academy who trains about 75 Japanese chefs-for-export a year, insisted that the inexperience of some foreign sushi chefs may be driving customers away from more adventurous Japanese fare.
“Many Americans do not like the taste of conger eel sushi, but that is because the chefs are not preparing it right — and so it tastes fishy and has an odor,” he said. “If you had a trained chef preparing those same foods, you would find more openness to experiment with the same foods we eat in Japan.”
But some here have expressed caution about the launch of the government approval system, arguing that Japan is a country also notorious for adapting foreign foods to local tastes. Indeed, that rare talent gave birth to Japanese seafood and mayonnaise pizza.
In addition, many so-called Japanese foods have foreign influences or roots. Batter-coated and fried food known as tempura, for instance, was introduced to the Japanese by Portuguese missionaries during the 16th century.
“The question is, what can we really call ‘Japanese food’?” said Masuhiro Yamamoto, the Tokyo-based food guru. “Here in Japan, we believe that tonkatsu [fried pork cutlet] is essentially Japanese, but try and tell the French that isn’t porc paner.”
The government has appointed an advisory board of food luminaries and intellectuals to develop a workable method for the project ahead of its full launch in April. Matsuoka said the most likely scenario would be the creation of government-sanctioned food commissions in major countries to evaluate a restaurant’s “Japanese-ness” based on authentic ingredients, chef training, aesthetics and other criteria.
Such a method might also coincidentally increase Japanese food exports, given that restaurants using Japanese products are likely to score some brownie points.
“Of course using Japanese materials would be preferable,” Matsuoka said. “But our real purpose is to set benchmarks for how Japanese food is made overseas. We take our food very seriously.”
COMMENT FROM CYBERSPACE:
I think they should check the credentials of Japanese who go to the US, claim to be sushi masters and open their own shops–been to a few in Boston. Ironically, the best sushi master in Metro-West is a Chinese man who actually studied sushi for 8 years in Tokyo.
I wish I had the time to inspect the “American” restaurants here. Mos Burger and Mr. Bagu would be first on my list….CHAD
3 comments on “Wash Post/MSNBC on GOJ moves against fake J food abroad (with update)”
COMMENT FROM CYBERSPACE:
I’m inclined to think that providing some kind of official certification may be a good thing (like label protection).
When visiting the US when our kids were small we had the experience of going to a “Japanese” restaurant in Seattle. The kids were REALLY looking forward to having miso soup, and Japanese fare after being “bored” with steak, hamburger, and the run of the American cuisine for a week or so.
Although the food on the menu had mostly Japanese names, not ONE item tasted Japanese. It was a whole different set of spices. So we inquired of the waitress (who did not speak
Japanese, and spoke only marginal English). She managed to convey that she was Vietnamese, but she and her husband had tried opening a Vietnamese restaurant and nobody came. They were having better luck serving essentially the same food and calling it Japanese. Grrrr!
On the flip side we once were taken in by a “Mexican Restaurant” in Nagoya who served “Chef Boyardee” on Toast and called it a Tostada. Yuck!!! Keep up the good work.
COMMENT FROM DEBITO
I have no qualms whatsoever about maintaining quality control in cuisine!
I have many qualms about using nationalism as a means for quality control! Thanks for commenting! Debito
Debito says: I have no qualms whatsoever about maintaining quality control in cuisine! I have many qualms about using nationalism as a means for quality control!
Have to disagree with you on this one. Maintaining “quality control” in what’s served in a restaurant, beyond ensuring it’s safe to eat, should not be any government’s job, no matter what the agenda.
In the film “Pearl Harbor,” after a scene at the Defense Department headquarters in Washington, we get a corresponding scene in Japan: politicians conferring on a wave-battered coast (no buildings invented in Japan yet, apparently) while sumo wrestlers bang taiko drums in the background. Now, should there have been a government-imposed screening process in place to inform viewers beforehand that the movie was not an accurate depiction of Japanese society?
The only thing wrong with this analogy is that “Pearl Harbor” was for many reasons a very crappy movie, while there is nothing inherently crappy about sushi with cream cheese in it. It’s called fusion, and every country does it. There’s no reason to believe that every American who goes to a Japanese restaurant is hell-bent on eating the exact same stuff people eat in Japan. For those who are, the information they need is often but a mouse-click away, imparted by an independent food critic rather than an amakudari bureaucrat with interests to protect. The government’s job should be ONLY to make sure that what we eat doesn’t make us sick.
–THANKS FOR YOUR COMMENT (BOY, THIS IS A NEW RESPONSE TO AN OLD POST!). NOT QUITE SURE HOW WHAT I SAID WAS IN OPPOSITION TO ANYTHING YOU ARGUE ABOVE… DEBITO
One other thing: Like the anonymous poster above, I went to a Japanese restaurant when I was home recently. It was run entirely by Chinese people, who didn’t speak any Japanese (unlike Anonymous I don’t really see why that’s relevant), and yet everything tasted just the way it does in Japan, with one exception: the beer. I ordered an Asahi Super Dry and got something that didn’t taste like one. When I read the fine print on the can I learned that it was actually brewed in Canada by Molson’s, under license from Asahi. Any bets on who’s going to feel the wrath of Japanese officialdom–Chinese people trying to make an honest living at Japanese cuisine, or a Japanese corporation profiting from the marketing of phony Japanese beer?
QUITE. WHICH IS WHY I THINK THIS WHOLE “POLICING” OF FOOD IN TERMS OF “AUTHENTICITY” (AS OPPOSED TO “QUALITY”, WHICH I AGREE WITH YOU IS A MATTER OF SAFETY) IS BOGUS. IT’S A GREAT WAY FOR J O.B. BUREAUCRATS TO CREATE MORE JOBS FOR THEMSELVES (FOR WHO ELSE WILL BE ALLOWED TO “CERTIFY” JAPANESE RESTAURANTS BUT JAPANESE PEOPLE; MOVE OVER MICHELIN GUIDES–YOU’RE TOO FOREIGN). IT’S ALSO ANOTHER WAY FOR THE “REAL” JAPANESE RESTAURANTS TO WRATCHET UP THEIR PRICES AS “AUTHENTIC”–AFTER THEY PAY A FEE NO DOUBT FOR THE HONOR OF GOVERNMENT CERTIFICATION (A LA JAS AND JIS CERTIFICATIONS FOR RAW MATERIALS). DO I SMELL MONEY SPINNER ALONG WITH THE SPICES?
NATURALLY, I AM A FAN OF FUSION. IT’S PART OF MY JOB DESCRIPTION, ONLY FROM A SOCIETAL PERSPECTIVE. DEBITO