Japanese Food: Beyond Sushi
One of the first things I learned when I moved out of Japan is that, for a shocking number of Westerners, the words “Japanese food” and “sushi” are synonyms.
This was something of a rude awakening to me because, well, sushi is nice and all, but to reduce Japan’s millenarian culinary tradition, its dozens of regional cuisines and seasonal variations, its inventive borrowing from Europe and China, its rich tradition of refined haute cuisine and its equally rich stock of “gourmet junk food”—to take all that and reduce it to bits of raw fish on balls of vinegar-scented rice—well, it’s a travesty!
These days, I think of sushi as a kind of invasive weed: an export that’s been too successful, to the point of crowding out all other forms of Japanese cooking abroad.
Part of this is regionalism. Sushi—especially the kind of raw-fish based nigiri sushi that’s taken the West by storm—is really a Tokyo specialty. In Japan, we even call it “Tokyo sushi.” But I’m not from Tokyo, I’m from the Kansai region (Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe) where nigiri sushi is just one specialty out of many — and not even one of ours!
So the sushi-mania in the West leaves me cold, because the upshot of all this uncontrolled sushi-eating is that a dazzling variety of sensational Japanese food is nearly invisible in the West.
Curry on Rice
Let’s start with our real National Dish: curry on rice. I can’t quite prove it, but I’d bet you anything that, in Japan, people eat curry on rice more often than sushi. Not Indian-style curry, mind you, but the mild, Japanese take on the dish, which reached our country at the end of the 19th century via the British. Today, sweet curry on rice is the quintessential Japanese comfort food…but you’ll struggle to find it in a Japanese restaurant menu abroad!
I once heard Westerners complaining that whenever their Japanese friends invite them to dinner, they get curry. Even these big fans of Japanese culture couldn’t quite mask their disappointment. Hearing them talk this way brought home the huge cultural chasm between us. In Japan, there’s nothing more normal, more “Japanese,” than cooking curry-on-rice for guests. Everyone loves it! It’s only Westerners who see curry-on-rice and don’t find it’s quite “Japanese enough.”
Or take noodles. Say “Japanese noodles” and most Westerners think of the horrible instant ramen you get at the supermarket. But real artisan ramen is something entirely different, a cult dish with legions of devotees. And beyond ramen, there’s a whole world of Japanese noodles to explore: from the beloved ice-cold somen noodles ubiquitous in summer, through buckwheat noodles (soba), to thick, wheat udon noodles, Japanese people take their noodles seriously. The type of noodle, the toppings and the soup all vary from region to region: each one has its favorites and its specialties. You could travel through Japan for a year and have a different kind of noodle dish every day—from exotic Korean-inspired cold Morioka reimen with watermelon and kimchi on top to down-home, train-station udon soup—but most Westerners never find out, because they’re too busy eating bits of second-class raw tuna on vinegar-scented rice day after day after day.
Or take natto, our pungent, sticky, fermented soybean specialty. Natto on white rice is the essence of a Japanese breakfast: a soothing and nutritious way to start the day. I could gladly survive eating only rice and natto for weeks if I had to, but you’ve probably never seen it. Why? Because you’re eating yet another California roll!
Though rare, these days it’s no longer impossible to find okonomiyaki in the West. These savory cabbage pancakes that you eat with thickened, sweet Worcestershire-style sauce are the polar opposite of fussy sushi or elegant Kaiseki-style Japanese high cuisine: junk food heaven. Tasty, inexpensive and filling, I think okonomiyaki is a much better candidate for Fast Food World Domination than Sushi—but can you find an Okonomiyaki bar on every other block of every big city in the West? Of course you can’t.
Then there’s tonkatsu: Japanese style Wiener schnitzel. Doesn’t sound very Japanese, does it? But it is! Served with sliced cabbage and its own style of thickened Worcestershire sauce, Tonkatsu is easily as popular in Japan as sushi—but an exotic specialty abroad. Why?!
A lot of Westerners seem to think the word “sushi” refers to raw fish, when actually it refers to the vinegary rice it’s served on. One unfortunate consequence of this confusion is that a lot of Westerners have this weird notion that Japanese people only eat fish if it’s raw! And so, our rich tradition of cooked fish is another casualty of the sushi monoculture. Simmered or braised, grilled or seared tataki-style, cooked fish is at the center of most Japanese meals: so why is it that when I cook fish for my Western friends they look at me with an air of disappointment, as if to say, “Pity, I thought you would make something Japanese”?!
From a Japanese point of view, the sushi boom in the West is a curse. In my neighborhood, there’s one mediocre fast food sushi joint after the next, all serving the same uncared-for nigiri and maki sushi made by underpaid, undertrained teenagers. Increasingly commodified and McDonaldified, sushi in the West is now the enemy of Japanese food at its best: rambunctiously diverse, strongly seasonal and always, always fussed over.
So here’s a challenge. This week, make it a point to go to a Japanese restaurant but don’t order any sushi. Try something new, try something different, try something exciting. Explore! Remember: only you can help fight the sushi monoculture!