filed under Japanese Food

Japanese Food: Beyond Sushi

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Tonkatsu photo by jetalone

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.”

Noodles

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.

Natto

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!

Okonomiyaki

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.

Tonkatsu

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?!

Fish—Not Sushi

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!

  • Tim

    I am always excited when I find a place with Okonomiyaki. The one time I saw a friend eating natto, they ordered it on accident and it looked crazy. I should’ve tried it. :(

  • Ingvar

    I can’t share the excitement about Natto, but the okonomiyaki make me happy, also traditional ramen and soba. I have yet to find a traditional Japanese breakfast on a menu- although the best place to look would be Vancouver. There are lots of homestyle japanese places up there, some in Seattle and Portland also. Let Kanako know that the west coast knows there’s more to japanese cuisine than sushi and teriyaki anyway.

  • Nikki J

    The okonomyaki at Otafuku in New York is delicious! Anyone know where to find this in San Francisco?

  • Monica Virtualresults

    Hello!

    I agree, Japanese food is losing it’s authenticity. I went to a Japanese restaurant in Rosarito Baja California, and they made all of their sushi with Philadelphia cheese as one of the their ingredients. I returned it and asked that I have my sushi made the original way!

  • Angela Peel

    Thank you so much for this insight and enlightenment on Japanese cuisine! Like you said, the outlook on Japanese food in the west is a curse and I was amongst the “cursed” until I read your article. Simply not knowing how wide a range existed in this type of cuisine left me almost always ordering nothing more than sushi or a noodle based dish. After reading your expertise and shining such a bright light on this, not only am I absolutely starving from the wonderful photo provided before even reading one word, but the knowledge that Japanese cuisine is not as one dimensional as it has been made out to be here in the states. Cheers and Bon Apetit!
    -Angela

  • Megan K.

    I really enjoyed this article and completely agree that: “sushi in the West is now the enemy of Japanese food at its best: rambunctiously diverse, strongly seasonal and always, always fussed over”. Customers are missing out on so much when they visit a Japanese restaurant and simply order California rolls… It’s really fascinating to see the way food is perceived and changed to fit American culture. The author could easily apply the same thought to Pad Thai, Pho, etc. It seems that every different authentic style of cooking has an Americanized ‘crowd pleaser’, and in this case, sushi is it. I’ll definitely take that challenge to heart and avoid sushi the next time I’m at a Japanese restaurant. I’m excited to see what new dishes are waiting for me!

  • John

    Tonkatsu sounds tasty. I am in favor of any form of Weinerschizel. Mmm….I didn’t know that they had non-top ramen related ramen noodles. Based on the article, I feel like Sushi is the Japanese equivalent of McDonalds, they are just everywhere, lol.

  • Cintracharbonnet1

    This article was very informative. I am not a fan of sushi but I do love Japanese curry, which is very different from Indian curry, its mild flavor on vegetables, meats or seafood over rice is very yummy!

  • Deannaleahh

    Oh my goodness!
    Yes, it is sooo true that many Westerners think these ways about the people from Japan!

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  • http://japan-australia.blogspot.com/ Japan Australia

    Yeah, There is so much more to Japanese food than the stereotypical sushi. I love the diversity of the food in Japan and also the regional variations. Thanks for sharing :)

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Kanako Noda started helping her mom make dinner in Shiga, Japan, at the age of four. An artist based in Montréal by day, she evangelizes on the Japanese way of eating by night. "There's a fantastic, dazzling variety of Japanese dishes that Americans keep missing," she says, "because they can't see past the thick undergrowth of sushi bars everywhere." Kanako believes in real food made by real people using real ingredients, and is allergic to food gimmicks, straight-from-the-lab ingredients and diet fads of all kinds. Most of all, she's into introducing Westerners to Japanese common sense on what you should eat, when, how much, how and with whom. Her Japanese home cooking recipe blog is at KanakosKitchen.com.


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