On “classy” Japanese food and the need to preserve authenticity

These are my 2 cents’ on some of the issues brought up.

On why Japanese food is classy viz Korean:
In principle, when it comes to exporting East Asian food, I think much of the philosophy or culture behind the food is lost in translation. Who bothers to wonder why Koreans use metal bowls and not porcelain, or why much of their Kimchi is heavy on the preservatives? (You can take a look at this link by PBS with a brief discussion on this here. All we know is good barbecued meat. This ties in with the issue of authenticity which I will discuss shortly, but first, why Japanese food is “classier.” Given the absence of more historical appreciation of these different cuisines, I think people take to taste, health and presentation amongst other things. While taste is subjective, Japanese food has long been known to be very healthy.

Most importantly is presentation. We all have preconceptions of what is classy – adjectives like clean, stylish, presentable could come to mind. In this sense, Japanese food does trounce Korean and Chinese food. First cleanliness – sushi and many Japanese dishes are largely – for want of a better word – minimalist. We have fresh fish on a ball of rice, or flash-fried prawns served on a nice clean bowl, to be eaten as is. In contrast, Korean food is smoky, messy, even barbaric. You walk out of Korean restaurants smelling like barbecues. Chinese food is in the middle, hardly as messy as Korean but hardly aesthetically zen. As for presentation, Chinese and Korean kitchens are often hidden away or DIY as with the barbecues. At best, we imagine images of food being tossed around frantically in a wok over a ferocious flame. In contrast, Japanese food is prepared with half the fuss (since much of it skips the cooking stage). On the other hand, the Japanese chefs take much pride in their presentation, even in the preparation of food. If you’ve ever sat in a really good sushi bar, you could just watch in wonder as the chefs mould the sushis or rolls effortlessly before your eyes. At the other end of Japanese cuisine, you have chefs pulling tricks at Teppanyaki dinners, tossing pepper grinders behind their backs, before seasoning and cooking their items to perfection. Then he ends off the meal by cleaning the surface before your eyes, leaving the table as spotless as it was before the meal started.

To sum up, it’s all in the presentation. If there’s one thing that the Japanese excel at, it has to be presentation. Thus, in the absence of history lessons, one gravitates to styles that best impress us, and Japanese food suits that to a T.

Authenticity and nationalism:
I’ll just venture a guess by going on personal experience with Chinese and Singaporean food in America.

When I first tasted Chinese food in America, I was quite at awe with its stunning inadequacies. Key ingredients are changed or missing, everything is not as spicy, too sweet and too salty, so much so that American Chinese food is actually very unhealthy, vis Chinese Chinese food. It seems as though the chefs wield a the spatula with the deftness of a shovel and the only source of taste can be from soy sauce. As you can see, I’m a foodie. But more imporrtantly, the point of this is that for people coming from where there is at least a national claim of authenticity, you tend to get upset and even defensive that your beloved cuisine, part of your daily culture, is bastardised into an inedible form. At this point, there is a loss of the sense of ownership of this food, and you are unable to even bring yourself to call the available fare Chinese food. The individual’s reaction then is to protest that this is not real Chinese food and that to even call it Chinese food would be an insult, or something like that.

Thus, going back to the Sushi police, I think the Japanese ministers were acting based more on individual reaction than sound policy. He probably felt indignant that the delicate art of sushi was being butchered by foreign tastes, and hence proposed the whole idea.

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6 Responses to On “classy” Japanese food and the need to preserve authenticity

  1. naesung says:

    I dunno about the Korean food characterizations, but I’m probably being defensive. Thing is, Korean Barbecue only makes up a very small part of Korean cuisine, and certainly it’s least refined end. It’s interesting that it’s the thing that Americans tend to like the best, since it’s very delicious, straightforward and, basically, thinly sliced steak. On the other hand, Korean royal cuisine (which I’ve had once or twice, mmmmmmmm…) is really the epitome of class. At least twenty little dishes all across the table and each one a different color and taste, then black sesame soup and fish, and small red bean pastries, and the food keeps coming and coming. Anyway, point is anyone who’s seen “Daejanggeum” knows that Korean food can be incredibly involved and aesthetically pleasing, but anyone who’s ever been to Café Corea knows that we don’t really see that side of Korean cuisine in the States. My question: why? There was a conscious decision made on the part of some people individually or collectively to bring certain food cultures and not others, and i think it’s really influenced by pre-existing American dispositions. Kalbi and Samgyeopsal are easy to sell because you don’t need to convince anyone that cooked meat is good (now, getting them to use the garlic sauce might be harder), but Twenjangjjigae, or even the culturally accessible Bibimbab is never going to become an American favorite.

  2. Brian O says:

    Fair enough about the Korean royal cuisine, which again emphasizes the fact that we lose so much when we bring the food over here. My guess is that they choose to bring over things that are sweet/salty/meaty/has a strong taste since that suits American tastes. The other factor is probably easy of preparation. Hence the proliferation of teriyaki anything or tonkatsus in Japanese restaurants here. At least bulgolgi here still resembles bulgolgi. Don’t get me started on American Chinese food…

  3. […] I ll just venture a guess by going on personal experience with Chinese and Singaporean food in America. When I first tasted Chinese food in America, I was quite at awe with its stunning inadequacies. Key ingredients are changed or … …Read More […]

  4. tiffanysays says:

    a lot of people i have talked to have mentioned how korean food seems like “soul food.” i find this very true, as i feel very full and satisfied after eating a korean meal. but i think in order for food to be/seem “classy,” it is all in the presentation. korean food can certainly “look” refined if you want it to! i have seen many korean dishes prepared for a fancy crowd. really expensive and “classy” korean food is very easy to find.

  5. naesung says:

    About preparation, I’ve always been impressed by devoted (non-sushi) American-Korean restaurants’ ability to make Korean dishes affordably. A lot of those soups you get at Corea Café actually take a long time with all sorts of ingredients and soup stock is so important, etc. Of course, they manage to do it in Korean fast food restaurants (kimbap cheonguk), but they also have access to materials. I guess that’s a good argument for Korean barbecue, since preparation is less of an issue and prices can reflect the costs incurred, without suffering from Americans’ general low esteem of Korean cultural products…

  6. anieves says:

    Read my post on the chalksite everyone. Go to Coast Sushi in Chicago… we could discuss that place forever, it’s so delicious

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