Turning Japanese

When you think of Japanese cuisine, your mind’s eye is probably greeted with images of beautifully arranged sashimi, glistening teriyaki and steaming udon noodles, but is that portrayal of Japanese cooking accurate? And how does a culture and a country come to have an identifiable national cuisine? Katarzyna J. Cwiertka believes that the answers can be found in the past 150 years of Japanese culinary history.

Now a researcher at the Leiden University in the Netherlands, Cwiertka began researching the modernization of Japanese cuisine for her Master of Arts thesis completed at the University of Tsukuba in Japan. Her findings, collected in Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity, present an adaptive national palate that, through war, industrialization, political and social pressures, and imperialistic expansion, has remained true to tradition while becoming unrecognizable to culinary tendencies of a century and a half ago.

Progressing chronologically, the author starts with what she sees as the first catalyst for the current ideas of what Japanese food entails: Westernization. While you may expect this to be a story of unwanted European encroachment into foreign lands, in many ways the tale that unfolds is quite the opposite. During the late 19th century, Cwiertka explains that the politicians and upper-class citizens of Japan were concerned with how to modernize their nation, and the West provided an opportunity for this. In a calculated game of copycat, Japan strove to distinguish itself from China and impress foreign dignitaries by structuring not only their government, but also their dinner table after a Western model.

If only familiar with the current national cuisine of Japan, readers will find many of the book’s anecdotes amusing because they not only illuminate a culture’s past but also often fly in stark contradiction to what an average Western audience would see as “Japanese.” We’re forced to question why we find the story of a Japanese farmer abandoning his rice crops to make a fortune on the production of ketchup so amusing, and are surprised to learn that miso soup and gyôza, two staples of any Japanese restaurant in the United States, were once foreign foods in Japan itself.

These are the stories that will fascinate foodies and historians alike. However Cwiertka bares her strong academic roots when she chooses to structure the book as a scholarly text. The endless name-date emphasis provides a strong basis of support for the historical context framing the shifting culinary trends, but may make the book too heavy for a casual reader just interested in the authenticity of their gyôza and sushi rolls.

And if you’re not concerned with how authentic your sushi is, maybe you should be. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries recently announced that they have created an advisory council to inspect Japanese restaurants in foreign countries for the use of authentic ingredients and cooking techniques. A trip to the first United States city, Los Angeles, is scheduled for within a year.

Though perhaps the advisory council should pick up Modern Japanese Cuisine, they might be interested to read Cwiertka’s research, which suggests Japan’s cuisine is relatively new and constantly adapting an amalgam of various world cuisines. In this sense, the idea of a national cuisine is more akin to the picture in a cookbook than the actual dish. It is a created, ungraspable concept that one can only attempt to recreate in an actual kitchen, and deviations from a traditional recipe may one day become the norm from which they first rebelled. Now that’s food for thought.