|

Women — the essential B-kyū ingredient

by Steve Trautlein

One of the most welcome things about the B-kyū gurume (B-grade gourmet) boom is that it’s rescued dishes such as ramen and katsudon from the clutches of salarymen. The down-home cooking that constitutes the bulk of the B-kyū menu is now widely appreciated as an expression of local tastes and culinary traditions. It’s not surprising to find families conversant in the nuances of noodle broths, or young couples traveling to the hinterlands in search of authentic country cuisine.

This inclusive spirit extends to the role of women in the B-kyū gurume field. In the Japanese restaurant industry, where females have traditionally faced the same barriers to advancement as they do in corporate boardrooms, B-kyū gurume is opening up doors in the kitchen, the media and the culinary-festival circuit.

“It used to be that women weren’t allowed to be sushi chefs, because their hands were thought to be warmer than men’s,” says Yukari Sakamoto, the author of “Food Sake Tokyo” (foodsaketokyo.wordpress.com), a comprehensive guide to Japanese cuisine. “That disqualified them from handling fish. The nice thing about B-kyū gurume is that there are no preconceived notions like that to overcome.”

In fact, several women have become bona fide stars thanks to their association with B-kyū gurume. The most visible is Natsuko “Gyaru” Sone, the bubbly “competitive eater” whose fame now reaches far beyond food-themed TV shows. Although speed-eating is often derided as a freakish sideshow of the B-kyū gurume movement, the spectacle of ordinary people such as Sone gorging on dumplings, noodles and rice has helped promote everyday food as an object of passion and excitement.

Sone’s fame has as much to do with her pronounced Shibuya-girl appearance as her eating prowess — not that your average gyaru can down 16 bowls of ramen or 2.3 kg of white bread in a single sitting. Her rise as a celebrity in the late 2000s coincided with a boom in both competitive eating and off-price dining, and she’s parlayed her success into side careers as an actress, author and singer.

Another rising star of the B-kyū gurume scene is Mana Kumagai, the president of the Japan Konamon Association. (Konamon refers to various types of populist dishes hailing from Kansai that are made from flour — think okonomiyaki savory pancakes and udon noodles.) A widely published author and researcher, Kumagai has been involved with B-kyū gurume’s premier event, the B-1 Grand Prix, since its inception in 2006.

“The field is still pretty much dominated by men — most of the shops and restaurants are run by men, especially in areas outside of big cities,” she says by phone during a break from last weekend’s B-1 Grand Prix in Kita-Kyushu. “But you can really see the involvement of women at events like this. They’re the ones with a lot of ideas for how to attract a crowd. They’re the ones doing the actual cooking.”

Kumagai’s interest in food dates back to her childhood in Nishinomiya, a city located between Kobe and Osaka in Hyogo Prefecture. “It’s famous for akashi-yaki, a kind of takoyaki (octopus dumplings) made with dashi stock,” she says. “I’ll never forget the first time I tasted the Osaka version of takoyaki without dashi — I was shocked. The taste was so similar, yet so different.”

Kumagai maintained her interest in the dish at Ritsumeikan University, where she majored in comparative culture — specifically, the history and varieties of takoyaki. Her research formed the basis of her thesis and a subsequent book, and when octopus dumplings experienced a surge in popularity in the late ’90s, her career took off.

Kumagai sees women as vital to the continued success of B-kyū gurume. “Here at the B-1 Grand Prix, it’s the women who have the greatest interest,” she says, “and most of the visitors are female.”

Indeed, the greatest influence that women have in the movement may be in their role as consumers. Since the mid-2000s, when female office workers developed a mania for dishes featuring collagen — thought to beautify the skin — restaurants and pubs have been scrambling to cater to the office-lady demographic.

One notable success story has been the Tokyo-based Kichiri group. With a focus on sleek, welcoming interiors and an inexpensive, calorie-conscious menu, Kichiri strives to provide, according to its mission statement, “enjoyable meals which give comfort, richness and lasting vitality.” The rapidly expanding group now operates dozens of restaurants throughout Japan.

Whether they are creating the menus or simply enjoying them, women have become prime movers in the new culinary landscape. “I think all B-kyū gurume dishes are popular with women, just like men,” says Sakamoto. “It’s an equal-opportunity cuisine for both chefs and customers.”

Steve Trautlein is a freelance journalist eating his way through Japan.


This one’s for the ladies

Who says guys get to have all the noodle-slurping fun? Not the authors of “Joshi Ramen Bu” (“Girls’ Ramen Club”), a book and website devoted to female-friendly noodle shops in the Tokyo area. Lead writer Kiyori Matsumoto and her team have assembled dozens of restaurants notable for their healthy menus, interesting interiors and helpful staff, ranging from the sleek Gogyo in Nishi-Azabu (www.ramendining-gogyo.com) to the casual Heaven’s Kitchen in Takadanobaba (blog.livedoor.jp/chukareon) The dead-tree version is available at major bookstores for ¥743, or see girlslife.cocolog-nifty.com/noodle for more frequent updates.