If the government did one thing right recently, it was to send a stern message to the world that whatever a California roll is, it isn’t Japanese food. Neither is the “Texas roll,” with its strips of beef and spinach leaves, or that leaden travesty, the “Philadelphia roll,” stuffed with smoked salmon, cream cheese and cucumber.
And let’s not even get started on kimchee, pad thai and nasi goreng — all of which are merrily served in hundreds of “Japanese” restaurants across the United States and in other parts of the globe where a lot of people are (1) not that partial to raw fish and (2) think of non-Chinese Asia as one big happy culinary family.
The agriculture ministry announced last month that a program is in the works to certify those restaurants overseas that serve authentic Japanese cuisine. The move came after several years of surging global interest in Japanese food, perhaps a result of the success of the “Iron Chef” television show or maybe just a reflection of interest in the cool nation responsible for the Lexus, Yu-Gi-Oh and “The Ring.”
The new program, to be launched next April, is clearly not intended to dampen that appetite. Food is a big component of the subtle cultural influence that theorists of international relations like to call “soft power,” and the government isn’t in the business of undermining its leverage. But by the same token, it doesn’t want the country’s eating habits misrepresented. So official watchdogs — or should we call them food nannies — will evaluate foreign restaurants that claim to serve Japanese food, ranking such things as the authenticity of their ingredients and recipes, their chefs’ training and their decor.
It will be interesting to see how long the list is, which naturally will depend on the stringency of the judgments. Will it be restricted to such prestigious — and pricey — establishments as Matsuhisa in Los Angeles, Tetsuya’s in Sydney or the rapidly proliferating Nobu, all of which are graced by native Japanese chefs? Or will it turn up pleasant surprises in the form of little places in the suburbs of Dallas or Cairo whose cooks show you don’t have to be Tokyo-born to make a decent batch of sushi rice? We wouldn’t be surprised if the food team unearthed more foreign restaurants than it expects to that realize some non-Japanese actually appreciate sea urchin and good sake.
That would be a happy outcome. But as with any plan, especially a government plan, a few hitches and glitches also loom.
For one thing, we have to wonder how much thought the agriculture ministry has given to the headaches lurking in the word “authentic,” as applied to Japanese food. Some interpretations are so strict and old-school there must be millions of Japanese, especially young ones, who never touch the stuff. And some are so broad they encompass dishes that didn’t even originate in this country, from tonkatsu and tempura to kare-raisu and hamburger steak. Would a Japanese restaurant in London that served such things make the new list or not? If the Curry House qualifies as a Japanese restaurant in Tokyo, will its Californian outlets also make the grade?
It would be smart if the ministry folks were to figure such things out now, because the downside of the new program is that their counterparts in other countries might well decide to turn the tables on them.
What would food nannies from Rome make of the squid-ink spaghetti and pizza sprinkled with canned corn that passes muster in “Italian restaurants”? How would Japan’s beloved “Indian restaurants” be ranked by tasters from New Delhi, who like their curries spicy, with bread, rather than bland, with rice? The truth is, of course, that Japan, like every other country, borrows, adapts and absorbs foreign dishes according to its own tastes, and it is to be hoped that it will send its own evaluators out with a caution to remember that.
There’s also one more reason Japanese restaurants abroad might sometimes tone down the “authenticity” of their offerings: They are business ventures. While it’s true that most countries can boast a tiny band of food adventurers who can and will eat any cuisine, the vast mass of diners are averse to anything too strange or different.
Consider the experience of Kamogawa, another fine Sydney restaurant, whose owners strove so hard for authenticity that they installed pebble floors and imported a carpenter from Kyoto to do the woodwork. It would certainly have earned its ministry certificate. The only problem? It’s now closed. Surely the ministry does not want to trigger an economic backlash.
Despite all these caveats, however, the initiative has value. Let the food nannies go forth. Especially if they can help rid the world of the dreaded Philadelphia roll.
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