I’ve been running around lately like a headless chicken — and the simile is more literal than you might think. I have been spending my evenings going around Tokyo restaurants, doing a survey strictly in the interests of scrupulous journalism.
No, I have not become a restaurant critic. I did that job once, for The Age newspaper in Melbourne, covering exclusively Japanese and Jewish cuisine. I got so mixed up at one Japanese restaurant that I accused the chef of putting horseradish in my sushi instead of wasabi.
What prompted this survey of Tokyo restaurants?
Well, it was a report on the 9 o’clock NHK news on Nov. 27 about the disconsolate French who cannot seem to get a decent Japanese meal in Paris. Apparently, ces miserables are being led by the nose, if not the mouth, and served what the program called “phony Japanese (nise-japo)” food in lieu of the real McSato.
To give a taste of what troubles them, here are some dishes now passing for “Japanese” in Paris:
* Yakitori Cheese;
* Rice Drenched in Teriyaki Sauce;
* Sliced Cabbage Salad with “Japanese” Dressing;
* Skewered Bacon and Cheese;
* Sushi with a Side Serving of Rice.
Meals may be served in a traditional Western order, with miso soup first, an Oriental-looking salad second, then a fish dish followed by a meat dish. This was the sort of Japanese cuisine I was used to in the United States many years ago. After coming to Japan, when I stayed at my first Japanese inn, 15 dishes were served at once, covering the low table in my room. It was then I learned that, in the main, there is not really a set order to a meal.
Adding insult to injury
As if to add insult to injury, owners of Japanese restaurants in Paris seem to be getting the names of their establishments wrong. Paris boasts such exotic Japanese eateries as Yaki Kochi — Kochi being the city in Shikoku. (Would the Japanese ever call a French restaurant here Fried Biarritz? — Don’t answer that!) There is also a Yokorama in Paris. Fair enough: if some Japanese people can’t tell the difference between an “r” and an “l,” the French just seem to have a similar problem with “r” and “h.”
Japanese people living in and visiting France are apparently up in arms at the inauthenticity of their native cuisine there. Their reactions range from amusement and puzzlement to indigation over these culinary travesties. Even the announcer on the NHK program mentioned above commented, “When culinary culture goes down, so does culture itself.”
Not to be defeated by this tasteless turn of gauling events, the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) has picked up the gauntlet and is brandishing it under the very nostrils of Paris’s perpetrators of such nise-japo fare.
JETRO’s riposte involves the inauguration of an osumitsuki system of authorizing and guaranteeing the authenticity of Japanese food served in French restaurants. Osumitsuki, a Japanese word harking back to ancient times, indicated a document that was signed by the shogun. In this case, the authority granting the Seal of Approval to restaurants is the Japanese government-related JETRO itself, which has designated 12 meal mavens to scour Paris and judge whether its Japanese restaurants are truly “Japanese.” Judging by reports on NHK and the Internet, the Comite d’ evaluation de la cuisine japonaise certainly has a lot on its plate.
Well, frankly, I thought it might be time to turn the tables and see how the Japanese fare when it comes to the purity of their foreign food offerings. That’s what sent me out on my mission (as a self-appointed one-maven Comite d’ evaluation de la cuisine non-japonaise) to discover exactly how authentic foreign food is in Tokyo restaurants.
I began with curry, which is said to be the most popular dish among Japanese children. I found curries that were sweet, drippy and mild. One curry sauce was mixed in a soup that had udon noodles floating in it. And who in Lahore has ever heard of katsukare? Would those Pakistani burghers, for instance, serve a breaded pork cutlet with a sweet curry sauce? What about karepan, which is a bun with Japanese curry sauce inside? Try going to Colombo and finding anything like this concoction.
But the coup de gra^ce has to be that popular variety of curry available in Japanese supermarkets — Vermont Curry. Vermont is known for the famous Green Mountain Boys; but I doubt if they got that way from eating green curry.
‘Holy Netanyahu!’ she declaimed
All this finally drove me to e-mail my 94-year-old mother in Laguna Hills, California — to tell her about the teriyaki burger I had at a hamburger restaurant. “Holy Netanyahu!” she declaimed in Yiddish (and in shock). “If President Bush knew about this, he’d invade.”
Yet, no survey of cuisine non-japonaise would be complete without a tasting of French food here. Being a secret lover of omelettes (“secret” because my daughters have put me on a low-cholesterol diet; if they read this I’m a dead dingo), I was dying to try the omuraisu specialty at a neighborhood restaurant that must, and certainly will, remain anonymous.
If you have never tried this “French” dish, it is fried rice rolled into a crepe of egg smothered in ketchup. It is not to be confused with hayashi raisu which, though seemingly named after one Mr. Hayashi, is simply rice with hashed meat.
After consuming my omuraisu, I e-mailed Claude, a friend in Paris, and told him what I’d done. He was appalled. “Don’t tell Jacques Chirac about this. It will put him off Japan forever — or he might kick JETRO out of Paris!”
I don’t really feel like going around Tokyo anymore criticizing restaurants that feature non-Japanese food. Some of them are totally authentic; others not. Do non-Japanese people here look down their noses at food that is, to use the phrase adopted by JETRO, “not the real thing”? If they do, it’s their problem, not that of the Japanese.
Certainly, culinary culture is an essential part of a nation’s total culture. But government organizations, however well meaning, should not be dishing out opinions on what is authentic and what isn’t.
There are many Japanese restaurants in Paris serving “the real thing.” Eventually customers will cotton on to the difference. Until then, if Parisians like what they’re being served, then I say, “to each his own gu” — that’s gu, the Japanese word for “ingredients,” not gou^t, the French word for “taste.”
By the way, Yakitori with Cheese is served at my local yakitoriya here in Tokyo. Could the chef have studied in Paris?
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.