Authentically Japanese?

Recently there was an article in the Washington Post about some attempts by the Japanese government to set up some kind of authenticity certification for Japanese cuisine served abroad. This raised some debate in the blogosphere, with some declaring it a bad idea, others thinking it may lead to better quality Japanese food.

Until we see exactly what and how the Japanese government is going to go about this, I think it's much too premature to declare it to be a good or bad idea. I suppose that to many people, the very idea that a government entity may be involved raises hackles, though in Japan, a lot of things originate from a government-private cooperation. To me it doesn't seem as Big Brother-ish as it might seem to others.

I think that the bigger questions are going to be:

  • Who is going to decide what is authentic Japanese?
  • What is authentic Japanese?
  • Are there going to be a clear and publicly available set of standards?

The main question above all else though might be, is such certification even necessary? I am not really sure it is necessary, but I can see why some people would get all hot about it. It's partly a measure of how popular Japanese cuisine, and sushi in particular, has become all over the world, and so fast. Ten years ago most people would have just said "eww" to the idea of raw fish on rice; now it's even sold in supermarkets.

One problem I see is that a lot of so-called Japanese restaurants are being opened just because it's trendy, and operated by people with absolutely no background in Japanese cuisine. (This isn't limited just to Japanese cuisine, but for the purposes of this discussion I'm limiting myself to that.) Here in Zürich for instance, Asian-Fusion and so-called sushi restaurants are cropping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Sadly, so many of them serve something sort-of pseudo Asian and mediocre to just plain bad. And, it does bother me that people eat that stuff and think that it's the real thing, and come to the conclusion that Japanese food is not all it's cracked up to be.

And this is not limited to Switzerland or Zürich, where the expat Japanese population is probably only in the 1,500 - 2,000 range. I've had mediocre to awful Japanese food in big cities with sizeable Japanese communities like New York, London and Paris. For example: As I've stated here before, I've some of the worst and ridiculously overpriced sushi ever in my life at a famous London rotator-belt sushi restaurant called Yo! Sushi. I even gave it a second chance, which was unbelievably worse than the first. If I can heap more scorn on that place I would. Yet it must be popular with Londoners since it's still in business, and still gets its share of media attention. Amazing and sad.

Whenever I'm trying to pick a Japanese restaurant that I'm not familiar with, I admit to being racist. I'm inclined to go for a place that's operated by Japanese people, with real grammatically correct Japanese on the menu, assuming that a Japanese person is more likely to turn out decent Japanese food. This limits me from finding places that may have good Japanese food but are not run by Japanese. My favorite takeout sushi place back when I lived in Manhattan was actually operated by a Chinese family, but I would have never found out how good and reasonable their sushi was unless I wasn't already ordering Chinese (mostly Cantonese-style) food from them, which was also great, and decided to try some of their sushi one day.

So, if this new certification body will, as they insist, not be racially biased by rate all restaurants and other entities serving Japanese food equally, it may even be a good thing. But, we'll just have to wait and see how it plays out. If it evolves to become something like the Michelin restaurant guides, it may be useful. I don't rely on the Michelin food critics when it comes to other types of cuisine, but when it comes to French I do, and that usually works.

I sure hope that certification body gets around to denouncing Migros' frozen sushi.

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