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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I'm not convinced I understand the furor about this. It's not like the cream-cheese-and-salmon-sushi-roll people are being banned from selling it. Restaurants won't get shut down because they serve Korean BBQ. It's simply a cause of "authentication," a means of saying "look, the Japanese think we're Japanese." For people like you and me, who are looking for that reassurance before trying someplace new, it's great. But that doesn't mean I'll not have Asian Fusion (actually,I was taken to a Asian/Tex-Mex Fusion place and wow -- I can't begin to tell you how good that was -- even the "sashimi"!) or California Roll or Bulgogi or fish and chips, if that's what I want. I just won't be served random "asian inspired" food when I'm longing for a taste of Tokyo. That can only be a good thing.

I agree Sylvia, good food is good food. I like cream cheese and salmon sushi...I even just posted a recipe for one :) But the 'authentication might be useful too. Or simply saying something is good.

For what it's worth, at the very traditional sushi restaurant I worked at briefly, the two concessions they made to 'American sushi' were California Roll and 'New York Roll', which was smoked salmon, cream cheese and onion. If I remember right the very traditionally minded owner actually liked it.

If this is similar in a way to the "protected designation of origin" label, then that wouldn't be so bad, I think. I do understand that it can be a complicated issue.

Ew, Migros has frozen sushi?! I once tried the packaged sushi (sorry!) at Trader Joe's in the US, and that stuff was nasty!

Yep, Migros has frozen least, I've seen it in the frozen cases near the fish counter at Migros City in Zürich. I haven't gotten up the courage to try it...

The 'fresh' sushi they used to carry was awful enough, with 'rolls' made of a sort of extruded rice past with the crunchy bits of uncooked rice grains in it.

One thing that annoyed me in the news articles about this was the comment that having sushi and yakiniku on a single menu ALONE means a restaurant is inauthentic. (From the article linked on Japundit: "What Toshikatsu Matsuoka found instead was something he considered a high culinary crime — sushi served on the same menu as Korean-style barbecued beef. 'Such a thing is unthinkable,' he said. 'Call it what you will, but it is not a Japanese restaurant.') Well, tough. The Food Police may have to deal with the fact that the rest of the world isn't Japan. Even in the San Francisco Bay Area, there is not enough of a market for all Japanese restaurants to specialize--JUST sushi, JUST yakiniku, JUST yoshoku, JUST whatever. Of course, there are a few of these restaurants around, but it would be impossible in the current market for all restaurants to survive if they did that.

I just think that if they're going to take it to that level of nitpickery, the whole thing is ludicrous. They really need to get a clue about the rest of the planet. That's what annoys me about the whole thing--the massive provincialism involved in making these kinds of statements.

(Just had to vent--my local favorite Japanese place is Japanese owned, with Japanese chefs, and their daily menu is likely to include excellent, first-rate sashimi, tonkatsu, onigiri, croquettes, ginger pork, grilled fish, etc. My Japanese friends did mention that those things wouldn't usually share a menu in Japan, but they were thrilled by the high-quality food, so they didn't care.)

I think we just have to wait to see what the final specifications and requirements for 'authentic Japanese' are going to be. I do sure hope that they will at least consult the many Japanese restaurants that operate outside of Japan, and not just leave it up to Japanese people who have not actually lived for any length of time in other countries.

I'll be really interested to see how this works out. On one hand, a guide listing restaurants serving traditional Japanese food overseas would be great. Much of the Japanese food I've eaten in Australia barely resembles the real thing, and I'd love to know which places aren't toning it down for Aussie palates. On the other hand, defining 'authentic' Japanese cuisine is tricky when restaurants in Japan serve so many fusion/westernised versions of traditional dishes. If I can go to my local kaiten sushi place in Tokyo and have nigiri sushi with hamburg(yuck), prosciutto or yakiniku on it, can you say a restaurant that serves the same thing in New York isn't serving real Japanese food?

If the government does develop definitions for authentic Japanese cuisine, I wonder if they'll judge restaurants within the country by the same stardards. It would be hilarious to see restaurants here that serve both sushi and yakiniku (and they exist) taken to task for calling their food Japanese.

Whatever authentic Japanese food is though, frozen sushi isn't it. Gross.