Guest Post: Finding Traditional Food in Japan (Special Series: Searching for Authenticity)

On The Historical Cooking Project we think a lot about what it means to be authentic. In trying to create certain historical dishes we struggle to source specific products; we might use electric ovens instead of peat-burning ranges; and since we are often working with recipes written prior to the standardization of recipes movement begun by Fannie Farmer of The Boston Cooking School at the end of the 19th century, over the years we have had to guesstimate quantities of those ingredients. 

Today's guest post by Christopher Laurent, is the third in our special series, Searching for Authenticity, which delves further into questions of what authentic eating and cooking means. For part one of the series (Tracing the Genealogy of Bibimbap) click here  and for part two (Bison on Everything), click here.

Finding Traditional Food in Japan

Fish burger

While doing fieldwork in Japan, I received a strange email message from a small fishing town that sits on the southern coast of Japan. In an effort to revitalize the local economy, students from the local high school had been tasked to turn the regional specialty of seared tuna (katsuo tataki) into a burger. The burger was certainly not on the list of the dishes I was planning on investigating but I went along with it. Imagine my surprise when I was greeted with a full TV crew and a journalist from the local newspaper. With the help of two students, we lined up a dozen locally baked buns flavored with dried bonito flakes, smeared tartar sauce with locally grown Japanese ginger bulb (miyoga), carefully placed a leaf of lettuce and a slice of tomato and finally stacked slices of seared tuna which had been fished the same morning. As I prepared to bite in the burger, the cameraman, intent on pleasing his audience, focused on my reaction. I looked in direction of the students their eyes full of hope, thought about the community of this small town. “Delicious,” I said with my mouth still full and, just like that, I had inadvertently endorse a new regional dish.

Changing traditional food

Japanese people take great pain to point out the difference between novelty and tradition making sure to distinguish the spurious from the authentic. At first, the line between real Japanese food and invented traditions seemed clear cut to me: edomae sushi was traditional and California roll was not. As I started to explore regional food specialties, I came to realize that so-called traditional foods had tremendously changed throughout time. Taste preference evolves from one generation to another and outside influences finds a way to permeate even the most emblematic foods. For instance, sushi first started as narezushi a form of sushi that looks nothing like the contemporary version. Since that time, even the most traditional versions of sushi have morphed adapting to taste and availability. When people refer to traditional edomae sushi, they tap into a collective imaginary that never was. Even Jiro the sushi chef made famous in the 2011 documentary admits breaking with tradition to improve his art form. Food is not static, and culture, as a whole cannot afford to remain stagnant if it is to stay relevant to the people who live it.

Continuity in novelty

On the other hand, new dishes, like the burger I ate, do not emerge out of a vacuum. Preexisting notion of taste and preparation have had an impact on these dishes. Let’s take the case of ramen. Ramen was introduction in Japan after the Second World War. In a time when food ration were sparse, this simple noodle dish provided sustenance for a country that needed rebuilding. More specifically, Chinese immigrants operating street food introduced this dish to the growing Japanese urban population. Since that time, it has been adapted in countless regional variation, been modify to fit the Japanese palate and most of all been elevated into an art form, a characteristic of all things Japanese are serious about. Although it finds its roots in Chinese immigrant laborers, it has become rapidly absorbed into the Japanese repertoire and is now considered Japanese. In a classic case of appropriation, Japan has taken ramen and made it Japanese. Even recently adopted food brought on by globalization, like pizza and hamburger, hardly remains unaltered in Japan. In fact, the “Japanization” of foreign foods often becomes a necessary step if it is to be accepted by the general population.

The problem of authenticity

If traditional food is constantly changing and if novelty is never a total breach with the past, what is real Japanese food? The Japanese government is notorious for trying to control the image of its national cuisine abroad (see the “sushi police”). Who defines what is Japanese cuisine and what is not? Whether a food is deemed authentic or not is the result of a power struggle rather than a natural process. Still, food authenticity matters a lot because it sells. Japanese restaurants abroad attract so many costumers precisely because they sell an experience deemed authentic. When people go out to eat sushi or when they travel to Japan for a taste of the exotic, they want to experience an authentic fare not some pale imitation. This is because when we eat the real thing (or what we assumed to be the real thing), we connect with people a world away. When I think back to the fish burger, I wonder if I made a mistake endorsing a dish that few local residents consider authentic. Yet, for the people who make and eat it, it is as real as it gets. It is the product of a particular time and place, one that encapsulate economic resilience and local creativity.

Christopher Laurent is a Doctoral candidate in Anthropology at the University of Montreal. Having lived several years in Japan, his research examines the regional cuisine in the rural region of Kochi, Japan. His research explores the mechanisms, which allow these regional traditions to be incorporated in the national heritage. He writes about Japanese Food Culture on the blog Chanko Food and tweets about it @SFchanko.


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