Café Meguri 5: Food Culture

(2010) While living in Japan, I have often been asked about Canadian food and I never quite know what to say. I typically answer that since, in the big cities like my hometown, Toronto, we have people from all over the world, we eat food from all over the world—Greek, Italian, Thai, Indian, Chinese, whatever—and thus, there is no specifically Canadian food (outside of maple syrup, tortière and poutine—all basically French-Canadian in origin). Japanese people, I think, find this vaguely puzzling. Food is such a huge part of Japanese culture and every corner of Japan has its own specialty (samples of which you are obliged to carry back to coworkers and friends whenever you travel) that it is difficult for them to imagine a country without its own distinct food culture.

I genuinely love most Japanese food; there are only a few things I have tried that I really don’t want to eat again – raw cow’s tongue (and not for reasons of flavour) and turban shell (sazae in Japanese), a green corkscrew-shaped shellfish that is quite bitter, not to mention extraordinarily ugly. I even appreciate natto – sticky and stinky fermented soy beans, the closest thing to cheese in the traditionally dairy-free Japanese diet. (It also comes in a somewhat less noxious black bean variety, which I prefer.) The version of Japanese cuisine available in a million cheap restaurants back home, limited to a kind of faux-sushi, oily tempura, edamame (soy beans in the pod) and some varieties of noodles, really is a mockery of the incredible variety of Japanese food. But what I will miss most here is the ready availability of simple everyday foods, things like fresh soba noodles (trendy now in health food restaurants back home, but they come at quite a premium there), sekihan (glutinous rice with sweet red beans and black sesame) and onigiri (rice balls, or rather triangles, filled with fish, vegetables, or – my favourite – seaweed).

All of that said, however, there are a good number of foods I try not to eat, not because they aren’t delicious, but either because I am not sure how safe it is to consume them, or I don’t think they are particularly sustainable. Sushi falls into both categories. Although I do love good sushi, I seldom seek it out. I don’t mean I am afraid of food-poisoning (except when it’s sushi packed in boxed lunches – obento – that sit out unrefrigerated all day and go bad often enough for it to be a common trope in Japanese movies), but the oceans are so polluted now (tuna contains dangerously high levels of mercury; at least four countries have issued warnings not to eat hijiki – a popular seaweed consumed frequently in Japan – because it contains high levels of inorganic arsenic) and farmed fish is even worse (salmon being particularly toxic because of the recycled feed they receive and because it is a carnivorous fish sitting near the top of the food chain, where toxins accumulate). Japanese food prices and food miles are already among the highest in the world. I don’t know what the Japanese will do when it becomes impossible to continue eating this diet, as is sure to happen sooner or later, but they would be well advised to start thinking about it now. In the past, the largely Buddhist country was also largely vegetarian, and may have to become so again.

The Hypochondriac's Dilemma

As you may have gathered, I am rather… concerned about my health when it comes to food. Some might say downright paranoid! On Christmas day in my second year here, after eating one of my favourite Japanese sweets – daifuku (a soft ball of pounded glutinous rice filled with sweetened red bean paste) – and taking a nap, I woke up with my heart racing in a way I had never experienced before and went to the hospital, fearing I was having a heart attack (a fear heightened by strange chest pains and numbness in my left arm that had started a few days prior). So I began to make changes to my diet here, which set me on a kind of collision course with Japanese etiquette, since there is no surer way to offend someone than to turn your nose up at their food.

  Dear to my heart, and probably not dangerous to it -- despite a panicky episode -- Japanese daifuku.

Dear to my heart, and probably not dangerous to it -- despite a panicky episode -- Japanese daifuku.

To make matters worse, one of the ways I have been surviving in Japan in my second and third years is by listening to a lot of Internet radio, much of it alarming. I had no Internet-capable computer for most of my first year, which – in retrospect – was a blessing of sorts, since the Internet can both threaten and help to protect one’s mental health, depending on how one uses it. Access to all manner of health information of questionable veracity via the Net no doubt contributed to my panicky heart episode and its aftermath.

Anyway, lately I’ve been hearing a lot about and from Michael Pollan, the U.S. food writer and author of ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ and ‘Food Rules’. I like a lot of what he has to say and the way he cuts through misleading diet and nutrition advice, yet I find his prescriptions rather too vague to guide us clearly in our food choices. The take-home point seems to be to avoid processed foods and to gravitate toward more whole, traditional foods, preferably prepared from scratch. One of his food rules is: “Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Greeks.” Aside from the fact that you’d have to know quite a bit about each of these food cultures to follow this rule in any meaningful way, it’s not clear what exactly he wants us to emulate. In most cases, I think it is a traditional version of Japanese or French or Greek diet (not necessarily the way they eat today). But many, even most traditional foods in Japan are now prepared and processed in the same mass industrial way that the rest of our food is. That said, Japan’s cosy economic links with the U.S. don’t necessarily mean they end up consuming as much American junk as one might think. More than 90% of the soy beans (and their products) that we are eating in Japan are (North) American imports, but as in India and Europe, there is resistance to genetically modified food. It remains an open question whether tofu and soy milk should be embraced as part of a healthy, traditional Japanese diet, or rejected as over-processed and adulterated. In such cases, Pollan’s food rules seem mutually contradictory and impossible to follow.

The traditional Japanese diet is delicious, beautiful and generally healthful. Japanese eat a much wider variety of foods than we do in the contemporary West, they use a lot less refined sugar in their cooking, they eat more fish than meat (and not an excessive amount of either; sushi is a treat, not a daily staple), they tend to eat smaller portions of everything than we do, and they eat seasonally. Seasonal food, Pollan tells us, is not only more sustainable but offers such great marketing possibilities – ‘Limited time only! Get them while supplies last!’ – that it is surprising food companies don’t jump on the bandwagon of returning to seasonal production instead of making everything available all of the time, at tremendous environmental cost. That said, the Japanese diet has changed considerably in the past century. They eat all the same fast foods we do, including hamburgers, French fries, pizza and all manner of junky snacks and sodas; donuts could scarcely be more popular, and don’t carry the stigma of being low-class food. They are positively gourmet here and can be taken without embarrassment to any get-together!

Among foreign cultures and cuisines, there is a deep affection for all things French, and imitation French bakeries are ubiquitous. (Some influential Meiji-era admirers of the French were so extreme as to suggest abandoning the Japanese language entirely in favour of the world’s most beautiful language.”) Indeed, pan’ (a Portuguese loanword for bread, but closer in many of its applications here to ‘pastry’) seems to have replaced traditional Japanese breakfast foods (rice, miso soup, grilled fish, natto) for a large swath of the population, particularly young people. Of course, these ‘French’ pastries are more than likely made with low-quality industrial ingredients, like high-fructose corn syrup (the industrial production process for which was perfected in Japan) and hydrogenated vegetable oil, making them a significant step backwards in terms of nutrition and public health. (High-fructose corn syrup represents 50% of all sweeteners consumed in the U.S., and about 25% in Japan, compared to only 1.6% in Europe.)

  Food for the brave: turban shell (sazae) and kara-age (deep fried chicken) - click for a  kara-age cooking tutorial , if you dare! 

Food for the brave: turban shell (sazae) and kara-age (deep fried chicken) - click for a kara-age cooking tutorial, if you dare! 

They also have apparently homegrown disaster foods, like kara-age (basically deep-fried chicken of a particularly chewy sort, suggestive of a lengthy frying process and a high proportion of skin and cartilage relative to actual meat). I tend to steer away from ramen (Chinese-style noodles widely consumed in Japan), in both its fresh and instant varieties. It is delicious and worrisome for the same reason: the noodles are positively swimming in pork fat and salty broth. That Japanese eat our disastrous foods in greater moderation and smaller portions than we do may be saving them for now, that and the fact that Japanese are much more physically active than their North American counterparts. But many believe the country is poised for an obesity epidemic and the government is already taking fairly draconian steps to crack down on ‘metabolic syndrome among workers. Japanese also eat one of the saltiest diets in the world, which contributes to their high rates of stomach cancer.

So the fact is, if “eating more like the Japanese” means eating something like a traditional Japanese diet of fish, rice, vegetables, soy and sea products, most Japanese no longer eat this diet. What they are eating today has been crossbred with Western food cultures and is, at best, a simulation of the traditional Japanese diet.

Omiyage

Let’s look at this problem through the lens of one particular food tradition in Japan, that of omiyage – local speciality foods, packaged for easy transport and distribution to coworkers and friends upon returning from a trip. It has its origins in a time when Japan was bifurcated into numerous small fiefdoms and the people were for the most part tied to the land, unable to travel freely. Thus, when someone did travel, they were obligated to bring back samples of special foods from wherever they had been. Even today, Japanese spend an average of $700 a year on omiyage. At first, it seems – to many foreigners living here – a bothersome obligation. But like so many other Japanese customs, the purpose and the effect is to show that while you were out having fun, you were thinking about people who are obligated to continue working hard in your absence. It gets a great response, precisely because foreigners often neglect to observe such customs. And you are likely to be inundated with gifts far exceeding the value of anything you have given out.

However, as you can readily imagine, omiyage is a prime site for the transformation of the food culture. Mass production, lack of refrigeration and the need for ease of transport means that omiyage, like much of the rest of what is eaten here, is full of preservatives, chemicals, questionable non-traditional ingredients (like the aforementioned hydrogenated vegetable oil) and artificial sugars. It’s also an environmental disaster in so far as each portion (each cookie, each rice cracker) is individually wrapped, usually in plastic. One is constantly receiving these little snacks and of course it would be very rude to refuse them. Pollan says to eat “special occasion” foods with moderation, not like daily staples. But while these little packages of omiyage are small, they are so numerous that if you want to avoid eating their questionable ingredients, you have to find some discreet way of disposing of all this treasure. (Re-gifting it to people in other social circles works well!)

Aside from the fact that much of what Japanese people eat is highly processed, the fish they consume is now coming in from halfway around the world and everything is packaged in plastic—even bananas and other fresh fruit. The extreme demands of Japanese work life, long hours and long commutes by train, mean there is a tremendous need for convenient food, with all the predictable deleterious effects on quality and health. At convenience stores everywhere there are ‘fresh’ meals available, much more substantial (and probably healthful) than anything available in similar stores in the West, yet 9 times out of 10 they reheat them in a microwave while still inside their plastic wrappers and Styrofoam containers! I cringe every time I see this happening. I was warned by a co-worker years ago not to reheat food in plastic. (Ideally, none of our food should be stored in plastic either, since it is full of endocrine disrupters and other toxins which slowly leech into our food.) But here there seems to be amazingly little scepticism about the safety of chemicals and plastic, or the corporations producing them

Michael Pollan also says we should cook for ourselves as much as possible, rather than eating in restaurants, because restaurants – like industrial food companies – tend to use cheap ingredients, to cook badly, and to disguise both by using more salt, sugar and fat than we would at home. That threatens to take a heck of a lot of the fun out of café-meguri, so I have to set a certain amount of my scepticism about food quality aside when I go on these little day trips.

At last, the food...

So how does the food at these cafés stack up? Well, it’s hit and miss, of course. In truth, little of it is particularly impressive. You are paying for atmosphere, more so than food. Though some places pride themselves on macrobiotic and organic fare, or on particularly authentic renderings of Italian or French cooking, in general the food is merely competent, which is perhaps to be expected, since it is mostly simulated Western fare. (Japanese visitors to Canada might feel similarly underwhelmed by our sub-standard Japanese restaurants.)

At the ones that are cafés—rather than true restaurants—but that nonetheless offer full meals, there is a danger that you are getting easy, maybe even instant foods, disguised to appear freshly prepared. There is a problem of space (no proper kitchen) and time (1 or 2 young people attempting to serve a café of 20 or more seats, though I’ve seldom found them full). At one café I was alarmed to repeatedly hear what sounded like the chime of a microwave. I hope and pray it was a toaster oven! In any case, not a reassuring sign. At another I just heard what sounded like the distinctive tinny thunk and clank of a microwave oven door opening and closing, without the chime. Curry, I fear, is the worst culprit, since you can buy it in foil pouches everywhere, ready to be reheated and served. I have since sworn it off on my café-meguri journeys. I have yet to embarrass myself by asking the staff if they cook using a microwave oven, but I am sorely tempted sometimes.

The slowly growing organic and macrobiotic movement in Japan is of course very welcome, but it is still quite below the radar for most Japanese people. These place attract people who ask even more questions about the food than I have the nerve to do, which is a relief (I’m not the only oddball), but it can make for a tense atmosphere.

  If your cafe   has a strong steel door, what better name than タフドア   ('Tough Door')?

If your cafe has a strong steel door, what better name than タフドア ('Tough Door')?

Japanese are rightly proud of the energy they put into doing things well. Everything here—save much of the built environment, where a bland utilitarianism prevails—is beautifully done. Everything and everyone is held to a very high standard; even Western food is more beautifully prepared and presented in Japan than it is in the West. So when you walk into one of these cafés as a visible Western foreigner, you are presenting them with an opportunity to show their stuff and to gauge, by your reaction, the skill with which they have simulated a Western café atmosphere and menu.

So, naturally, at the best places, the food is very good and they want you to know how much trouble they’ve gone to in making it so. This can lead to comical situations for a foreigner struggling behind a significant language barrier. They may ostentatiously tell you that your complimentary water is lemon water, instead of letting you discover this for yourself. Or they’ll bombard you with information about what fine quality ingredients they use and how carefully and authentically the meal is prepared, either before or after it arrives at the table, all in highly politeand therefore nearly incomprehensibleJapanese.

Just as we didn’t always have kiwi fruit, sundried tomatoes or soy milk in North America (all introduced in the last 25 years or so), so too Japanese have not always had scones, muffins or quiche – all relatively recent introductions here and popular fare at cafés. Indeed, I returned to one city three times in the hopes of trying one particularly tasty looking set of scones pictured in the guidebook (whoever produces these guides obviously knows what they are doing). Fortunately, it’s one of the bigger cities (Utsunomiya) in that part of the hinterland, so there were five other cafés to visit on my multiple trips there, all of them well worth the effort. And when I did finally get to タフドア (‘Tafu Doa’, literally, ‘Tough Door’), on a snowy day in February, the scones were piping hot, the jam not too sweet and the atmosphere just right. It’s these tiny little pleasures that make hustling across the hinterland in the dead of winter worthwhile.

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(NOTE to the reader: As this piece was written in 2010, while I was living in Japan, some aspects of its observations about Japanese food culturesuch as the availability and popularity of organic food, for examplemay have changed, just as it has changed in North America during the same period.) 

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Up Next: Café Meguri 6 - Customer Service & Being the only foreigner in the room... (Coming Soon!)

Read the earlier episodes in this series: What is Café Meguri?Café Meguri 2 & 3, and Café Meguri 4.

Michael Pollan's excellent documentary series 'Cooked' is streaming now on NETFLIX.