We Are What We Eat…So It Might As Well Be Delicious

A Suite of Reviews by Lauren W. Deutsch

Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity,
Katarzyna J. Cwiertka (author) (London, Reaktion Books, 2006)

Jiro Dreams of Sushi
David Gelb (director) (Magnolia Pictures, 2011)

Kaiseki: The Exquisite Cuisine of Kyoto’s Kikunoi Restaurant
Yoshihiro Murata (text), Masashi Kuma (photography) (Tokyo, Kodansha International, 2006)



[I] am at the checkout stand in a large Asian supermarket in Los Angeles with two containers of tofu (sprouted, organic, firm), fresh shitake and nori. The patron in front of me, a middle-aged Japanese-speaking woman with a young child, glances quietly over her shoulder at my selections, mumbles something quietly to the child, and, hesitantly asks me, “You can eat?” I reply, “Yes. Of course! Can you eat tofu?” “But I am Japanese,” she says, pointing to her nose. I continue, “But, why do you like it?”

Silence. It’s the same exchange I experience from many Japanese practitioners of chado (the way of tea) when I ask them why they have studied it for a long time.

There is general consensus that “You are what you eat,” yet there are many interpretations of what “you” and perhaps also “we” actually mean. At a minimum, what, and even how, humans eat creates our corporeal selves. Looking deeper, we can see that our choices of foodstuffs and, it appears, foodways, also enable us to know who we are, how others know us and, even further, who we think others might be. The way of washoku (Japanese cuisine) is an excellent vehicle by which to explore some of these ideas.

According to author and scholar Katarzyna Cwiertka, the notion of “national” cuisine is an idea born no earlier than the 19th century. Prior to that social class and regional availability of foodstuffs mostly defined the culinary conventions. It was the “opening” of Japan by the intrusion of Western powers that revolutionized existing Japanese conventions, from form and taste to dining furniture and utensils.

Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity, Katarzyna J. Cwiertka
Cwiertka’s Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity is a well-written, thoughtfully conceived, scholarly examination of the topic. She initially considers the post-sakoku (isolation) period and the growing multi-cultural foreign presence in Japan, followed by the spread of Japanese food beyond the archipelago. Then she identifies several transforming factors affecting the evolution of the modern Japanese diet: the impact of imperialism, emulation of Western political and economic models, the rise of an “urban mass gastronomy”, the evolution of military and school catering and home cooking, and the post-war climb from desperation to relative wealth.

Is there something unique about Japanese food that seasons national pride? Cwiertka states, “For present–day Japanese, rice, soy sauce and fresh seafood are the ultimate symbols of ‘Japaneseness,’ symbols more powerful than the cherry blossom or the national flag, in that they satisfy visceral cravings.” Yet it is only relatively recently that these three ingredients have turned into standard components of the daily meals of all Japanese people. She concludes there is nothing purely Japanese about a meal based on rice + soup + side dishes, with soy sauce as the dominant flavoring agent.

“The position of rice in the Japanese diet remains ambivalent. The symbolic importance of rice in Japanese history and its role as currency in the pre-modern Japanese economy are indisputable; it was, to be sure, a preferred staple, but there was not enough of it to feed everybody. Scholars have not yet been able to reach consensus as to who ate how much rice and how often outside the urban centers, where white rice had for centuries been a daily staple.”

The New York Times reported that in 1994, when Japan’s domestic rice crop was severely limited, everyone – including the Emperor and Empress – had to rely on imports from the United States, Thailand and China. Domestically grown rice was reserved for school children’s lunches; meanwhile, commoners were trying to trick the auto settings on their rice cookers to deal with what were perceived as inferior imports, but to no avail. The imported rice never tasted, looked or handled quite right.

“Cooks, publicists and even scholars inside as well as outside Japan tend to drape Japanese cuisine in an aura of exoticism, uniqueness and traditionalism … cultivating the myth of Japanese cuisine as refined, time-honored philosophy and practice, and extending the aesthetic qualities of kaiseki into a kind of eternal attribute of every Japanese meal, regardless of class and degree of affluence. Such fetishized, sentimental notions of the past do not merely falsify history, but also distort our understanding of the present,” Cwiertka comments. Webster’s online dictionary defines kaiseki as a “Japanese tasting menu.” The term’s origin is meeting (kai), place (seki). But it’s more poetically rendered by traditionalists as the warmed (kai) rock (seki) that monk- mendicants would hold against their stomachs to ward off hunger after the last meal of the day.

In contrast, the City of New York in March 2013 prohibited the sale of 16 oz. super-sized, sugar-containing sodas and other non-diet sweetened drinks at restaurants, concession stands and other eateries. The controversial law is in recognition of escalating rates of obesity and the resulting diabetes and high blood pressure in the general population. The reaction of a vocal minority may be compared to those who oppose gun control: “It’s my god-given right as an American to ‘super-size’ if I want to, damn it!” It took some time, but folks finally realized that they could buy two eight-ounce portions.

One might easily come to a refinement of the “We Are = What We Eat” equation: Food feeds [national] identity. Cwiertka recognizes that there is in fact a strongly held but mistaken belief that projects an aura of “timeless continuity and authenticity” on to washoku. Cwiertka observes that it might be argued that the most typically Japanese aspect of Japanese gastronomy is the very adoption of many foreign culinary elements into “Japanese” cuisine. It may in fact be the quickest way for the three-centuries-isolated Japanese population to cross international boundaries without need of passport or visa.

Going back to that supermarket encounter, what might that Japanese shopper think of my eating “her” food? Cwiertka tags Japanese food-eating gaijin as being “… young, modern and an itsy bit wacky.” Could we not say the same about Japanese folks who mayo-naize (rhymes with “romanticize”) just about everything (that is not already liquid) to give it a dash of Euro-ness? According to Wikipedia mayo has been a great multi-cultural / international condiment for a long time, changing personality with localized adaptations as it crosses cultural borders.

Looking from the “other” perspective, Western affinity for Oriental (East and Southeast Asian) food has grown in demand among non-Asians as it has become more accessible in stores and restaurants. The Japanese mayonnaise in those squishy bottles has many international fans, including those who, for lack of access to Japanese markets, will forgo the bottle and attempt to replicate it the home kitchen from online recipes. Perhaps the highest formal accolade of Asian taste is the addition of umami into the Western catalog of tastes, joining sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Whether this awakening will foster a greater appreciation of the entire Five-Phases-system that marks the food and life style fundamental to Traditional Oriental Medicine remains an open question.

Arguably, the most provocative of all Japanese culinary curiosities co-opted by the West is the sushi craze that has taken the world by storm since the 1970s. Given the general lack of enthusiasm in the West for eating raw flesh, it is very hard to imagine why this ever caught on. What got burger ‘n’ barbeque mavens to open up and say, “Ahhh-hi!”? And, further, calling a few slivers of cold fish a “meal” seems counter-intuitive to people who are trained (via advertisements) to crave a drippy double bacon cheeseburger.

It may not be because of the taste per se, but rather sushi’s mistaken identity as fast food. Few Americans have gone beyond the plastic take-out pre-fab o-bentos-to-go (aka: box lunches), even to try kaiten zushi or kuru-kuru sushi (conveyor belt) cafes where the food revolves within the circle of diners.

While Colonel Sanders and Ronald McDonald seem to have had great success tapping into the Japanese market, on the other end of the spectrum, the traditional Japanese sushi bar has yet to be widely replicated, much less improved abroad. One daring sushi chef in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA created Hayai Zushi, probably the world’s first fast-food drive-through joint where the patrons revolve around the sushiya. It closed due to bad reviews of the food quality, the wait and, most probably, poor market research by the proprietor about patron expectations. It seems that some additional invisible aspect of the Japanese food experience was noted as missing.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi film Lauren Deutsch review
American filmmaker David Gelb has wonderfully explored just how high the (sushi) bar can be set in Japan in his 2011 documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The feature film has earned high acclaim among foodies who can hardly be considered “an itsy bit wacky.”

The santoku– (type of Japanese knife) wielding proprietor of the spare 10 seats subterranean “Sukiyabashi Jiro” (すきやばし次郎), tucked into the warren of a Ginza subway stop, is the octogenarian Jiro Ono. The ultimate gourmet cross-over artist, his is the only sushi bar to win the coveted culinary constellation of three Michelin stars. That honor would have been enough for the average Western chef, but to Jiro-san the greater recognition of his capacity as a shokunin (Craftsman with a capital C) is the Japanese government’s designating him as a “Living National Treasure. [Caution: One should resist discussing this film with your local sushi chef; s/he might be embarrassed or feel inadequate, despite the fact s/he is doing her / his best for you.]

If we are what we eat … can we also be what we cook, or in Jiro’s case, what we slice? The film’s portraits of the sushi are mouthwatering. The editing, like Jiro’s fish, is carefully filleted; one online film critic called it “clinical”. While not actually having put fish to mouth, nonetheless we leave satisfied having devoured something truly amazing with our eyes.

Gelb offers a stunningly clear focus on exquisiteness, freshness, attention to detail, and determination that happens to be about food. Its freeze-frames shows dazzling, shiny, finger-length slabs of freshly-caught raw fish lounging on a pod of rice and how fish-laden pods land one at a time on a pristine black lacquer tray at each guest’s place at the wooden counter.

The film is foremost a biography of an otherwise nondescript, older, wrinkled-face man who makes his living standing up for hours in a tiny restaurant in a subway stop. A self-made, counter-cultural figure for all his 85 years, Ono-san is an “outsider”, if only for the fact that he is hidari-kiki, left-handed in a very right-handed world, and brandishes long sharp knives in very close quarters. Yet he also sees the bigger picture and is very accommodating, placing the sushi on the diner’s tray angled so that the average (right handed) patron— each of whom has waited about a month for this reservation— may easily grab it with o-hashi.

In Jiro’s world, we are not just talking raw fish on rice … we’re talking about raw fish on rice! A meal at Sukiyabashi is priced at around $300 per diner for a 45 minutes omakase (chef’s choice) meal of 20 single piece servings.

The master is as obsessed with polishing his character as he is with polishing his knife and cutting board after each slice of fish. Throughout the film, Jiro keeps his emotions … like his fish … simple, essential and fresh in the moment. It is therefore not unexpected that he doesn’t seem to be as concerned with the future as might other Living National Treasures who are preparing to retire. He has no such plans, clearly to the chagrin of his protégés — his two sons who are about retirement age themselves.

The older son, Yoshikazu, aspired to be a racecar driver, but has been working alongside his aging father for years. If the day will come in his lifetime that his father retires, Yoshi will take over the restaurant. That is, the younger Ono-san reflects, if the seas aren’t fished out thanks to the worldwide sushi craze. He is concerned about the sustainability of the fish as well as the restaurant.

The younger son, Takashi, runs Sukiyabashi Jiro in Roppongi Hills. The two-Michelin star sushiya is laid out as the perfect mirror image of the Ginza location and boasts the same flavors and techniques as the original. The elder Ono is proud to say that Tashi’s food would not be distinguished from his own by either clientele.

Cwiertka’s thesis about the mythical nature of the notion of Japanese cuisine as a “refined, time-honored philosophy and practice” falls flat when considering the path taken by Yoshihiro Murata to his livelihood as detailed in his exquisite autobiographical look ‘n’ cook book Kaiseki: The Exquisite Cuisine of Kyoto Kikunoi Restaurant.

Kaiseki Kikuoni Yoshihiro Murata book review Lauren Deutsch

The third generation chef-owner of the famed Kikunoi restaurants in Kyoto and Tokyo, Yoshihiro did not jump to claim his place in a 400-year-old lineage. (The earliest generations began cooking for Shogunate regents and their cronies in the 17th Century at Kodaiji Temple.)

“While still in college, I stunned my father by announcing that I would not follow him at the restaurant; that I wanted to cook French cuisine instead.” The elder’s reaction was instantaneous, “Then go to France. I’ll take care of your expenses.” Yoshi reflected, “It was my turn to be shocked, since I had never thought about such a drastic move. My mother begged me to apologize to my father, but I knew I’d have to live with my rashness, and I left for France with no plans and a blank slate.”

By traveling around Europe, Murata–san ended up with a deeper appreciation of Japanese cooking and his birthright to accept. “Our cuisine is a product of our own DNA,” he believes. Returning home, he approached his father with a desire to indeed carry on the tradition, but, was “furious at my change of heart and tossed a glass ashtray at me.” Amends were then made and carry on the family business he has. He respects and follows the principles that came through the unbroken legacy from chef to chef. Murata says that his father “bid us to cook with love, technical skill and passion.”

“The food we make should always be refined and beautiful, but not too delicate. It should never be weak, but should have an appealing integrity and strength.”

These are all apparent in the beautifully illustrated book with complete kaiseki courses perfectly tuned to the seasons (and with recipes in the back!) The website is equally exquisite and should be visited seasonally, especially if one cannot dine onsite.

In choosing two other chefs to join him in writing introductions, Murata advances the question about what people can come to know about Japanese people’s culture through the cuisine. Ferran Adria, “father of molecular gastronomy” and proprietor of the fabulously famous and now shuttered elBulli restaurant in Catalonia, Spain, states that Japanese cuisine is “ … born of an intimate communion between the work of man and the gifts of nature,” that Japanese work and think “with the soul.” The other chef contributor, Nobu Matsuhisa, whose eponymous restaurant franchise was born in Los Angeles, comments, “Though many Westerners prefer to dine from the same menu, regardless of the time of year, the true measure of the skill of a kaiseki chef is the way he prepares his meal in order to communicate the atmosphere and flavors of the season.”

This is by no means the end-all in comments about the topic; rather, it is food for thought about the primacy of food in cultural identity. Food is ultimately an offering to self and others as a means of surviving. How we eat is perhaps even more critical. “Eating is not a casual hedonistic act; it is a ceremony,” notes the eminent contemporary philosopher and theologian Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in his condensed explanation of Kabbalah, The Thirteen Petaled Rose. “When the Temple stood, ritual sacrifice was itself an occasion for a communal meal in which man participated with the Higher Power in an act of communion. Extreme care has therefore to be exercised with respect to what is eaten, and the manner in which one eats has to be consistent with the purpose of consecration.”

To which we can open up and say, Ah .., yum!

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Lauren W. Deutsch

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Images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures