I have a wife who is half Japanese, and a mother-in-law who comes from a small fishing village on the coast of Kagoshima Prefecture on the island of Kyushu. My mother-in-law is from peasant stock, and hardly interested in pretending to be a urbane sophisticate. My interest in Japanese food is part a product of personal fascination with things Japanese, but also partly practical. I have to feed my in laws. And to that end, the Doraville roll just doesn’t cut it.
For those of us who lack Japanese blood, Japanese rearing, a year in Japan as an English teacher, or perhaps some time as an izakaya chef, there is one reference you should get your hands on beyond all others. I say this, not as someone who has read extensively about these issues, but as a scholar, who has an advanced degree from a good university, and thus has had to become a world class expert on a topic at least once in my life. I’m claiming some skill in learning, and some ability to recognize a great book when I see one.
Shizuo Tsuji’s tour de force cookbook and thorough blow-by-blow discussion of the Japanese meal, “Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art” is a must read. Either you have read it, you have acquired what he knows through personal experience, or you simply don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to the Japanese meal.
To show what this book can do for the food blogger and food critic, we’ll start with some common misconceptions.
Misconception 1: A Japanese meal begins with miso soup, salad and rice. It continues with an entrée, and ends with a sweet dessert.
Uhm, no. A traditional Japanese meal ends with things like miso soup and rice. In fact a traditional meal might be little more than rice and pickles (tsukemono).
The four course Japanese meal starts with clear soup or sashimi, proceeds to grilled, steamed, simmered, or deep dried food, perhaps includes a salad, and ends with rice, miso soup, pickles, tea and perhaps fruit. And in this vein, the first part of Tsuji’s book, the part that talks about technique, lore, ingredients, the part less focused on just the recipes, is laid out in the order of the Japanese meal.
Misconception 2: Sushi is the highlight of the traditional Japanese meal.
No. High quality sashimi is what an ordinary Japanese family would give to a guest to show them respect. Preparing most sushi requires special skills, skills the average housewife does not have. To think that sushi is common food is to reduce the whole of Japan to a nation of sushi chefs.
Misconception 3: Ramen is Japanese food.
The irony of this situation is that everyone thinks ramen is Japanese except the Japanese themselves. Ramen, like yakisoba, is considered by the Japanese to be a Chinese import. It is, however, a popular import, much as sushi is a popular import in America.
Misconception 4: I have done a good job as a food critic by talking about a Japanese restaurant’s ramen and their sushi.
Sad to say, this makes about as much sense as discussing a hamburger joint’s French fries and shakes, as opposed to their burgers. But 90% of the criticism of Japanese restaurants in Atlanta can’t get past the ramen or the sushi. Although a place with great French fries and great drinks is worth noting – maybe you go to the restaurant just for those – it doesn’t capture the whole of the eating experience.
Misconception 5: I can determine the authenticity of a Japanese restaurant by the quality of its ramen.
See Misconception 3 above, and think about it a while. Yes, I’ve seen Atlanta food bloggers try this one out as well.
Misconception 6: I can determine the authenticity of a Japanese restaurant by the quality of its tuna sushi.
This isn’t strictly from Shizuo Tsuji’s book, but it’s an issue worth mentioning. I’ve seen Atlanta bloggers go down the path of complaining about the tuna sushi in Japanese restaurants, and holding it a against the establishment. And to be plain, a good chunk of deep red bluefin nigiri was my first love in nigiri-zushi. But bluefin is a currently a step away from being classed as an endangered species, and making any judgments on the basis of tuna is exceptionally crass.
Misconception 7: All Japanese restaurants have a sushi bar.
Only in America are we so in love with sushi that all Japanese restaurants have to have sushi bars. Americans are so in love with sushi that Thai restaurants have sushi bars, as do higher end grocery stores. As an example, it would be unthinkable for an Atlanta izakaya to lack a sushi bar, but that’s by far the common state of affairs in Japan.
There really is no restaurant I love more than an izakaya, and no matter how many trendy American restaurants like to put that on their website they never get it right.