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L.A.'s Idea of Japanese Food vs. What Japanese Really Eat

L.A.'s Idea of Japanese Food vs. What Japanese Really Eat
D. Rainey

Our Venn Food Diagram series has studied the people of Thailand, Armenia, Vietnam and most recently California, comparing what they actually eat with what Angelenos believe they eat. In this edition, we turn our attention to Japan, looking past ramen and sushi to see what foods Angelenos have left to discover in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Moral of the Story: The middle of the Venn Diagram was clear, as Angelenos tended to suggest the same Japanese foods repeatedly. Tempura, ramen, udon and soba were by far the most popular choices. Though they're a fraction of the huge scope of Japanese foods, kudos to responders, as these are all regularly eaten in Japan. Whereas in Japan restaurants tend to focus on one particular dish, Japanese restaurants in America go for the more populist approach, offering a wide array. There are quite a few sushi restaurants in Los Angeles that also serve tempura, ramen and udon under one roof, so the responses make quite a bit of sense. The most difficult section to put together was on the Japanese side, synthesizing a large, varied cuisine and a huge nation of disparate people into one Venn Diagram. And also to give credit to L.A., the incorrect guesses on the left side of the graph were actually rather few and far between.

ramen in Tokyo
ramen in Tokyo
A. Scattergood

Methodology: As with the other Venn Diagrams, the process was entirely unscientific and not to be trusted as a complete guide on Japanese food or even on Angelenos' conception of Japanese food. Discussions were over e-mail, Twitter and Facebook, as well as in person. An online survey was distributed online through friends, fellow writers and friends' friends' friends, along with the generous help of Los Angeles' Facebook fan page as well as L.A. Weekly's own social network pages.

Conclusions: L.A. for the most part, guessed right. By and large, Angelenos suggested actual Japanese foods that actual Japanese people eat. The biggest divide between L.A.'s idea of Japanese food and what Japanese really eat comes in the frequency of the foods suggested.

In discussing this difference in frequency, sushi is the first casualty. Sushi is of course a Japanese food, but it's a meal largely reserved for special occasions and thus couldn't be considered a part of a regular diet. The closest parallel in America might be rib eye steak. It's delicious, a lot of us love it, but how many eat it often enough to consider a part of our regular diet?

Three absolute cornerstones of Japanese home cookery were left off completely, however: curry, okonomiyaki and hamburg.

curry rice at a diner in Tokyo
curry rice at a diner in Tokyo
A. Scattergood

As Jonathan Gold describes, Japanese curry is a roux-thickened, dark brown "goop" that bears little resemblance to other curries around the world and can be filled with every many of meat and vegetable. Okonomiyaki is similarly customizable, its very name meaning "grilled as you like." It's a savory Japanese pancake filled with chopped cabbage and any desired meats and seafood, covered in a glaze of okonomiyaki sauce (a sweeter, thicker Worcestershire sauce), generous squirts of Japanese mayonnaise, a dusting of seaweed flakes, katsuobushi (dried, fermented bonito fish flakes) and a bit of pickled ginger.

Hamburg is pronounced "hambaagu" in Japanese and not to be confused with a hamburger, pronounced "hambaagaa." Though only one letter different when spelled in Japanese, hamburgers are the lettuce and tomato-topped sandwiches we expect, whereas hamburg is meatloaf shaped into thick patties and served with demiglace sauce and rice.

Omurice (omelette rice) is a childhood favorite that often gets eaten in adulthood as a kind of throwback. Ketchup-y fried rice is tucked inside a thin omelet and given a few squirts of ketchup for extra measure, happy parents sometimes forming smiley faces out of the red lines.

Broiled fish is a dinner staple as well. Just about any type of fish can be flashed in a broiler, and this is a catch-all for the other ways in which fish is quickly cooked and served simply. One of the most down-home variations is whole mackerel butterflied open, covered in soy sauce and broiled till crispy. An entire household will smell fishy, and the meat itself is always surprising in its mildness.

Nabe refers to any manner of hotpot dishes, often kept in the middle of the table to bubble away as diners pull out individual pieces of meat, vegetables, tofu and noodles. The two most well-known examples in America would be sukiyaki and shabu-shabu, though a recent fad in Japan has been an Italian-tinged tomato version.

To credit L.A., the incorrect guesses were few and far between. Teriyaki chicken in its goupy, sickly sweet form is a largely Western invention. That's not to say chicken glazed in sweetened soy sauce can't be found. Yakitori restaurants serve up sticks of chicken meat either salted or with tare sauce (sweetened, thickened soy sauce), but the end product is a substantially lighter, more nuanced and less corn starchy affair. As for whale, most everyone is so uninterested in eating it that they not only have not tried it, they wouldn't even know where to find it. Mochi ice cream is hardly the phenomenon that it is in America, produced by sweets company Lotte as Yukimi Daifuku. Mochi, pounded glutinous rice, is eaten very commonly but far more often away from ice cream than with it.

 

Okonomiyaki in Tokyo
Okonomiyaki in Tokyo
A. Scattergood

Notes:

  • It can't be overstated how big a part rice plays in the average Japanese diet. Is it eaten with absolutely every meal? No. There are ramen/udon/soba shops, as expected. And as anyone who's visited Japan can attest, there's also a plethora of bakeries as well as Italian and French restaurants. But the centrality of rice not only in Japanese diet but in history and culture cannot be overstated. In feudal Japan, lords were given land that was distinguished by how much rice it could produce, and villages were taxed mainly in rice, not money. In fact, rice brokers were the precursor to Japanese banks, storing rice for these feudal lords. They would not only charge those who stored rice in the storehouses but then loan out rice and charge interest. In Outliers, Malcom Gladwell even devotes a section to a theory on rice cultivation and its effect on work ethic -- how rice farming lent itself to perfecting planting techniques in a way that wheat farming didn't, this emphasis on perfectionism and perseverance becoming a pervasive cultural trait.
  • Whether there really is some super Japanese work ethic or not, what's surprising is how many Japanese people list some variation of rice as their absolute favorite dish. Riced topped with raw, beaten egg mixed with soy sauce is hugely popular, as is melted butter over rice. Not only Japanese people but expats who have lived in Japan for extended periods of time frequently list freshly-cooked sticky white rice as the thing they missed the most when travelling abroad.
  • Curry's huge popularity in home cooking derives in large part from its ease of preparation: throw together some meat and vegetables in water or stock, heat together until it becomes a kind of watery stew, add one cube of store-bought curry roux and suddenly the thin, incredibly mild stew becomes a hugely rich sauce perfect to be eaten with a starch. It's also popular because it lends itself to a huge amount of variation not only in the meat and vegetables used but also in starch accompaniment, whether rice, udon/soba/pasta/somen noodles or stuffed inside dough and deep fried as curry bread.
  • If you're new to okonomiyaki, you might want to leave off the katsuobushi, but even without the dried fish flakes you can appreciate it for all the reasons Japanese people do: it's filling, savory, rich, slightly sweet and - of course - customizable. It also heats up incredibly well for leftovers, whole pancakes refrigerated and sometimes even frozen by Japanese moms everywhere. Okonomiyaki restaurants are especially fun because they often have a griddle at each table. Thus, groups of family and friends can mix and then cook their own pancakes, arguing midway about who will flip the monstrous pancake.
  • Hamburg might be the most popular dish at famiresu (family restaurants). Denny's is one such famiresu, but in an ironic twist of fate, it's one of Japan's nicer, more expensive famiresu chains. As such, the menu is completely different - and far more delicious - than its American counterpart.
  • 7-Eleven is another American brand that took off in Japan, becoming a konbini (convenience store) behemoth. In fact, when 7-Eleven's Dallas-based parent company went bankrupt in 1990, it was 7-Eleven Japan and its parent company that bought out the international chain. Amongst konbini chains, 7-Eleven is probably the most upscale. Their premade foods -- bento, salads, nikuman (the Japanese version of char siu bao) -- are very tasty, and 7-Eleven onigiri (rice balls) are renowned for being especially delicious. Though onigiri are always covered in sheets of toasted seaweed to keep the glutinous rice from sticking to fingers, 7-Eleven onigiri come with their seawood separated from the rice by plastic film. This allows eaters to apply the seaweed themselves directly before eating, saving the seaweed from sticking to the rice and becoming damp and chewy while sitting in the store. It should also be mentioned that in Japanese 7-Eleven's, there's not a Slurpee machine in sight.

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