Right before the whole Tofugu team left for Japan, we decided to try a nearby Japanese restaurant right here in the US. Even though we were a little apprehensive about eating there, we decided to give it a try anyway. What was the harm?
It turned out we should have listened to our instincts. This restaurant violated practically every laws of finding a “real” Japanese restaurant, and was one of the worst Japanese restaurants I’d been to in a while.
Fast forward about a month or so later. We’re in Tokyo, hanging out with the Gakuranman. It’s early afternoon, and we’re hungry for lunch. We eventually settle on a Mexican restaurant, and it’s promising: the decor looks right, the menu doesn’t look too bad, and they’re playing Tequila.
The food was bad. I’d been really craving Mexican food during the month we were in Japan, but this didn’t help at all.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about those two lunches, and what they have in common. Even though they were weeks apart and thousands of miles away from each other, the similarities between the two got me thinking about authenticity.
Why Is It So Hard to Get Authentic Food?
Both of those lunches were a disappointment because neither of them seemed to have really authentic food, whether it was Japanese nor Mexican. I started to wonder why it’s so hard to get authentic food in the first place.
There are lots of reasons it can be so hard to get authentic ethnic food. Even though you can get a Big Mac served identically anywhere across the globe, it’s not always easy for food to be copied so perfectly.
There are lots of barrier between you and authentic food. What local tastes are like, availability of ingredients, and all that. Believe it or not, it’s hard to find a bodega in Japan.
I’m not completely astonished that Mexican food isn’t great in Japan. There’s no Latino population to speak of in Japan, and most Japanese people haven’t ever had Mexican food. Given that, how can Japanese people really know what Mexican food is supposed to taste like?
What Is Authentic?
As I thought more and more, the word “authentic” kept coming up and coming up and I began to wonder what it even meant. It was a word that was so critical to what I was trying to figure out that it was hard to ignore.
At the Mexican restaurant in Tokyo, I told the Gakuranman that he’d never had a real, authentic burrito, even though I’d literally seen him eat a burrito minutes before.
It wasn’t as if the burrito were fake or imaginary or something like that. It’s just that it hadn’t met my standards of authenticity, whatever those were.
Unfortunately, the standards of authenticity are very subjective and malleable. There’s no objective checklist for you to cross reference if you wonder whether or not some food is “authentically” Japanese.
Sure, there are signs that point you in the right direction, but the finer details of what, say, constitutes as authentic Japanese or Mexican foods is up to interpretation.
As one Supreme Court Justice said, “I know it when I see it.”
Copy of a Copy
As I kept thinking about it, I realized that most of the Mexican food I’ve had in my life has actually been more Tex-Mex than proper Mexican food. More a localized copy than the real McCoy.
And when I think about it, a lot of the Japanese food I know and love isn’t really “Japanese” anyway. Tempura is from Portugal, ramen is from China, and sushi is from southeast Asia. But Japan has managed to absorb these foods into its culture and make them its own.
We like to think that there are clean, distinct lines between cultures, but they all sort of mush together after a while, even a culture as supposedly homogenous as Japan’s.
I’m not going to claim that you can get authentic, Japanese sushi in some landlocked place in the US like Iowa (sorry Iowans). If anything, I’m saying that you shouldn’t expect food to be the same in Japan as it is abroad.
But as much as we like to joke about sushi abominations, that doesn’t mean that Japanese food abroad has to be bad, or that different interpretations of Japanese food is wrong. Earlier this month, a Danish chef won first place in the World Sushi Cup in Japan. Instead of being penalized for going against tradition, judges were impressed that the chef embraced ingredients and techniques from Scandinavia.
I’d like to think of eating ethnic food a bit like watching a horror movie. You might be able to see the zipper on the monster’s costume, but if you suspend your disbelief, you might actually enjoy yourself!