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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.

sepia-binoculars

Photo by Edith Soto

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.

copier-shadow

Photo by Dan Phiffer

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.

Bucking Authenticity

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!

  • guest

    Just the other day a friend said that food taster better here (USA) than in her native country, because here, the ingredients are fresher.

  • http://twitter.com/zacharywalz Zach Walz

    When I eat authentic Japanese food, I am instantly transported back to Japan. It brings back good memories, and it does it better than any sight or sound can do. I agree that sometimes too much emphasis is placed on authenticity when authentic flavors just wouldn’t sell with local taste buds, but something about truly authentic food is just powerful.

    BTW, for those in Chicago who want authentic food, you absolutely MUST go to Sunshine Cafe: http://www.yelp.com/biz/sunshine-caf%C3%A9-chicago-2 — I’m pretty sure there’s a Japanese grandma personally cooking every dish in the back…

  • Komodovaran

    Correction: It was a Dane who won the sushi competition, not a Swede.

  • Dolphinwing

    I can’t say I’ve ever had “authentic” sushi cuz I’ve never been to Japan so I don’t know what it’s supposed to taste like. Most of the sushi restaurants I’ve been to here are all run by Korean people which kind of annoys me but I never found the food to be terrible in any one place.

  • lathandien

    Living in Southern California there is a lot of Asian diversity; I can
    easily find an ‘authentic’ Japanese restaurant where they speak
    Japanese. To be fair, the United States is the epitome of ‘absorbing
    other people’s food and making it their own.’ Nearly everything we
    consider ‘American’ is from Europe, yet at the same time it’s distinctly
    American (i.e. pizza hut vs. a pizzeria in Rome).

  • mmmfruit

    Well, I wouldn’t say zero Mexican population! There’s a smaaaaall restaurant in Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka run by a Mexican woman out of her home, and the food there is delicious. ;) Wrote about it briefly here: http://mmm-fruit.com/2011/05/hola-las-chillonas/

  • Izu

    If her native country is Japan, I cannot possibly believe that. :P The place where all the best-before dates on meat and fish at the market is the very next day…!?

  • DAVIDPD

    AS long as it taste good. I am happy. Here in California, there is a glut of bad sushi places, but that just means it all tastes alright. Lots of mayo, tobiko, avocado, and cucumbers…it’s still very much edible, but definitely not authentic by any means.

  • Jessica

    My problem with inauthentic Japanese food in the US is that it leaves a lot of people with the wrong impression of Japanese food. My parents, for example, “hate” Japanese food. They’ve been to too many Japanese restaurants in the US serving nothing but sushi, bland tempura, and ____ teriyaki. I know if they went to Japan, I could find lots and lots that they would love to eat. Oyakodon, soba, udon, okonomiyaki, omuraisu, tonkatsu – I find that it’s very hard to find these dishes State-side, and when I do find them, they are poor iterations of the dishes I’ve had in Japan. There’s a degree to which I don’t like going to Japanese restaurants outside Japan, because I find the quality very frustrating.
    Of course, I’m going tonight to try a new (to me) Japanese place. Wish me luck?

  • http://twitter.com/Latricebeme Latrice

    Most of the stuff I loved eating in Japan is probably not “real” Japanese food (ramen, yakisoba, curry, etc.). But I definitely got used to how they were made in Japan, so when they didn’t have that “Japanese-style” taste I didn’t like it. I once went to a Japanese joint and they served me yakisoba with iceberg lettuce…and I had…a FIT! I do think you have to pay a bit more when you want authentic food; sometimes I’m cheap and will just be happy with “as long as it tastes good.” I’m still looking for a good Japanese restaurant in the DC area, but there’s a great tonkatsu place I like to go to when I’m in NYC. LOL it passes the “there are Japanese people eating there” test.

  • http://www.ubikcentral.com Chris Ubik

    As someone who has worked on and off in the restaurant biz most of my life, I’d say the #1 reason why there isn’t more “authentic” ethnic food here in America is because people wouldn’t like it. The #2 reason is cost. Let’s use American cuisine as an example of both. Ever had an authentic Philly steak sandwich? You start with thinly sliced marinated ribeye, dump it on a grill, and chop it to hell. Toss it on a long, crusty roll and slather it with onions and…yes…Cheez Whiz.

    In Philly, the meat, Cheez Wiz, and those rolls are in large supply and costs are low. But starting about 50 miles away you begin to get Philly Cheesesteaks that just aren’t right. Provolone instead of Cheez Whiz, long, flat sheets of meat instead of chopped ribeye, and whatever roll they serve everything else on.

    Fortunately there are a few places here in/near Washington DC that takes the time, and expense, of getting it right. I love going to these places, but I don’t like taking friends. Why? They don’t like them! “Cheez Whiz? Ewww! Where’s the Provolone? No lettuce? Why is my sandwich dripping all over me?”

    Which brings us to reason 2: if a restaurant isn’t going to make money off of something, they won’t serve it. This is why it is almost impossible to get an “authentic” steak sandwich outside Philadelphia. No restaurant GM is going to stock the right kind of ribeye and Cheez Whiz for the small handful of Philly ex-pats and budget gourmands who want an “authentic” steak sandwich. Better and much less expensive to use the meat, cheese, and bread that they use for other dishes.

    The same thing applies with international cuisine. Japan was amazingly eye-opening when it came to food and I now have a hard time eating at my favorite Japanese restaurants here in the states. Whaddaya mean you don’t have ramen!? No Kare? Soba? ONE kind of udon? The food I fell in love with just won’t play here. Too challenging for American palates and too expensive to stock for the purists.

    However, I have been able to find a Japanese cafe about 30 minutes from my house that does Japanese food right! I almost wept the first time I ate there.

  • kn

    as a native mexican who a few months ago come back to N.Y i guaranted what none of the mexican restaurants was good, the major reason was because the northeamericans aren’t accustomed to the spicy flavor of the food, so to the end the food isn’t traditional nor taste as mexican food, someone thought what the mexicans eat tacos whit a fried tortillas or harina ones? that in fact is unusual

  • http://twitter.com/Cupucuups Hamyo

    In my country there are so many japanese local restaurant exist. But the taste of the food has modified, it’s not a big deal for those who never try the authentic japanese food but in the other hand, for those who has tasted the authentic Japanese food, all of this Japanese local restaurant sometimes become a nightmare. –” http://okonomikatsu.blogspot.com/

  • David Quinn Carder

    I used to live on the Big Island of Hawaii where there was, obviously, a large Japanese population. They were mostly second generation, but not all. And while the Japanese food there was better than on the mainland for the most part, it was still a lot closer to mainland US “Japanese” food than real Japanese food, even when the dish was a straight-up Japanese dish and not some Americanized something or another.

    I think with Japanese food, a lot of it is philosophy. Good Japanese food is good because it’s minimalist, balanced, and the people making it care so much about what they’re doing and try so hard, and work so hard so much of their lives to get it right. It just sets a high standard, so that even 7-11 food in Japan is pretty damn good. When I get sushi in Tokyo at a sushi-go-round place, I spend very little money and get so much more (both quantity and quality) than I do anywhere else in the world. Nothing else even compares.

    Right now I live in Austin, Most of the “Mexican” food here is Tex-Mex. Some of it is good for what it is, but your typical Austin taco, even a good one, just isn’t the same as a real Mexican street taco. I found a taco truck that I go to often now that serves the real deal — the best tacos I’ve ever had. It’s cheap, it’s not even on Yelp, and rumour has it that the truck makes most of it’s money selling drugs, not tacos. It’s a dirty little taco truck and all the good stuff is the bits of meat most Americans get squeamish about. And it’s SO GOOD.

    But Tex-Mex is clean. Tex-Mex doesn’t have that blood and sweat and pig’s stomach and such in it. So again, I think it’s philosophy and culture and this extra element that makes it what it is. The tacos are good because they just do what they’re supposed to do and don’t try to cut corners or fancy it up or clean it up or compromise. Good Japanese food is good because so little goes into it, but so much work and effort and pride goes into it. And again, no compromise. But most people who like “Japanese” food, until they go to Japan and get used to it, are content with — or even specifically desire — the unauthentic stuff. Same goes with tacos. There’s simply no incentive to do something authentic if unauthentic sells better or more easily. Not enough people will appreciate the real thing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.alexander.980 Joel Alexander

    Hah. Three sentences in and I was just about ready to scroll down here and say “well YOU’VE never had authentic Mexican either.” Good thing you addressed it in your article. =P

    Just idly, where did you go? I went to a Mexican all-you-can-eat restaurant on Odaiba when I was there – it may not have been “authentic” fake-Mexican, but it sure tasted nice.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I forget the name of the place, it was somewhere in Harajuku.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Ah, you’re right! I was getting Chef of the Year confused with the Outstanding Sushi Restaurant. My mistake!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1438943897 Stephen Knight

    Poor translations of another country’s food transitions can be found anywhere, but I have to admit, the “tacos” I had at a “Mexican style” steakhouse in Tokyo really took the ‘pastel’… floppy, slightly warmed flour tortillas with a smattering of unseasoned ground pork, accompanied by a plate of sliced onions and chopped lettuce. Truly the creation of someone who had probably not only never eaten the real thing, but likely came up with the item based on someone’s verbal description of a photocopy of a black-and-white photo of a taco… lol

  • shiroi

    Remember that Japan is a tiny, resource-poor island and most of the meat, vegetables, fish etc are imported.

    Japan is not always better at everything.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Interesting, thanks for sharing!

  • Jesse Cadd

    Real mexican food is definitely one of the cuisines we miss most here. Whenever we visit Portland/Newberg, we always make point of hitting our local Panaderia Y Taqueria Gonzalez (http://www.urbanspoon.com/r/24/1180395/restaurant/Portland/Gonzalez-Taqueria-Y-Panaderia-Newberg) and have a la lengua super burrito. Here in Japan, when we get the hankering, we use the burrito shells from Costco (way better than what’s available on base), and then just spice our own meat with lettuce, tomato, cilantro, beans and cheese. The cheese is probably the least authentic…nothing beats Tillamook Cheddar in my book! (one of the perks of shopping on base)

    But at least with Mexican restaurants it’s hard to find even the poor imitations here. Italian, however, is another matter. With Saizeriya and several other cheap, terrible “italian” restaurants around, you can’t help but have the lack of good italian food flaunted in your face. I’m sure there are some excellent Italian restaurants in Yokohama/Tokyo, but they are also probably extremely expensive.

    For Japanese food in Portland, I still miss Murata’s (http://www.urbanspoon.com/r/24/283060/restaurant/Downtown/Restaurant-Murata-Portland). I used to work in the KOIN tower and would eat at Murata’s whenever my budget allowed.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    I don’t think I’d be able to enjoy eating anything that I see a zipper in, actually.

  • http://twitter.com/SactoMan81 Raymond Chuang

    Hashi, I think what you could easily apply to what the Japanese call yōshoku cuisine.

    Here’s the thing: Japan _has_ borrowed a lot of cuisine from other countries, but heavily modified them in a way that is better-suited to Japanese preferences for food (whatever THAT means). As as result, Japan’s definition of Western-style food ends up being quite different than what you see in Western countries; indeed, yōshoku dishes such as kare raisu, omuraisu, Hayashi raisu, hambagu steak, and korokke are distinctly Japanese “interpretations” of what is eaten in the West.

    That also applies to ramen bowls (derived from Chinese noodle bowls with soup) and nikuman (the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese “baozi”)–they can be quite different than the Chinese original. Indeed, I’m not sure if a Chinese person would recognize a bowl of ramen.

    in short, because Japanese food tastes until recent years were quite different, the result is any food that gets adopted by the Japanese tends to undergo a lot of changes. Interestingly, real Korean cuisine has started to make inroads in Japan, and (in my opinion!) probably because of the Zainichi Korean population, Korean cuisine in Japan is probably very close to the Korean original (a very popular dish recently is “bibimbap”).

  • Ryan

    Hashi’s article about authenticity got me thinking. So I wrote a response. http://ryanleetaylor.com/blog/2013/3/29/an-innovative-burrito

  • Komodovaran

    What about food in ziplock bags. Does that count? :D

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    That depends on how long it’s been in there. I have a simple way of remembering if stuff like that is still good to eat:

    If the bag predates everyone I know,
    that food has got to go.

  • http://www.twitter.com/christaran Chris Taran

    What’s a bodega? And is that an English word?

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Your loss!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I’ve never been to Panaderia Y Taqueria Gonzalez (it’s probably like a 45 minute drive for me), but Murata’s. Oh, Murata’s! So good.

    And yes, Tillamook cheese is pretty great. Glad that it sounds like you can get some on base.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    A bodega is just like, a corner store that usually sells Hispanic foods. It’s a Spanish word, but it’s not uncommon to hear in the US, especially in places with big Spanish-speaking populations.

  • http://www.twitter.com/christaran Chris Taran

    Ahh, gotcha. Guess that makes sense why we don’t have them in Pennsylvania :)

  • Ashley

    If you ever go into NOVA territory, try the sushi bar at Sakura in Woodbridge, VA. It’s a half sushi half habachi place, but the sushi chef there is really good.

  • chester

    I’ve had sushi in the States, and you know what? It’s rice with vinegar with a slice of raw fish on it. How is that not authentic? Are you going to give me some bullshit about the harmony and honor of the sushi chef? It’s raw fish. On rice. Owari. Most Japanese people get their sushi for 100 yen at Sushiro. It’s the most popular restaurant in town. Know why? Because Japanese people don’t care about all that peaceful and harmony bullshit as long as they get some uncooked fish on rice. They just don’t care.

    Especially with sushi, but with all Japanese food in general, talking about authenticity is frankly pointless and dumb, because here’s what Japanese people do: they drink cheap, nasty beer, put mayonnaise on fried chicken, eat these ground beef patties they call “hamburgs” and eat curry twice a week, then spend hours telling their foreign coworker how beautiful and peaceful all of these “traditional” Japanese foods are – you know, that authentic Japanese beer and the honorable hamburger with the peaceful mayonnaise on it. And they just love to act like their skunky beer is this special, honorable, peaceful thing, when literally every major brand tastes just like old Budweiser. God, can you imagine an American grinning at you over a glass of Budweiser and saying something like, “American beer is the best, isn’t it?”

    You know what you really need to do to have an authentic Japanese meal is put some mayonnaise on fried chicken and eat it with a bowl of rice with a can of cheap-ass beer (Budweiser will do, since all “Japanese beer” tastes just like it, but worse).

  • Chester

    Oh, God, the “wa/you” dichotomy is so frustrating, because, as you pointed out, it is so arbitrary. Half the stuff they call “youshoku” is actually just a Japanese invention – like, fucking, no, Americans do not eat “hamburgs,” that is 100% Japanese, and yet they call it “youshoku.” It pisses you off sometimes, because it starts to even sound a little racist. Like, oh, this is unhealthy, it’s OBVIOUSLY “youshoku.”

    Like fried chicken or pizza with mayonnaise. That’s not Japanese! It’s so unhealthy! Like, fucking no, Japan, no one in their right mind puts mayonnaise on fried chicken. Do you want to just kill yourself? Jesus. That is “washoku.” Yet they just don’t want to label such unhealthy garbage as “washoku.” So it absolutely starts to become this weird, subtly racist thing that they do.

  • Flora

    Not always. A bodega is just a term for any corner store in an urban/inner-city area. If the area in question has a high Hispanic population, then yes, you’ll see a lot of Hispanic foods.

    Likewise, most bodega’s here in the South sell things like pork rinds, fried cauliflower, ribs, fried chicken gizzards, chitterlings, etc. When my mom lived in the NY area, most bodegas sold Jewish foods (lox, matzo, bagels, etc.) among a lot of other ethnicities.

  • FoxiBiri

    shoulda gone to libre burrito

    http://www.libre-burrito.com/

  • FoxiBiri

    There isn’t one in the DC area, I promise. There is however, plenty of great authentic korean food.

  • Chester

    Except for the avocado, the mayonnaise is 100% authentic. Mayonnaise on sushi is absolutely normal and common here. The avocado, I rarely see, but that could just be my region. My grocery store rarely has avocados, so, I guess they’re rare here?

    I think people would eat avocado sushi here, though, if they had the chance. Oh! Yeah, Sushiro had an avocado nigiri on their menu this season. I didn’t try it.

  • Chester

    Authentic sushi? It tastes like raw, cold fish on rice mixed with vinegar.

    I’ll tell you the honest truth, though. My aunt-in-law runs a small sushi shop, and I think it’s probably the freshest sushi I’ve ever had. The problem is that it is cold, uncooked, fresh fish. Americans love to go on and on about how peaceful and harmonious and honorable this is, but think about that: raw, cold fish. Does it really sound that good? Well, for me, my aunt-in-law’s sushi is nice, but I have this constant feeling of wrongness – like, seriously, someone cook this fish, it is cold and raw and it just doesn’t feel like actual, real food. It feels like someone was trying to cook some fish and just gave up halfway through.

    So, it’s very likely that you’re not missing out on anything. If you came to Japan and had mid-range quality sushi, you’d think, “Hm, this is pretty ok.” But you might find the fresh, 100% authentic stuff unappetizing, as I do with my aunt-in-law’s hand-made sushi. So don’t worry about whether or not you had “authentic” sushi. If it was raw fish on rice, and it was tasty? You’ve succeeded in having good sushi.

  • Chester

    You know, there’s just too much bullshit surrounding Japanese food. People go on and on and on and on and on and on and on about “authentic” or “good” sushi – and they build it up as this thing that you have to be sophisticated to eat, and it drives people away.

    The people that DO try it, get there and think, “Fuck, this is raw fish on rice. Why are people making a big deal out of it?”

    I don’t think things like ramen or soba are challenging for American palettes at all. Not in the least. Something like zaru soba is challenging to our ideas of how food should be eaten, but the flavor is absolutely simple and refreshing.

    But people just build it up like it’s this complicated, special thing. Japanese food is some of the simplest on the planet. In fact, REAL Japanese food is often boring and repetitive – what’s in this dish? Oh, soy sauce and mirin and sugar? Ok. How about this one? Just soy sauce and mirin. Well, gee, what rich variety of flavors, this is far too complicated for my unrefined American palette. Yeah, right. :-/

    But that’s just it: REAL Japanese food is BORING. And it might not be (no, it DEFINITELY isn’t) that Japanese food is too challenging for American palettes, but that it is built up by weeaboos to give people unrealistic expectations. Because of weeaboos around the world, everything Japanese has this aura of mystery built up around it. So, I mean, imagine if you had a weeaboo friend who was all like, “You HAVE to go to this Japanese restaurant with me! It’s SO amazing!” And then you showed up and realized that EVERYTHING tasted like fucking soy sauce. Even the damn soup. For a normal, non-weeaboo person, that would be really fucking disappointing. You would be pretty angry at your stupid weeaboo friend for building up this soy sauce festival and you’d probably be turned off by Japanese food forever.

    My wife made some “authentic” Japanese food for my foodie sister-in-law – absolutely authentic. And everyone in the family just looked at like, “That’s it?” They expected some kind of amazing, peaceful, beautiful thing – they expected my wife to put on a kimono and bow and giggle and slice some fish with great honor – but, no, it was some damn radish in fish broth. That’s authentic. And disappointing as fuck. We all ate it and nodded politely, and everyone hated it.

    THAT’S the real problem. People constantly feel like they have to THINK about Japanese food and treat it like this miraculous, peaceful, honorable thing – when it’s just simple, delicious, soy-saucy food. Can we just leave it at that and enjoy it?

  • Chester

    “I think with Japanese food, a lot of it is philosophy. Good Japanese
    food is good because it’s minimalist, balanced, and the people making it
    care so much about what they’re doing and try so hard, and work so hard
    so much of their lives to get it right.”

    This is 100% wrong and EXACTLY why no one can enjoy Japanese food outside of Japan. No they do not care so much about what they are doing and try so hard. They cook. Food. With ingredients. It is delicious. Owari. Philosophy? The Japanese food philosophy is pretty much, “Hey, can we mix this shit?” Or, alternately, “I bet we can put mayonnaise on this.”

    You know one of the best things in my prefecture? There’s an ice cream company that makes local flavors: yuzu, sake (yes, sake ice cream), egg (yes, egg), tomato (fucking tomato), eggplant (uh-huh, eggplant) and strawberry (because of course).

    The philosophy behind this is absolutely a “bro” philosophy. As in, some dudes got together and said, “Dude, what if we made…EGGPLANT ICE CREAM?! Oh man, that would be cool.” There is no peaceful, beautiful story behind it. It’s dudes making ice cream in hilarious flavors. Because, why the hell not?

    Not that that is wrong. In fact, I fucking love that attitude. “Why the hell not? Mix it! Put mayo on it! Add soy sauce! YES!” But it isn’t deep or mystical. Just put it in your mouth and chew it.

  • DAVIDPD

    Just because you can find mayo on sushi in Japan does not mean it is authentic. It only means the restaurants are playing at the lowest common denominator for profit. Because who does not like creamy, fatty goodness? When a Parisian says all American food is McDonald’s and Burger King, there is some truth in that there are many McDonald’s and Burger Kings in America, but to label that as authentic American food would be foolish. Right now, we have some of the most exciting cuisine in the world in America. Places like Uchiko, Pok Pok, and Misson Chinese Food, are redefining what is American food and twisting stereotypes on their heads. But to get back to the point, just because the food can be found in abundance in a country, does not mean it is authentic to said country.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I didn’t know that the term was used so widely, thanks for the correction!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    We’d actually seen the website before, but going to a Mexican restaurant was kind of a spur-of-the-moment kinda thing. Have you been to Libre Burrito?

  • FoxiBiri

    Yeah! One of my friends was friends with the owner, so when I was missing burritos she had him take me to Libre and then the Dragon Quest exhibition that was at the Mori Art Center in Roppongi Hills ^^
    He’s an interesting guy, went to UCLA and lived in the US for 11 years, then upon returning to Tokyo realized there wasn’t any awesome Mexican food anywhere. It’s great and kind of like a knock off Chipoltle xD but that’s exactly what Japan needs right? It’s good, and I mean truly delicious. He knows his stuff.

  • Chester

    “But to get back to the point, just because the food can be found in
    abundance in a country, does not mean it is authentic to said country.”

    No, that’s EXACTLY what authentic means. If it’s not found in abundance in the country, then it’s not authentically what that country eats. If it IS found in abundance, then it IS what the country authentically eats. Again, what are you going to call “authentic” sushi? Sushi the way it’s made in Tokyo? Kyoto? Nara? Then don’t call it “authentic Japanese sushi,” because that’s not what you’re talking about. You’re talking about “authentic Tokyo sushi,” or “authentic Nara sushi,” or “authentic Kyoto sushi.”

    And that’s not even getting into how you try to claim that Burger King isn’t authentic, but some new-age hipster fusion restaurant is. It sounds like your definition of “authentic” might simply mean “food that allows me to think the best of a country and feel good about the food I’m eating.” Again with the wa/you dichotomy – you want to call the good food in America “authentic” and deny that Burger King is really what real, actual normal people eat. Well, sorry. Americans like Burger King – and Japanese people like mayonnaise on sushi.

  • Chester

    Oh, and let’s also point out that the “authentic” conversation leads to a lot of potential for racism. Like DAVIDPD above who wants to define what real Japanese people do and don’t eat (“No, Taro-san, Japanese people totally don’t put mayonnaise on sushi. You’re totally wrong about your own culture. Trust me, I know.”) the idea that Koreans can’t make authentic sushi is inherently racist and again a part of that built-up bullshit mysticality that surrounds sushi. Sushi isn’t some mystical food item with great honor. Koreans can make it. Anyone can make it.

    Why does it annoy you that Koreans make your sushi? Why should that even be a factor in deciding how much you like it?

  • DAVIDPD

    Hmm…okay. You appear to be some one who takes this matter very seriously, I assume you have an open mind, but this is the internet after all, so assumptions are better left at the door.

    I will now attempt to rationally explain my thought process of authenticity. If by the end of my argument you still have a differing opinion, that is fair, and you are in your rights to believe what you want, and I will believe what I want. Having said that, let me begin.

    Authenticity, by definition, means “genuine or real; not false”. So your reply is entirely inaccurate as a high abundance does not necessarily mean authentic. What it does mean is popularity and/or having mass appeal. You surely would not call Taco Bell, “authentic” Mexican food, simply because it is the most popular Mexican restaurant chain in America, right? Something that is authentic is, for me, something that is close to original idea of the thing. You try to say Burger King is authentic American food, but it’s mass appeal has no bearing on it being authentic American food. If you want true American food, it can be found in the South, where Black slaves developed Soul food and Barbecue, the only real foods that can be said to have been invented in America. That would be the hard line approach, and thankfully, I would also include food types that were developed by immigrants in America to also be called American food (I.E. spaghetti and meatballs, meatloaf, hot dogs, hamburgers, lasagna, corn beef and cabbage, hero/hoagie/subway sandwiches, etc.) To eat truly authentic American food go to restaurants that have been making the food for years as one or maybe two locations. Of course there are some exceptions, like the California fast food chain called In-N-Out, which I would call authentic American fast food.

    Regarding authenticity and sushi, we all know the original sushi was nothing more than rice and fish, fermented in a pot for months and consumed. Something akin to Korean kimchi, although not really (LOL). Next came “box” sushi where the rice and fish was pressed together using a a special wooden box. Then came “nigiri” and finally “maki-style” sushi, “rolls.” Due to its unappetizing nature, most Japanese, and definitely most Westerners will not eat the original form of sushi, what I would call the most authentic. As I believe, the “box” style is available in Japan, but not as common as nigiri and maki style sushi, so as in terms of the sushi inception chronology, nigiri and maki sushi is authentic. Being invented in Japan, and accessible.

    It is widely documented that the California Roll, was invented in the United States by a Japanese immigrant called, Mashita Ichiro. Therefore, it is not Japanese, but American. The CA Roll’s signature technique was being inside out, and contained only cooked “krab”. It would spawn a new breed of Americanized-style of sushi, that would play to the Western palate. It was successful, so successful in fact, it has become popular the world over, and what many Westerners now know as “sushi”. Where in reality, “Box”, nigiri, and maki styles of sushi are really what should be called authentic sushi.

    As for the other restaurants I named before, and you called “new-age, hipster fusion”, those places are redefining American food. They are using American ideas about food and using new and exciting ingredients or vice versa. Please remember at one time or another, all foods were new and strange, but over time we grew to accept them as our own.

    Well, that is about it. Hopefully you have some new perspective (maybe not, haha). I hope my argument was at least interesting to read.

    Closing word: To Each, His Own.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AyaArale Dianna Rivera

    Well the fact its difficult to find authentic latin american food in general in Japan just confirms my reasons to pack alot of cans of frijoles negros when I actually move there. (I’m peruvian, guatemalan, and mexican. frijoles are my lifeblood. lol)

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I’m down for a knock-off Chipotle! I’ll definitely have to check it out next time I’m in Tokyo

  • Lieke

    Reminds me of this commercial which is airing in Japan recently. It’s a CM for the American Fair at family restaurant Gusto, which shows American cowboys who hate the “American” food sold at Gusto, because it is made to fit Japanese taste. I thought it was quite surprising that they actually use the lack of authenticity as a selling point.

    http://youtu.be/v5b-YkAQeCg

    (if the link doesn’t work, you can find it here as well: http://www.skylark.co.jp/gusto/american2013/)

  • Jo Somebody

    Maybe Chris means that the challenge *is* the simplicity/boringness… For me, it’d be challenging to my unrefined palate to go to a burger joint and choose the plain burger, or even a simple cheeseburger. I’ve overworked my mouth over the years (Oi! Mind out of the gutter!), so now most things have to be excessively salty with a truckful of flavour for me to not say it’s ‘bland’.

    Saying all that, I love food and love to eat and enjoy 95% of what I eat, from junk food to elegant restaurant food to homecooked grub and even the bland food!

    I hope I’ve made sense. I was daydreaming about food throughout…

  • Guest

    Tex-Mex is just plain wrong. It’s really difficult trying to have “THE REAL DEAL” outside of the place or zone where it comes from. Be it Mexican food, Chinese food, Japanese food, etc. Not to much ago I went to a Mexican (Japanese) Restaurant and I was really surprised to see it was run by a Japanese old man, who has never been in México or doesn’t now Spanish. The food was a very big dissapointment, it was a really bad copy of Tex-Mex (which is a really bad copy of Mexican food IMO). On that day, the Mexican inside me died a little. But also with Japanese food in other places, for example Sushi in México is not even close to the real Sushi here in Japan, neither Chinese food. Is just that unfortunately you just can’t get the real thing and you have to go search for it. :)

  • Rodolfo

    Tex-Mex is just plain wrong. It’s really difficult trying to get “THE REAL DEAL” outside of the place or zone where it comes from. Be it Mexican food, Chinese food, Japanese food, etc. Not to much ago, I went to a Mexican (Japanese) Restaurant and I got really surprised to see it was run by a Japanese old man, who has never been in México or doesn’t know Spanish. The food was a very big dissapointment, it was a really bad copy of Tex-Mex (which is a really bad copy of Mexican food IMO). On that day, the Mexican inside me died a little. But it’s also the same with Japanese food in other places, for example, Sushi in México is not even close to the real Sushi here in Japan, neither Chinese food. Is just that unfortunately you just can’t get the real thing and you have to go search for it. :)

  • LittleEnid

    Interesting about bodegas. In NYC/Brooklyn i’ve never heard any non-chain convince store NOT called a bodega, but in South Florida, which is fairly urban, and even in the inner city parts or more hispanic parts (like Little Havana) i’ve never heard the term used ever. It’s interesting. I’ll have to do more research on bodegas. :)