A Matter of Taste

Meeting the meat: A sashimi selection from Okinawa.


In any world menu, Canada must be considered the vichyssoise of nations, it's cold, half-French, and difficult to stir.
Stuart Keate


The food is interesting in Japan. It is interesting on two counts: First it is generally bland (albeit a salty sort of bland), and second, the selections are surprisingly limited. I am sure, comming from such a pluralistic place as Canada, this is not a fair comparison. But it is one that certainly stands out in my mind --and tastebuds. Most Japanese are adverse to both strong smells and distinct taste. (By the way, when I say 'bland', to some I might mean 'extreme'. In other countries (eg. Canada, China, and India), 'spicy' means 'spicy'; and 'sweet' means 'sweet'. In Japan, the variance is extremely limited. )

I think it may have something to do with the fact that pretty much all their food depends upon salt for flavour. It may be this and that it is part of their culture not to like such distinctive tastes. This is not necessarily a bad thing: The fact that sushi (raw fish) tastes like pretty well any other meat, is a definite reason that I enjoy to eat lots of it. In my case it is a personal thing. But, although many of the Japanese foods do have distinctive and distinguishing tastes they are not as powerful as other places. Japan is likely a place where I shall never smell the aroma of freshly cooked chou da fu ('stinky tofu'). With my office-based testing-ground, I have noticed that Japanese tend to believe what they hear, see, and smell. In the respect of eating, and most Japanese are very timid. Few in the office were daring enough to try some of my Canadian souvenirs: Goose Droppings ('gacho no fun'). Some thought it actually was real goose droppings! Others tried it (knowing me better), and commented how delicious the yogurt-coated almonds were. Both the taste and aroma of the 'winter honey' that I get from Hong Kong amazes the Japanese. Just as the absence of taste and flavour of their honey does me. When we go out to dine, they will ask (out of politeness), but never believe my opinions of 'spicy', 'sweet', 'sour', 'bitter', or any other descriptor of how something tastes. Used to much more, they have to take my opinions and multiply by some factor close to ten. In that way, I have come to the oppinion that this a nation of 'Goldilocks'. Just like the old story --can't stand something too this or too that -- taste has to be in the centre: Just right.

If there is anything that is noteworthy about the menu of restaurants across Japan, it has to be uniformity. It is simply uncanny. Wherever you go, the traditional dishes of sushi (raw fish with rice), sashimi (raw fish), tempura (deep-fried stuff), donburi (stuff over rice --usually in a bowl), yakitori (indoor BBQed stuff), katsu (deep-fried pork cutlet), noodle dishes (ramen, udon, and soba) , and oden (stuff in broth) can be found. There are regional delicacies that have become more widespread also such as gyoza (pan-fried dumplings), takoyaki (a cube of octopus cooked inside a sphere of batter), and others. It is really everywhere you go. Depending on the place (geographically), and what it is famous for, you may get a real treat. It is generally considered by Japanese that the nations' stomach resides in Osaka. There, all food is delicious. Conversely, Tokyo is thought to have the worst-tasting food. Now, if you happen to be 'stranded' in Tokyo, and you are lucky, you will be able to find a restaurant which holds itself to (higher) Osaka standards (usually because the proprietor is from Osaka). Many Japanese know the specific areas specialities --even if they have never been there. Some example are the sanuki udon (thick (3mm x 3mm) noodles with separate broth) of Shikoku, kochin (spring chicken) of Nagoya, gyoza (pan-fried dumplings) of Utsunomiya, and sashimi (raw fish) in Hokkaido (winter), The Japanese have had 'foreign' style restaurants also spring up. But, having that food in Japan is tantamount to having it in America: It has been so modified to the tastes of the host country, it no longer tastes authentic. This is saddening. And, I was taken aback when I had my first ma-po tofu in Ginza. It was both sweet and bland, tasting more like apples. Compared to the real stuff of Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, or Canada, it was horrible. But, then Japan is close to 99% homogeneously Japanese: So, the fact they they have mutated the food to those tastes is no great supprise. What is a great supprise is that not more restaurants exist that are authentic (you know --letting the market decide). If I want Chinese food now, I ask for it in Cantonese (falling back to Mandarin). If I get a daft look, I know I am in the wrong place. And, by the way, the so-called 'Chinatown' in Yokohama IS the wrong place: It is a mere facade of a Chinatown. Please do not be fooled. I have found places. Nice authentic places. But, they are few and far in-between. And pretty well everywhere I go in Japan, the menu for Chinese restaurants is surprisingly similar. This really amazes me. Because, it is just like many places in America. No real culture --only the (assimilated) one deemed marketable.

Indeed, the topic of menus is interesting for another reason. Japanese restaurants are not as adventurous or diverse as their Canadian or Hong Kong counterparts (note: Canada and Hong Kong are the only other countries where I have indulged in sushi and sashimi). There are two restaurants in Toronto, for instance: Sushi Bistro and Sushi Time. As I write both have pages on the world wide web, so you can see for yourself. They have a huge selection of different sushi and sashimi. Not only what is on the menu, but also daily or weekly variations. Everywhere I went in Japan, the sushi and sashimi selections were rather uniform and not that creative. Pretty well the same old ubiquitous 25 where ever I went. That amazes me because I thought, with so much more history (even if it only gained popularity during the Edo era), there would be more diversity in the selection. For those Japanese who might think this diversity is a result of some other nationality modifying the traditional dishes, note that Both are either owned or co-owned by Japanese. The same seems to go for many yakitori restaurants. There are exceptions and I do frequent an exceptional yakitori restaurant, but they are not common.