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Jan 17, 2008 07:55 PM

Higher expectations of Japanese foods [moved from Florida board]


[We've moved this digression from the thread at -- The Chowhound Team ]

I think it's easier to have higher, more demanding expectations with thousands of years of culinary history and a homogeonous population that doesn't seem to veer from the cuisine of home.

Just curious, what kind of non-Japanese cuisine does Japan excel at or is popular?

  1. I'm very happy to expand upon this, because I think there is so much that is not known about food in modern Japan. Here is a cursory explanation.

    I guess about 15-20 years ago, Japanese people began to travel as the economy boomed. Here your stereotype of the group of photo-snapping, peace-sign flashing tourists began. (I guess I should say as opposed to the plaid pants wearing, burgundy cardigan wearing American stereotype) Anyway, after traveling flush with such "good taste" and so much money from the powerful yen, these tourists staked out a lot of delicious places, and upon returning to Japan, began to crave yoshoku -- foreign cuisine. What happened then is no less than extraordinary; coincidentally, it is the last period that I lived permanently in Japan. Excellent Italian restaurants, French restaurants, Bavarian style beer gardens, and incredible bakeries for bread and pastries instantly exploded across the country along with interpretations of other things like meatloaf, beef stew, Chicken Kiev, Beef Stroganoff which had to be excellent to sustain the standard. Chinese food was a notable exception -- great at the high end and (below) average like ours at the low end.

    Moreover, every department store in Japan -- not only in Tokyo, Kyoto, and the lot, but even in small cities -- developed a basement food court that could, on many levels, rival Berlin's KaDeWe or London's Harrod's. The other development was an explosion in cooking as evidenced by the Iron Chef -- all that which we have come to enjoy on FoodTV was ingrained there earlier. Competition on many channels concerning who had the best onigiri, nabe, or even hamburger. Today, all of these are further institutionalized, routinely delicious, and still competing. If you crave Sacher Torte, a Napolean, an incredible Brioche, or crusty baguette to go along with curried donuts, bean paste buns, and fried bacon and cheese rolls, go to a department store near any railroad station in Japan and you'll be pleasantly surprised.

    What we have here that Japan has yet to get, are the routinely delicious Vietnamese, Thai, Middle Eastern, Mexican, and Venezuelan, Colombian, and Cuban, places.

    20 Replies
    1. re: taiga

      If you told me you were a professor of Japanese history at one of the local colleges I wouldn't be surprised. I can honestly say I was oblivious to how much the traveling Japanese brought back with them and thanks for the schooling.
      Now if there's a dearth of Latin places in Japan I smell an opportunity!

      1. re: taiga

        Ty for the info taiga!

        I knew about the French influence but was not so much aware of the others.

        But I wonder if say an Italiano dining at one of Japan's Italian resto wouldn't say "another day in the office" like you said about our Yakko San :)? While the rest of the native eaters would be very pleased to have this dining option to choose from. And that my 友人 is all I (we) meant.

        Domo Arigato for interesting posts!

        1. re: taiga

          While yes, technically "yoshoku" means "western food", today it more often refers to the subset of Japanified western foods which have remained consistently popular throughout the years. Curry, hashed beef, omelet rice, fried croquet, and some other takes on non-Japanese fare, which by all accounts, are really now "Japanese". It's worth noting that "yoshoku" has a history much longer than 15-20 years ago. There are some yoshoku-ya that date back more than one hundred years, corresponding to the Meiji Restoration and the influx of all sorts of foreign influences besides cuisine. The affects of the bubble era may have opened up greater interest in French and Italian cooking, but the first McDonald's, after all, opened in 1971.

          Also, I would add Indian cuisine to the list of popular non-Japanese foods that are popular in Japan. On top of this, interest in Korean food continues to grow beyond just yakiniku. And Thai restaurants are all over the Tokyo metropolitan area. There's a fair amount of Turkish ones as well. But yes, Latin food is completely off the radar there. Is it worth noting though, that authentic Mexican and Cuban often eludes us in the U.S. still. And Venezuelan and Colombian still must be searched out even in New York City.

          In general, I'm skeptical of your "bringing back good taste from abroad" theory. While the bubble era may have provided exposure to fine world cuisines and may have given impetus to the rise of interest in them, Japanese appreciation of eating and the craft/ art behind it and the building on influences from outside the country, are essential parts of the culture that date long before the bubble. And we shouldn't overlook the fact that the "kuiadore" ethos precedes depachika, bakeries, and the Iron Chef by many years.

          1. re: Silverjay

            Well yes, of course, your points are accurate, but I believe the movement of such to the masses surely did not exist to the same common degree until the time I have mentioned. This was the explosion. The Indian, Sri Lankan, Turkish restaurants, in my opinion, are not nearly of the caliber of the French and Italian, mainly because, the Japanese chefs have not formally studied these cuisines. The chefs generally are competent chefs from the countries of origin and cooking for a much different kind of reason and an audience happy to experience the ethnicity. I might compare this to folks in Miami eating sushi in a Thai owned and managed spot. It may be good, but there is rarely anything special. Similarly, for example, in Indian spots in Berlin where I also spend a lot of time, the cooking explores such a minimal aspect that it hardly merits the popularity it attains. My experience in Japan with Korean foods was always limited, so I would suggest that if there is great interest in this now, it is relatively new.

            Your explanation of the yoshoku, as you know, is much more comprehensive and therefore certainly more accurate than I intended mine to be. I do, as a matter of fact, a lot of ethnography on Japanese and Asian study and am often teaching, so lax2mia is, as you say, on point. As Silverjay rightly suggests, the good taste goes way back. An interesting note is that the first foreign mission to the US has been written about, and the Japanese already laughed at the taste of US Grant's barbarian elite, but there were two things that the Japanese could not get enough of. Good teaching suggests I wait for your curiosity or Silverjay's answer. He may know. Any guesses?

            1. re: taiga

              Growing up near Yokohama in the 50's, I can assure you that yoshoku was well understood by the masses. Curry houses were cheap and plentiful, as were tempura places, also considered yoshoku. Yokohama was the Chinatown for all of Tokyo bay - there was a huge number of non-Japanese cookeries. Even the incredible and famous Yokohama-eki shumai were yoshoku, and that was very popular amongst the "masses".

              Here in the US, I used to rail against the popularity of what I call "burb" sushi. I thought that the ethnicity issue was a big deal (Korean and Chinese sushi chefs???). I hated most that Americans couldn't tell the difference, and most often couldn't understand why they should bother to tell the difference. I just hated people coming up to me at work and saying how their kids loved sushi, you know, the california roll that they serve at the place with that wonderful egg-drop soup. But it's really no different than pu-pu platters, General Gao's and the rest of Americanized Chinese - they just had a hundred years without any new influences from China (thanks to our xenophobic immigration restrictions) to develop the traditions.

              What it comes down to is that the chef, regardless of ethnicity, will learn and prepare the level of food that is demanded of him/her. If burb sushi is what is required, then that is what will be presented. If a Tokyo omakase experience with the most inventive and wonderful food is what the customers call for, then the best sushi chefs will feel challenged and find the people to pay for the specialized ingredients as well as their higher wages. It just so happens that not a lot of people in the burbs understand the depths of great sushi - so just as the Americanized Chinese places serve pu-pu platters rather than periwinkles in garlic and black bean sauce, burb sushi joints serve spider rolls, philadelphia rolls and whatever else the locals ooh and aah at.

              Americans can poke fun at the Japanese penchant for seeking the best of the best. But the truth is that Americans are much more fun to poke fun at - they seek mediocrity with an earnestness that defies all logic.

              1. re: applehome

                I agree that in Yokohama and Tokyo particularly, yoshoku has been understood las you wrote since the 50's, but elsewhere, along with mass Japanese travel, it came later. During the bubble, virtually everyone in Japan went abroad and got (marginally) affected. It was then that the TV/food marriage truly caught on.

                Aside from that, unfortunately, I agree with virtually every other observation. That said, the Food Network has generally had a positive effect along with sites like Chowhound in helping the local fireman identify with guys like Emeril and Bobby Flay, and the local airhead to identify with Rachael Ray. As a result, there is value and flavor given to barbecue and chili that did not once exist. Yet in my opinion, Rokusaburo Michiba in Japan had the most profound effect of all. He made everyone want to cook something incredible.

                About the powerfully earnest desire for mediocrity -- this is a harsh, stereotypical comment that I'm afraid I'm generally inclined to agree with.

                1. re: taiga

                  Hakodate, Nagasaki, and Kobe are other cities in Japan with long yoshoku histories, it's not just been Tokyo and Yokohama. It's been a part of the national food culture for more than 100 years. But yeah, it stands to reason that increased foreign travel has increased interest (and developed skill) in other cuisines.

                  1. re: Silverjay

                    I wanted to add that my mother had an uncle who was a chef that trained in France pre WWII. Before and during the war, he was a chef at the German club and other places that served foreigners as well as local dignitaries. There was not only a euro food tradition long before the current tv food craze, but it was one of excellence, including apprenticing in France. I understand that the boom, travel, and the consequent tv food craze has spread the quality food desire to the masses, but to point to some of the outstanding chefs of today and say that they are the result of the more recent activities seems a bit anachronistic. Fujio Shido and even Hiroyuki Sakai precede the 80's in their studies abroad and probably represent long standing traditions from the Meiji era (as did my grand-uncle) rather than any recent trends.

          2. re: taiga

            While I have to agree with your history above, you missed out on what the whole fad eventually warped into. There is now a hilariously arrogant attitude in some sectors that the Japanese are better French chefs than anyone in France. Same for Italian, German and Chinese. In part this was fostered by the Ironchef show, but 20 years ago I knew many Japanese that had this belief.

            1. re: Scrapironchef

              OP: First off, the Japanese people are not as homogeneous as you might think. There are vast cultural differences as you progress from north to south. And things that everyone, Japanese included, assume are Japanese and not "foreign", in point of fact did come from elsewhere. Tempura originally came from Portugal for example. Sushi from China.

              I've had a lot of bad pizza in Japan with, for example, creamed corn topping. Or ice cream with seaweed in it.

              1. re: Leonardo

                All things being equal, Japan is truly one of the world's most homogeneous cultures- particularly considering the size of it's population and how geographically spread out it is. And to be fair, modern sushi traces it's history through domestic origins, which have been reasonably well documented in several books and periodicals over the last several years...I can say that I've had better pizza and hamburgers in Tokyo than I've had ramen and yakitori in NYC. But yeah, creamed corn as a pizza topping, along with mayonnaise and octopus aren't quite my ideal fushion foods.

              2. re: Scrapironchef

                I think the attitude that Scrapironchef addresses is for good reason; there is an earnest professionalism in Japan that is rarer elsewhere. Furthermore, it seems the Michelin Guide would in some ways attest to the reality of this.

                Leonardo and Silverjay also remind me of some really awful pizza with rubber crust and pineapple.

                Yet in alleyways everywhere in Japan, you might get perfectly delicious, well prepared spaghetti that could not be done without remarkable attention to detail and the expectation that we all know the Japanese seem to regard more highly.

                By the way, in the 1850's, the Japanese on the first mission loved America's whiskey and ice cream. That was it!

                1. re: Scrapironchef

                  Very well said! Your use of the phrase "arrogant attitude" is fully understood and unfortunately still exist.

                  1. re: eatnbmerry

                    "fully understood"... by who - you? Is that a code or something?

                    Baconstrip's post below points to a few facts in evidence - especially regarding Michelin stars. Where there is a tradition and culture of food appreciation that is at a higher level, doesn't it just make sense that the food might actually be better?

                    Equating Iron Chef, Dotch Cooking show and the like with the culinary excellence tradition is one thing, but one has to remember that the tradition existed long before the TV shows. Sakai was a great French chef long before he was called on to be on IC.

                    Personally, I don't buy into Taiga's theory, that this is a modern effect resulting from the economic boom of the 80's. That concept shouldn't be discounted entirely, but the effects shouldn't be exaggerated. Without the pre-existence of a culture that has always sought food excellence, (not just yoshoku, but all foods - washoku as well), the modern boom would not have led to today's great variety and number of places to have great food.

                    Remember that there have been other booms. The Tokyo olympics of 1964 probably had a much greater effect on the economy and worldliness of Japan than the latter boom. WWII and the subsequent occupation completely changed Japan. Obviously, the Meiji restoration that started the modern tradition in Japan had the greatest of all. Through all of those huge jumps and changes in Japanese society, many traditions have held through. Always seeking excellence in food is a big part of what has passed through all the jumps and bumps.

                    Buying into Taiga's boom effect theory makes it easy to make fun of the supposed arrogance. How can these people jump into the world scene and in a matter of a decade, understand truly great food? The true evidence of the outstanding food is the food itself - the Michelin stars speak to that.

                    If it's true that it's not paranoia if they're really out to get you, then perhaps, it's true that it's not arrogance if it really is better.

                    1. re: applehome

                      Since when has the Michelin race been the end all? If that was the case, I be willing to wager that 99% of the restos rec'd on Chowhound wouldn't "qualify". In no small part due to the ignorance (or is it arrogance again?) of Michelin and its worshippers.

                      They don't know great Carolina style pork barbeque from Memphis style ribs. A carnitas taco from a fish one. Soul food from cajun/creole. The simple pleasure of a Sabrett hot dog or an In-n-Out Double/Animal style burger. A Carnegie Deli pastrami on rye from a Katz' corn beef. A slice from Di Fara to one from Gino's East. Stone crab claws from Joe's to fried catfish in Mississippi.

                      So keep your Michelin stars. Recent evidence has proven how they can/are "bought" and kept. I just hope our friends the Japanese don't start committing seppuku over them because heaven forbid a Frenchman should deem them unworthy. Hopefully thats an arrogance that will not come to pass like it has already in France.

                      1. re: eatnbmerry

                        You're right - Michelin stars are not the end-all and be-all of good food. Nevertheless, they are one sign, and the Japanese have mastered that form of cooking that is recognized by the stars. They have obviously mastered a lot more, from food carts to noodle shops to kaiseki roryu. Who knows, they may eventually have the world's best pastrami, or whole pig que - it's a matter of perseverance, understanding what the quality issues are, and feeling that it's worth the work.

                        Their having great food doesn't mean that it doesn't exist anywhere else in the world. But there's no doubt that it is a great foodie culture. Is it arrogance to say so? Ask a New York or Montreal foodie, you're likely to get the same knowledgeable and prideful boasts, which outsiders will say is arrogance. In fact, each of those great food cultures you mention would stand up for their own right to claim a great food heritage - maybe even In-n-Out (hey... it's a burger chain...).

                        When I was stationed in Germany, I put up with a lot of really arrogant talk from a local kid about how much better their cars were. It bothered me right up to the point when I bought a Porsche.

                        1. re: applehome

                          applehome, I'm really enjoying your well written, informed, balanced, and nicely humerous posts on this thread. Thank you.

                          1. re: applehome

                            A close look at the stars indicates that many of the restaurants that were rewarded were not in possession of particularly impressive atmospheres. Anyone who has lived in Japan extensively (as an adult) knows that there are unlimited establishments where the master (chef) has cooked for years and the excellence is only about the food, its quality, and attentive service. The room might be, by some standards, decrepit. Never mind! Everything is likely to be flawless. Herein lies an enormous cultural difference. Typical Japanese would be embarassed to turn out bad food. And if a foreigner is ever fortunate enough to be invited into a Japanese home for dinner, there exists the chance of a once in a lifetime experience.

                            Applehome -- I enjoy your tone as well, but my German autos were always in the shop far more than my Japanese models. My father warned me about this as a child. Falling in love with a car is like falling in love with a woman; you may choose because of the looks but it is the performance and reliability that you must count on. To borrow from above, I agreed up until the point that I married a German. If only German autos were as wonderful!

                            1. re: taiga

                              That is so funny. My father, having lived in Japan from after WWII till the 60's, warned me about Japanese cars having valves made from butter, when I bought my first 1974 Toyota. Within the first 500 miles, I needed a valve job. But the service I got with that valve job kept me buying Toyota's and other Japanese cars for years - in fact, that's all I have today.

                              That 1974 Toyota was at the crest of the car world being turned upside down. My father's message was right until then, but Deming's QC message (ignored by Sloan at GM and all the other US carmarkers) was so in line with the Japanese psyche - it was only a matter of time and perseverance until Japanese made some of the best cars in the world.

                              The food psyche is the same. It's a matter of wanting to serve only the best, and understanding that it takes time and effort to learn how to do so. Japanese are not unique in this emphasis on food in their culture. All of the great food cultures, from French to Mexican have long standing traditions of families passing on knowledge through generations, long apprenticeships in specialized techniques, and great pride in their product.

                            2. re: eatnbmerry

                              I've had some incredible beef jerky from Japan - definitely matching anything I've had here - and I've had some terrific artisanal stuff while in the southwest. Given the state of Wagyu - Kobe, Mishima, etc., I'd say that they already have a leg up on us as far as beef quality goes. How much longer until some chef in Tokyo takes an interest in pastrami and spends hours on end until he's got the process just right? A Mishima beef brisket made into pastrami might really be worth a shot.

                              And how many Japanese tourists have to go to the low country or Puerto Rico or other places that have crispy-skin whole pig que traditions before they decide to make it for themselves (with Kurobuta!)?

                              See my comment above about American sushi being cheap tacky knockoffs. That's the real difference between us and Japan - they no longer do cheap tacky knockoffs. When they replicate a recipe or process, they try to make it better than before. We seem to be happy shooting for mediocrity. When we replicate que, we get Stickybones.

                              Actually, there are plenty of robot-sushi places in Japan too - it's not all about 100% quality and not every single citizen is a super-knowledgeable foodie. But the overall level is higher. They may indeed have great whole pig que long before we outgrow our Stickybones.

                  2. Japanese Western Foods (Yoshoku) is a special and particular culinary tradition in Japan. Often times it has nostalgic and family oriented values.

                    Japan, particularly Tokyo, does more modern international cuisine very very well. Just look at Michelin Tokyo 2008 with the most number of stars (more than Paris!). Many places were high-end Japanese restaurants, but there were also a lot of French, Italian, Chinese and Spanish restaurants.

                    Food culture is very high in Japan. Tokyo has more than 160,000 restaurants compared with 20,000 in Paris. Most of these restaurants are speciality restaurants where they serve only soba or tempura or pork cutlets or Southern Spanish food or whatever.

                    Japan is really a magical country for foodies.

                    I also love the mention of Depachika - the department store basements! I get SO excited in them, trying all these samples and what-nots :-)

                    1. Interesting thread. Applehome and taiga seem to think that the entire Gaussian distribution is shifted right (if right is higher quality) in Japan. Ergo, if they are to be believed, the average Japanese joint you walk into will be better than in other parts of the world as will the high end places (using Michelin in Tokyo as the benchmark).

                      eatnbmerry seems to be arguing that, since certain other authorities place zero Japanese eateries in the top 50 or 100, the premise that Japan has higher standards for food is wrong.

                      I've not been to Japan although I've eaten extensively in the US, France, Italy, and "other" European countries. In my experience in the US, a lot of our food is mediocre and some is bad although the high end stuff is, quite obviously, world class. Should we base our estimation of our overall demands for food quality on our best restaurants? In light of the fact that most of us eat at ordinary places most of the time, I think not.

                      Compared to the US, I think the average eater in France and Italy eats better than we do. Why do I say that? I had a delicious ham and gruyere on baugette at a hospital cafeteria in Paris. Most any joint I walked into sold excellent, albeit not world class food. Ever had Bertillion ice cream? Compare that to Cold Stone (NTTAW with CS). People in France and Italy care about their food and don't tolerate shit. Here, we'll eat crap from the Olive Garden and not complain about it. I'm not a snob; I do it myself. When I'm here, eating day to day, I don't expect that much.

                      Eatnbmerry, would you care to speak to this?

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: filth

                        I agree completely!

                        For example, If I had $10 to spend randomly each day of the year for lunch, where would I most easily be satisfied by the end of the year? I believe that Japan, Italy, Singapore, and France would satisfy me the best hands down. Furthermore, I'd say Argentina would come next (if one is a beef and pasta type.)

                        Here where I live, if the test were performed randomly, I would get more bad food than good.

                        Then I would cautiously add India, China, Thailand, and Malaysia at the low end, though with major caveats.

                        1. re: filth

                          filth: Thanks for adding a much-needed synopsis of this thread, and for distilling out of it the central argument. After such a long and empassioned discussion, it certainly needed it!

                          The last time I was in Tokyo with family, we were a bit tired from seeing so many friends and relatives that we just wanted to "chill out" in our hotel room. Wanting just a quick snack I walked around to the nearest combini (convinience store) and picked up a small tray of grapes and some drinks.

                          That single small tray held, perhaps, just one minor branch and maybe 20-25 grapes, (not even what we would call a cluster), and was, perhaps, $6-7.

                          No matter - these were the grapes that I remember from my childhood, the incredible Kyoho grape. I eat them, one at a time, carefully peeling off their skin from the stem end.

                          These are grapes to savor.

                          It's what a grape should taste like.

                          In Japan.

                          From a convenience store.

                          1. re: cgfan

                            That was one of applehome's major points: that the lowest common denominator is a lot higher in Japan than in the US.

                            The "answer" to this idea would be to name some delicacy from a 7-11 or gas station mini-mart.

                            Hmmmm... corn dog vs. Kyoho grapes.... can't decide.... hmmm!!!

                          2. re: filth


                            I am sorry if you have only read SOME of my posts to come to the conclusion "seems to be arguing that, since certain other authorities place zero Japanese eateries in the top 50 or 100, the premise that Japan has higher standards for food is wrong".

                            I am even more sorry if you indeed have read ALL my posts on this thread and that you would conclude the same. Because then my writting skills would have failed (unfortunately all to easy for me) to convey my thoughts properly.

                            I suggest you read my recent post/reply to E Eto today (above at 3:16pm) for hopefully a clearer understanding of my intentions.

                            BTW, you make some interesting points but let me just say: "often familiarity breeds contempt" Also, it is Japan we are talking about supposedly doing French/Italian/Spanish etc. better than the very same countries you've traveled to.

                            Hope this helps.

                          3. It's interesting to me how some respondents tend to ignore cultural, historic, and socieconomic factors in favor of anecdotes and generalizations about the character of an entire nationality. As if an individual's current taste were the root cause of the entire set of factors which shaped it, instead of the reverse. A colossal logical fallacy.

                            1 Reply
                            1. Sorry, folks, but we're closing this thread to further discussion. Chowhound is supposed to be fun. We have moderated heavily in the course of this topic, but it continues to get angry and unpleasant.