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Oct 24, 2012 11:01 AM

Japanese Food in Japan vs. Japanese food in U.S./Europe-how different, how the same-which is better for you and why?

We hear so much about the great Michelin restaurants in Japan. One story is that there are more Michelin stars in Tokyo than in New York and Paris combined. The large number of great restaurants that are Japanese in New York, Los Angeles suggests that something amazing is going on. How different/same is it in Japan vs. U.S./Europe? What is the difference in
1. Aesthetics
2. Quality
3. Precision
4. Enjoyment
5. Service
6. Other

What makes it different or the same? Are there some favorites in U.S./Europe that you think are worth experiencing? What are the best reproductions in the U.S.:
1. Sushi
2. Ramen
3. Tempura
4. Izakaya
5. Kaiseki
6. Hot pots
7. Other

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  1. OK. I'll bite. It is possible to get good (even great) Japanese food outside of Japan, of many types with different level of success. However, you'll usually pay for the privilege (in the case of things like good sushi, many multiples of what it would cost in Japan), and the whole experience (at least in my case) is marred by the constant compulsion to be comparing it to the equivalent in Japan, usually with the Japanese standard as the one to match, and not vice-versa.

    Having said that, there are a number of Japanese restaurants outside of Japan that I have made my peace with, and will patronize regularly, knowing full well that they are a substitute for the real thing, mostly to satisfy a craving, usually tonkatsu or curry. I can live with that. As for sushi, I have been to some great places outside of Japan (mostly in New York), but they are usually so expensive that I only go if somebody else is paying, and will not go there to fill a need. Which means that I end up eating very little sushi outside of Japan, and don't make it a destination dining as a rule. Life is too short to eat bad sushi.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Uncle Yabai

      Which ones in New York were compelling? It sounds like Japanese standards were preferable-what qualitative advantages do you see when doing comparisons?

      1. re: foodlovergeneral

        I liked Kuruma Zushi, but was very very expensive. I also liked the old Sushisei in 51st and Park, when it was a branch of the Sushisei in Tokyo, back when Sushisei was just a small chain with high standards. Yasuda I thought was fine, somewhat overrated and expensive for the quality of what you get.

        As for this whole discussion whether sushi has to be served by Japanese chefs, I don't believe it to be the case. it is possible to become a good itamae without being Japanese, I gather. I just haven't met any...

        1. re: Uncle Yabai

          Ditto on Kurumazuahi, Shushisei, Yasuda. My setiments about Japanese chefs-it can be western-but I haven't met any.

    2. Although my experience with Japanese restaurants IN Japan is limited, I feel compelled to reply and add my two yen's worth. As a Naval Officer, I spent time in Okinawa and Misawa in the 1970's, so my memories are tainted by age. While there, I preferred the small "Mama-san and Papa-san" places, rather than the big hotel restaurants. Noodle shops were my favorite haunt. Also, there was Nina's Boneless Fried Chicken" in Misawa that I practically lived at. Compared to the VERY few Japanese/American places I've been to here in the states, I'd say the differences that I noticed were the indigenous ingredients and the intimacy of the actual establishment. Additionally, I was somewhat disappointed by the quality of the sushi I was able to find (on my budget) while in Japan. Finally, I have to admit that I was a culinary "newbie" back in those days and was not as sensitive to such factors you list in your post, so a definitive comparison on my part would not be accurate nor dependable on which to formulate an opinion. But all in all, I did have fun.

      1. One thing to keep in mind - the population of the greater Tokyo area is about the same as the population of the greater New York area plus that of the greater Paris area. That might explain a different in the number of stars.

        There's a huge difference in what is called sushi between the US and Japan. A lot of favourite US items are not actually Japanese - the California roll, the dynamite roll etc, all of those, are something invented in the US. I love the look of baffled disbelief on Japanese friends' faces when I describe a dynamite roll. I like the US varieties, I just don't expect to find them easily in a restaurant in Japan.

        The most common comment I get from Japanese living in NA or Europe is the inability to find good Japanese food at all. If they live in LA or New York, it's a different situation (although price is a big problem, and finding good, tastes like it does at home food is still difficult).

        My husband has never found really good, tastes like home ramen outside Japan. It's always subtly different.

        I don't have a lot of experience with high end Japanese dining in North America or Japan, due to the price, though.

        I suspect that the NA/European market plays down some of the textures and flavours in Japanese cuisine that won't play well in the foreign market. Things like chicken cartilage yakitori (take it back and bring me real meat!), or the multitude of slimy textures (raw egg, lightly cooked okra, tororo, natto) would be a hard sell on the foreign market. For that matter, I find North Americans, anyways, to be weirdly squeamish when it comes to eating a whole fish

        One demographic difference - there don't seem to be Japanese enclaves abroad, they way you get Chinatowns, or Greek neighbourhoods, or Indian areas. This might be due to resettlement policies during WWII, plus post war emigration patterns. But it means that the solution for other cuisines (head down to Chinatown, find an inexpensive place full of non-white people, and enjoy the same food that overseas Chinese do) is hard to apply to Japanese cuisine.

        For a difference in styles - inside Japan you'll find tons of tiny restaurants that specialize in one food - ramen, or tempura, or tonkatsu, say - and do it really well at a reasonable price. You need high volume, high demand and high standards to get places like that, and it would be hard to do that in most places outside of Japan.

        1 Reply
        1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

          It sounds like you are not commenting on the quality, but upon a particular style. I have found the quality of Japanese cooking to be better in many ways; by that I mean precision, elegance, freshness and quality of ingredients, sense of care, attentiveness-all seem better in Japanese cooking-even in the U.S. in the case where the restaurant has authentic Japanese staff. I don't know if people have that experience, but that is mine.