The Japanese Are Right: Americans Don't Know What Good Food Is

by Whitney Worden, SUNY Cortland, April 23, 2008

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“Is this onion any good?” my roommate asked me the other night. She dangled half of a red onion in a plastic baggy in my face. The parts exposed to the world had dried up a little bit but when I opened up the bag to take a whiff it still smelled fresh.

“Yeah. Just cut off the dried parts and peel the rest of it,” I replied, handing the bag back to her. My boyfriend nodded in a agreement.

Still, she scrunched her face up, “the curry doesn’t really need onions,” she mumbled before she walked back into the kitchen, disposing of our still-good onion in the trash.

According to Chikako Nishimura’s essay, “Food and Culture: Differences between Japanese eating and American eating,” the Japanese word shun means to preference food that is in season and fresh. Considering our onion was neither fresh nor in season (it was early December), one would think that my Irish-American roommate also believed in shun. Alas, as it turns out she’s just a paranoid eater and wanted an excuse to not have to peel an onion.

Generally, most Americans are unable to practice shun regularly. We are a nation too wide and too environmentally-diverse to always relay on fresh, seasonal ingredients. There’s no way a tomato in Upstate New York in December has the same freshness as one in Florida or Texas. Not while we’re buried under six inches of snow, anyway.

The freshest tomato we could possibly hope to get would probably come from a green house, pumped with chemically enhanced fertilizers that trick it into growing out of season. There are always organic tomatoes, but who wants to pay an extra dollar for a tomato?

Japan can afford to practice shun because even though they too are blessed with a fantastic economy, they are a small island where the environment isn’t as drastic as the difference between Texas and New York. Additionally, their diet is more eco-friendly than ours. That is to say, they eat healthier than Americans do. The Japanese diet usually consists of fresh fish, vegetables and rice, according to Nishimura. Americans are more prone to fast-food and fattier meats, since we are a society on the go and have no time to adjust our taste buds to healthier alternatives. Additionally, in many places fresh fish and seasonal vegetables are a rare commodity. Boston and New Orleans have fresher fish and seafood than Upstate New York would simply because they are cities on the shore and have a booming fishing industry. However, by the time fish and seafood is shipped all the way to Upstate, it has been stuffed with preservatives and maybe even dyes to keep it looking fresh.

The night my roommate threw out the onion she was making curry, a spicy dish common in Asian countries, especially Japan (or at least, I would assume so since it is portrayed often in Japanese media). I suspect that my roommate is making it as authentic as possible, but as I watch her dump more olive oil in there than I suspect is common in other cultures, I have to wonder what “authenticity” is now. Chikako Nishimura pointed out that it is impossible to recreate Japanese dishes properly in America.

As I watch my roommate dump curry paste and water into the pan with the chopped potatoes, carrots, and red chunks of beef I realize that she’s absolutely right. My roommate is not making anything even remotely Japanese; whatever she’s making it’s the curried version of a Hamburger Helper dish. The instructions and ingredients are all from a box, passing for “Japanese cuisine” when it’s really just curry powder mixed in with the same stuff you would dump on hamburger meat to make skillet quesadillas or Sloppy Joe’s. While the Japanese do eat beef, I bet their recipe would have been made with chicken or fish or maybe even tofu instead; we just like red, raw meat more, and our taste buds are more accustomed to beef than fish or tofu. The “fresh” ingredients are chopped potatoes (from Idaho), baby carrots that were on sale, instant rice that has been in our pantry for a few months, and of course the beef that has been frozen in our freezer for I have no idea how long.

I’m sure Chikako Nishimura would have choked on my roommate’s “authentic” Japanese skillet dinner, but my boyfriend and I gobbled it down, proclaiming it was among some of the best Japanese we had ever had.

Considering that we had never really had authentic Japanese food, nor are we accustomed to truly fresh food, it probably was the best Japanese dish we ever had.

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