As a person who likes to pretend that she knows how to cook, I was definitely looking forward to living with my host family and seeing how my host mother prepares dinner—Western and Asian styles of cooking being distinctly different, even when my host mother is preparing yoshoku, or “Western-style food.” While I am sure that many books and articles have already been written on the subject, I wish to cover some of my food experiences in Japan.
When the typical American thinks of Western food, we are reminded of hamburgers, pizza, tacos, and spaghetti. While the Japanese do have these foods, they are distinctly different from their American or European counterparts. One of the things that the Japanese culture in particular is known for is their way of absorbing things from other cultures into their own with some slight modifications to better suit Japanese taste. Two of the best examples that I can think of are pasta and pizza.
While I am sure that you have all heard horror stories about what the Japanese put on their pizza, I’m here to say that it’s not as bad as it sounds. Last night (October 26), my host family and I had Costco take-and-bake pizza for dinner. I myself did not go into the pizza section because I was too busy eating all of the free samples in the store with a friend, but I was definitely surprised when we got in the checkout line to discover that my host mother had bought pizza with green peppers, shrimp, black olives, onions, and some other kind of vegetable I was unable to identify. “Here we go,” I thought, “the first pizza I have ever been disappointed to see.” Needless to say, my first impressions were not very good.
At dinner I sat down knowing that there wouldn’t be any rice served with dinner that I could use to make the pizza more bearable—I will explain this nuance of Japanese cuisine in a bit—and waited for it to be served. In Japanese culture, it is impolite to not eat your whole meal—unless you are feeling ill, but that’s obviously a special case—so I was prepared to eat the pizza even if I had to choke down the black olives.
To my surprise, the pizza was actually quite good. The ingredients were fairly even so that not one topping overpowered any of the others and the shrimp added a distinct flavor to the pizza that most foreigners would never have thought to use. While it definitely was not my favorite pizza, it was surprisingly enjoyable considering I thought that I would have to stuff salad in my mouth with every bite of pizza.
As for spaghetti, it is actually quite interesting. The other night my host family and I went to an Italian restaurant called “Mama’s Pasta” for dinner. I think my host family was hoping to give me a taste of home, having told them by this point that I really miss cooking, but was not quite familiar enough with Japanese cuisine to attempt any myself. At first they thought that pizza would be a good idea, but after looking through the selection and finding nothing that sounded particularly appetizing—bacon and peppers are not my first choice of toppings—we decided that pasta might be better. I ordered a tomato and cheese pasta with red sauce, hoping that this at least would be familiar enough. When it arrived and looked normal enough, I breathed a sigh of relief, hoping to taste a bit of home in a foreign country. When I took my first bite, I looked back to my dish confused, making sure that I what I had been served was indeed pasta sauce, because what I had tasted was something more akin to ketchup than the pasta sauce that I was accustomed to eating at home. While it’s a bit hard to describe the difference, I would definitely say that the Japanese sauce is a bit sweeter than what I usually make and serve. It was enough of a difference to make me do a double-take and inspect my food more closely.
Upon learning that I am studying abroad in an Asian country, one of the first questions asked is, “Did you eat any weird raw fish or something?” Obviously, they are referring to sushi and sashimi, two Japanese dishes mainly consisting of fish—usually raw—rice, and seaweed. I am here to say that is not as terrifying or disgusting as it may sound. While I will admit that the taste and texture of raw fish does take a while to get used to, it’s actually not that bad. Considering I had cooked vegetables and meat mixed with raw egg in a bowl for dinner tonight, I have probably eaten less sanitary foods than sushi (don’t worry Mom, I made sure that the raw egg was fine to eat and salmonella is not as much of a thing here anyways). I would definitely say that sushi, as with quite a lot of Asian food, is more of an acquired taste.
One of the more interesting aspects of Japanese meals in particular is the choice between rice and bread. You will never see rice and bread in the same meal at a Japanese table. It’s simply not a thing that is done. For instance, I usually have toast in the morning and meals with rice in the evening. The pizza yesterday was an exception. Since the pizza had crust made from dough, and there was not any other kind of meat or substantial vegetable, we did not eat rice. While I do not pretend to be an expert on Japanese cuisine, it is pretty safe to say that more traditional Japanese meals will always be served with rice while other more haphazard meals tend to have bread.
Another interesting aspect of Japanese food is the sheer amount of vegetables eaten, and thus the lack of a “main dish” as we would consider it at times. Because the Japanese lifestyle draws heavily from Buddhist roots, meat was not eaten for the longest time. It was only after the opening to the West that people began to introduce meat into their diets again. Sometimes when eating with my host family I will be distinctly confused when trying to figure out the “main dish.” The Japanese meal is usually eaten with each food given a separate plate or bowl, unlike Western food where most of the meal is contained on one plate. Therefore, half the time I will be wondering if the noodles with tofu is the main dish or if it was the raw smoked salmon or the soup with vegetables and meat. Needless to say it is all delicious, but I still constantly wonder what is the central focus of the meal.
On that note, I will sign off and catch you guys next time! I will be going to Kyoto starting Monday for my fall break, so I will have some fun stories to share after my trip. I will also be leaving my host family’s house on November 3 and living in the dorm again until I leave in December, so my experiences and observations will change once again.
Until next time!