Sunday, March 18, 2007

Japanese food

At home and sick... might as well make the best of it and post something I guess. The weather around here's been crazy lately, so maybe all the temperature changes are doing me in.

So this time around, I shall talk about Japan and its food. Food seems way more important to people out here than it does in the US - I've heard one person describe it as people in the US eat to live whereas Japanese live to eat. I would say there's definitely no denying that they put a lot of care into the food out here, and for the most part it means much better quality and less emphasis on merely getting the most quantity possible... although they do still have all you can eat places out here.

Some proof of the importance of food to the Japanese public:
  • Every 3rd show on tv it seems is either a food show or has a food portion of the show
  • Japanese people will take vacations based solely upon food specialties
  • People know the local specialties of way too many places
  • In Japanese there is a 5th main taste in addition to salty, sour, sweet, and bitter: umami
  • I took courses on Japanese food history in Chiba... I doubt that'd be popular back home
People can go on and on about food out here if you let them... they'll talk about texture, ingredients and what would compliment them, alternate presentations, you name it. The ironic thing though is that despite the fact that food plays such a prominent role in tv out here, they almost inevitably use the same set of like five words to describe things on those shows! You'll never hear them call something nasty, it's always delicious (umai, oishii).

Now onto specialties - I once went down to Tokyo for some business mixed with pleasure, and decided it'd be a good idea to bring something back for peeps at the office since that is the standard when you go on a trip. So what did one of my bosses have to say? "Why didn't you bring something banana-flavored?" Apparently, bananas are the specialty of Tokyo, of which I had no clue. I've seen other people go places and bring back souvenirs (always food btw - another clue), and they'll usually have something to say about why it's special. This sometimes sparks discussions which go on and on... they can talk for a good 15-30mins. about it if nothing else is going on.

Also as I mentioned, when people go on vacations, they search out the specialties of the areas they're going to, and will sometimes even go on food vacations, basing their whole vacations on where specializes in the food they want to try out. For example, Kyushu is famous for tonkotsu ramen, and Osaka is known for its okonomiyaki, although Hiroshima has its own flavor of okonomiyaki which some find to be superior. Likewise Sapporo in the north is known for its fresh seafood, and more recently curry soups. Locally, Sendai is known for cow tongue and zunda mochi. I can't think of half as many examples back home... although there are local specialties I don't think many people really think of them. Japanese people will always ask you what the local specialty of your area is though.

Then there's the umami thing, which I just recently discovered - this is one possible explanation for why although MSG doesn't have any flavor it still makes things taste soooo much better. In fact, MSG was developed by a Japanese guy 100 years ago, who is credited with the discovery of umami in the first place! Umami is apparently a term used even in English among specialists to describe something that isn't really highlighted in the west - the closest term in English would be savoriness, as found in meats among other foods.

There's also how they put just as much care into how the food looks as how it tastes, and how they can take stuff from us and make it taste better like Pizza Hut or McD's... although they do like lots of weird stuff on pizza sometimes. (corn and mayo???) And with McD's, although they do take more care in preparations and actually make things fresh when you order them instead of letting it sit around, in the end it's still the same old McD's we've all come to accept only when it's the last available option. Maybe they spike the cheese on the pizza with MSG or something, but either way it rocks. Food is definitely one of the better points about being in Japan!

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