Besides the occasional meal at a local Korean restaurant Chicago, my first real exposure to that country’s cuisine was in the test kitchen of Saveur magazine, where I interned this past summer. In preparation for the October issue, we were testing a variety of recipes for kimchi, all of them made entirely from scratch. On the roster were the classic baechu (cabbage) kimchi, mild water kimchi (made with daikon, Asian pear, and scallions), spicy daikon kimchi, and stuffed cucumber kimchi. (You can find recipes for all four on Saveur’s website.) For the most part, I was in charge of testing the recipe for the cabbage kimchi, which involved chopping and mincing no less than twelve ingredients. Suffice it to say that by the end of end of my stint, I felt pretty confident about my kimchi-making skills.
As I was writing my first post for this blog, I stumbled across an interesting article that analyzes Japan’s food self-sufficiency ratio. As defined in the article, the food self-sufficiency ratio is “an index that shows the ratio of calorie supply from domestically produced food compared to the total calorie supply from food in the country”. In Japan, this ratio has declined precipitously, though not always steadily, from 79% in 1960 to 39% in 2006.
Though the article is somewhat technical in its language, the basic point is that Japan is increasingly unable to feed itself with food grown and produced domestically. This is due to a number of factors, primarily the increasing Westernization of the Japanese diet following World War II.
Moving somewhere new, even within your own country, can be a scary and daunting task. Besides all the obvious environmental changes one must adjust to, there are unfamiliar customs to abide by, neighbors to meet, friends to make, and perhaps even a new language to learn. And then, of course, there’s the food.
Besides being in a country where very little English is spoken, what worried me most about moving to Japan was this last factor. It’s not that I don’t like Japanese food, but rather that I had no idea what I’d find in the grocery stores and markets.
One thing that has struck me so far about my experience in Japan is the high premium placed on eating well. Simply put, good food is an obsession here. As someone once told me, “it’s very difficult to have a bad meal in Japan.” Sure, you can splurge on kaiseki and sushi, but when it comes to everyday fare, even the grubbiest-looking cafeterias serve good food.
Several weeks ago, in Kanazawa, I ducked into just such a place for a quick lunch. The special that day was a katsudon teishoku (set meal), which consisted of a freshly fried pork cutlet over rice, topped with sliced negi and a just-set egg; clear soup with udon noodles; and crisp daikon pickles. This sort of meal is what I like to call “working man’s food” (to wit: I was the only woman in the entire place). It is filling and hearty, quite affordable, and very fast. But in this case, fast does not equal food that’s been sitting under a heat lamp for forty-five minutes. In fact, everything I ate was freshly cooked. As I waited at the counter for my meal, I could hear the pork cutlet bubbling away in hot oil, and I watched the construction worker next to me scarf down a whole grilled fish for his midday meal.
Hello, and welcome to Shichimi!
This blog will be a record of my experiences living, eating, and cooking in Japan, as well as a platform for more general food writing. For more information about me and this blog, please click here.
A proper (full) post will be on its way shortly!