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.
So, what about meals eaten at home? Although many Japanese women work, there are also many who remain housewives and hence spend a good portion of their day cooking for their families. Whenever I go grocery shopping, I frequently encounter these women stocking up on ingredients for the day’s meals. Seasonality is of utmost importance as well, although it is possible to buy greenhouse-grown strawberries and tomatoes in the dead of winter. I think this tendency to seek out the freshest, most seasonal ingredients possible is one reason why Japan’s traditional food culture remains fairly vibrant and healthy. And even when a meal is not home-cooked, it can still be fairly nutritious, for many grocery stores have an entire section devoted to prepared foods like sushi, tempura, pickles and vegetable dishes, bento boxes, and fresh breads.
That being said, meals cooked and eaten at home are certainly less common today than they were in the past. Convenience foods such as packaged curry mix, instant miso soup, and ramen sets abound in grocery stores. Moreover, the proliferation of fast-food chains (both American and Japanese) has certainly contributed to the decline of the home-cooked meal, not to mention the growing taste for heavier foods. This is especially true among Japanese children, an increasing number of whom are overweight.
Of course, if you compare the situation here to that in the United States, the differences are glaring. True, America does have its own food culture, or rather many regional food cultures, yet food, and more specifically eating well, is less of a priority at home. Moreover, being a “foodie” in the States often connotes snobbery, and food trends (pork and cupcakes, anyone?) tend to come and go quickly. By saying this, I don’t mean to discount the efforts of dedicated American chefs and restaurateurs, nor do I mean to suggest that American cuisine has no intrinsic value. I am simply trying to suggest that our attitudes toward and relationship with food is of a fundamentally different nature than here in Japan.
One of the great features of American cuisine is its boundlessness, its unwillingness to be confined to any one set of ingredients or cultures, let alone a particular season. Not only do ethnic eateries abound in many parts of the U.S., but our grocery stores allow for endless variety: tacos on Monday, spaghetti amatriciana Tuesday, Indian curry for Friday-night takeout, perhaps beef stroganoff on the weekend. One reason for this astounding multiplicity of cuisines is, of course, America’s rich and diverse heritage. Yet we can also attribute this to our somewhat bewildering assumptions about food. That is, we assume that we have the right to eat whatever we want, no matter the season, and that it should be as cheap as possible (and preferably fast, too). Most other people in the world do not have this luxury. Ultimately, I believe this attitude is quite arrogant, although as an American I am of course not exempt from it myself.
So, is it possible for America to have a food culture like Japan’s? Perhaps, and in some ways we are on our way there. But first we must accept that eating well does not necessarily mean having whatever you want, whenever you want. Rather, one must be aware of one’s surroundings, be mindful of the seasons, and, of course, share the experience with others. And that, I think, is eating well.
Phew, please forgive this post’s wordiness. Next time I’ll have a recipe and some delectable photos to accompany it!