I think this is the second time I’ve tried to write this post but I may have fallen asleep due to jetlag the first time. Since Japan, a lot of friends have asked me about what I thought about the food and how different it was compared to Japanese cuisine in the US. The first thing I’d clearly like to say is that since my ramen tour, the idea of a eating my first bowl back in the US has been met with tepid enthusiasm at best. It is honestly a matter of Paradise Lost, but it is inevitable and I do believe honestly that I can still enjoy it because the spirit and comfort of ramen exists whether it’s Tomita (#1 in the world) of Japan or a stove top bag of instant Nissin.
Aside from waxing poetic about ramen, I’ve also told friends that I’ve finally clarity on the disjointed representation of Japanese cuisine in the US. Simply put, I’m not so sure that there are too many popular and established cuisines that are quite so misrepresented as Japanese cuisine is. The gap between here and there is astonishingly distant.
It’s not an issue of technique and it’s not an issue of divergent styles. The intention and structure of the restaurants and menus are not that different. First and foremost, it is a matter of resources. So much of the food in Japan is in sync with the resources and options made (easily) available that, to me, it seems that they work here without the same abundance of those conveniences (or necessities). While you can cook with the same menu and recipes, things drastically get lost in translation when the quality of your ingredients are not met with the same access or governing cultural philosophies.
The other big component lacking in the cooking here is enthusiasm and expectation. Yes, there is enthusiasm for sushi and noodles here, but without a native identity, the interest is relegated to being niche at best. Again, take ramen as an example: the Japanese approach their ramen and noodles with about 100 times more fervor than we approach pizza or burgers. They consider and treat great ramen as an elevated art form and a passion – critiquing every element with a detailed perspective. There is no food here that we have ever held in that regard and I’m sure (nothing beyond a warm adoration for pizza) has ever generated that excitement. And in that vein, such excitement constantly generates an atmosphere of growth, ambition, experimentation and achievement. What incentive does an Ippudo have to rank above mediocre in Japanese standards (cumulative ramendb score of 52) when they are constantly crowned as one of the best in the US?
I understand that we might be too big of a country with too many identities to ever reach the momentum of establishing such a culture, but if anything, I have seen how a tool with similarities to yelp (GULP) can become such a powerful asset for improving food. Of course, our yelp is still an education degree or two behind coherent and appropriate criticism.