California rolls drive them to distraction
Purists in Tokyo want to label what's authentic. Get real, locals say.
By Martin Zimmerman and Hisako Ueno, Times Staff Writers
December 2, 2006
Ever wonder whether the negi toro you ordered at that sushi place on Wilshire was the real deal?
Well, the Japanese government does. Officials in Tokyo, concerned that diners around the globe are getting a less-than-genuine taste of their nation's cuisine, are devising a sort of bureaucratic Zagat guide that will confer a stamp of authenticity on restaurants that meet the government's standards.
In California, where Asian cuisines are mixed and matched in a blender of ethnicities and subcultures, the plan could be a recipe for contention. Only about 10% of the state's 3,000 Japanese restaurants are Japanese-owned, with many now operated by Koreans, Chinese and Vietnamese.
That has left some local restaurateurs wondering whether nationality could become a litmus test for authenticity.
"How can they tell if this is a real Japanese restaurant or not?" asked Charles Choongnam Ha, a native of Seoul and owner of California Rock & Roll Sushi in Brea. "Will they watch us make sauce? Will they taste the food? I don't know what they're thinking."
Ha's 27-year-old son and sushi chef, Jason, is more direct. "They're jealous because we own so many of the sushi restaurants now. For every five sushi restaurants owned by Koreans, there's one owned by a Japanese. They're trying to say, 'Japanese food is ours.' "
The Japanese government, citing similar programs in France, Italy and Thailand, has named a panel of experts to set up the program and determine grading criteria. (One option: a voluntary system that would include only restaurants that asked to be rated.)
The 11-member group ? mostly representatives of the country's food service, travel and tourism industries ? held its first meeting in Tokyo on Monday and isn't expected to report back until February.
Toshikatsu Matsuoka, Japan's agriculture minister and the driving force behind the grading plan, offered only broad outlines of his goals during the session. The aim is to "offer authentic Japanese cuisine to people," said Matsuoka, a conservative lawmaker known for his nationalist leanings.
"The appearance of some dishes [served in restaurants outside Japan] is Japanese, but actually they aren't," he said. "We want to offer authentic dishes and differentiate them from the rest."
That sounds like a good idea to Fusae Funayama, manager of Oami restaurant in Lake Forest.
"Other restaurants try to do Japanese food, but they don't know how to do it," said Funayama, whose husband, Satoshi, heads a team of Japanese sushi chefs at her restaurant. "They don't know what's good and what's bad."
What qualifies as authentic Japanese food?
Ramen, a noodle and broth concoction so popular in Japan it was the subject of the foodie cult film "Tampopo," is actually Chinese. Curry, another Japanese favorite, is Indian in origin.
"Curry rice has become so integrated into our culture that if you ask a Japanese child what their comfort food is, they'll say, 'Curry,' " said food author and film producer Sonoko Sakai, who grew up in Tokyo. "Now, is that authentically Japanese?"
On this side of the Pacific, meanwhile, it's the rare Japanese restaurant that doesn't offer California rolls or spicy tuna rolls ? both decidedly nontraditional dishes. Korean and Chinese offerings such as barbecue, kimchi and sweet and sour pork are served in many Japanese restaurants in Southern California, even those owned by Japanese.
Sakai acknowledges the difficulty of defining what is "purely Japanese" in a world of fusion cuisines.
"But you need to have a culture of respect" for the food, she said. "When I go into some of these fast-foody Japanese restaurants, you know they're just doing it because sushi sells."
In theory, a restaurant owner or chef won't have to be Japanese to receive the government's blessing. But in published comments, Matsuoka complained about finding Korean barbecued ribs on the menu of a sushi restaurant in Colorado.
Such comments make restaurateurs like Ha nervous.
"I don't know why they think like that," he said. "The American government doesn't judge the American restaurants in Africa or Hong Kong or Korea."
It's also not clear who the target audience is. Japanese tourists searching for a taste of home? Clueless Americans who don't realize that crunchy rolls are as Japanese as Big Macs?
"The perception of Japanese cuisine is different for native Japanese and locals," said Jeanie Fuji, the only non-Japanese member of the panel.
"I thought California rolls were Japanese food before I came to Japan, and I don't think Americans would appreciate Japanese traditional sweets if restaurants serve them," added Fuji, whose husband has an onsen, or hot-spring inn, in Yamagata prefecture in northern Japan.
"So for whom are we making this system?"
Tourists and business travelers from Japan would probably appreciate knowing where to find restaurants that meet their exacting standards, said Carol Martinez of LA Inc., the city's convention and visitors bureau.
"Japanese like to go to a restaurant where the chef was trained in Japan. They can tell the difference," Martinez said. "One of the selling points for Los Angeles is that they can get the genuine article here."
Discerning locals also might find such a list useful, although Sakai, who lives in Santa Monica and eats at Japanese restaurants once or twice a week when she's not traveling, said the value of the government's ranking "will depend on their standards."
Panel member Rikifusa Satake, an official with a chef's association in Kyoto, a city known for its sophisticated cuisine, is pushing for a hard-line approach. The system, he said, "should be tough, checking the quality of skills, ingredients and taste."
The question of how tough the standards will be has even sticklers for authenticity wondering whether they'd get a passing grade from Tokyo. Among them is the owner of R-23 in the downtown Los Angeles arts district.
"I think it could help us," said the restaurateur, who goes by the name Jake S. "We want to keep the authentic way to cook, so if we get certified, it would be good for us."
But even Jake, who hires only Japanese-trained sushi chefs and refuses to serve nontraditional dishes such as rainbow rolls, isn't sure he'd meet whatever grading criteria officials in his native land devise. In the meantime, he fields complaints from customers who can't understand why there's no rainbow roll on the menu.
In Brea, Jason Ha can relate. He notes that diners in America ? even Japanese ? often prefer spicier food than what is normally found in Japanese cooking. As an example, he displays a bottle of American-made Vietnamese chile sauce that he uses in several dishes.
Still, he said, government ratings "will affect where people eat. If the Japanese decide that this is not traditional Japanese food, American people are going to think it tastes bad."
Neo Park, the manager of Furusato, a Korean-owned sushi restaurant in Koreatown, shrugs off such concerns. He said his restaurant does just fine with a clientele composed mainly of Koreans, whites and Latinos.
"Our customers are looking for taste," Park said, "not certification."
Zimmerman reported from Los Angeles, Ueno from Tokyo. Times staff writer Bruce Wallace in Tokyo contributed to this report.
Posted on Thu, Nov. 30, 2006
Japan to evaluate restaurants worldwide for authenticity
By Anthony Faiola
THE WASHINGTON POST
TOKYO - On a recent business trip to Colorado, Japan's agriculture minister popped into an inviting Japanese restaurant with a hankering for a taste of back home. What Toshikatsu Matsuoka found instead was something he considered a high culinary crime - sushi served on the same menu as Korean-style barbecued beef.
"Such a thing is unthinkable," he said. "Call it what you will, but it is not a Japanese restaurant."
A fast-growing list of gastronomic indignities - from sham sake in Paris to shoddy sashimi in Bangkok - has prompted Japanese authorities to launch a counterattack in defense of this nation's celebrated food culture. With restaurants around the globe describing themselves as Japanese while actually serving food that is Asian fusion, or just plain bad, the government here announced a plan this month to offer official seals of approval to overseas eateries deemed to be "pure Japanese."
Some observers here have suggested that the government's new push for food purity overseas is yet another expression of resurgent Japanese nationalism. But the mentality in Japan also echoes a similar movement by several nations - including Italy and Thailand - now offering guidelines and reward programs to restaurants abroad to regain a measure of control over their increasingly internationalized cuisines.
So beware, America, home of the California roll. The Sushi Police are on their way.
A trial run of sorts was launched this summer in France, where secret inspectors selected by a panel of food specialists were dispatched to 80 restaurants in Paris that claimed to serve Japanese cuisine. Some establishments invited the scrutiny, while others were targeted with surprise checks. About one-third fell short of standards - making them ineligible to display an official seal emblazoned with cherry blossoms in their windows or to be listed on a government-sponsored Web site of Japanese restaurants in Paris.
Matsuoka, who took over Japan's top agricultural job in September, is the mastermind of the new "Japanese restaurant authentication plan." He said it does not always take a culinary sleuth to spot an impostor. "Sometimes you can tell just by looking at their signs that these places are phony," he said.
"What people need to understand is that real Japanese food is a highly developed art. It involves all the senses; it should be beautifully presented, use genuine ingredients and be made by a trained chef," he continued. "What we are seeing now are restaurants that pretend to offer Japanese cooking but are really Korean, Chinese or Filipino. We must protect our food culture."
In recent years, few culinary traditions have witnessed the kind of global boom, and distortion, of Japanese food.
In the United States alone, the number of restaurants claiming to serve Japanese food soared to 9,000 in 2005, or double the number a decade ago, according to Japanese government statistics. The government projects that the number of Japanese restaurants worldwide will leap to 48,000 by 2009, more than double the current level.
The government has appointed an advisory board of food luminaries and intellectuals to develop a workable method for the project ahead of its full launch in April. Matsuoka said the most likely scenario would be the creation of government-sanctioned food commissions in major countries to evaluate a restaurant's "Japanese-ness" based on authentic ingredients, chef training, aesthetics and other criteria.
"Of course using Japanese materials would be preferable," Matsuoka said. "But our real purpose is to set benchmarks for how Japanese food is made overseas. We take our food very seriously."