And the winner is…

By Elizabeth Greenberg, Staff Writer

Welcome back.  Last month I asked readers choose this month’s itinerary, and to my delight, you settled on Japan! 

And the winner is…

By Elizabeth Greenberg, Staff Writer

Welcome back.  Last month I asked readers choose this month’s itinerary, and to my delight, you settled on Japan! 

My interest in Chinese and Japanese culinary exchange dates back to 2001, and more specifically to cheap restaurant meals in Beijing with my Japanese roommate.  From her I learned differences between Japanese and Chinese table manners (leave the rice bowl on the table rather than lifting it to your mouth; don’t ever stick chopsticks upright in rice) and that you could get proper Japanese curry in Beijing at a little restaurant called Shuangma.   I also learned a little about broader cultural tensions between the countries from profanities yelled at soccer games.
     
Japanese industrialization began in earnest during the Meiji period.  During that time, the West heavily pressured Japan to accept foreign influence, and Japan pressured itself to “shed Asia” and join the modern world.  It’s hard to both accept and reject foreign influences, but Japan’s attempt to do both has had a fascinating effect on modern Japanese culture. 
     
When foreign influences hit Japan, they adapt to local tastes, as expected, but Japanese culture resists absorbing those influences. The end result is that adaptations are solemnly treated as authentic representations of their cultures of origin.  Many people in Japan genuinely believe that eating KFC for Christmas is an American tradition, and that pasta with corn or fish eggs is authentic Italian food.  And the set of borrowed English words with mangled meanings (like “purasudoraibā"which means “Phillips screwdriver” but is a transliteration of “plus driver”) is so large that it has a name, wasei-eigo: literally, “made-in-Japan English.”
     
Chinese food in Japan fits this pattern perfectly. Chuka, short for chuka ryōri, is a Japanese term for Japanese-style Chinese food. A number of chuka dishes are not too far removed from their original Chinese form, like gyoza (Japanese dumplings) or the spicy tofu dish, mabodofu, that was popularized in 1953 by chef Chen Kenmin. However, while most of the dishes are unrecognizable as Chinese to the Chinese, they’re mistakenly thought of as genuine Chinese food in Japan and are not considered Japanese: they are essentially a cuisine without a homeland.  This pattern also shows up demographically: despite the fact that chuka is considered to be Chinese food, it’s anomalous to be a Chinese chef of Chinese origin in Japan.
     
I know, I know—the history’s interesting, but what’s the food like?  Well, you might be surprised to learn that one of the most popular Chinese-styleMiso_ramen dishes in Japan is ramen.  Yes, the noodles, though usually fancier ramen than the stuff college students live off here. And even though Chinese food is treated differently, it still has adapted to local tastes and ingredients. For example, several popular dishes like miso ramen and Hoi Kō Rō (a cabbage and pork dish) use as an ingredient miso, a fermented soybean paste that doesn’t exist in Chinese cuisine. Chinese cuisine has even adapted to the local environment: dim sum carts are hard to find in Japan, but finding dim sum in a café-like setting is a lot easier.
     
Best Restaurant Worldwide
The Japanese Chinese restaurant with the most interesting story is almost certainly Reikasai, also known sometimes as Emperor Li Family Cuisine.  As the second name indicates, the family owning the restaurant has a rather illustrious history: an ancestor of theirs, Li Zijia, was a minister for empress Cixi of the Qing dynasty, and the restaurant’s recipes have been passed down since that era.  A warning, though: the story doesn’t come cheap.  Set menus at the restaurant can cost up to US$400.

Miso-ramin
     
That’s it for now!  Join us next year as we head to Singapore, which food blogger Samantha describes as “the only majority Chinese country that is not, by someone’s interpretation, part of China.”


 

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