Add a Dash of Cultural Imperialism: Japanese Food and Cooking (1956), Part 3

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Foreword and part 2 here.

Ch. 2: Rice Dishes

Like many chapters, this one starts off well, with an explanation that rice is the staple food of Japan (all 85 million inhabitants; now 1.27 million) and is served in a variety of ways; there follow instructions for washing and cooking rice.

One thing I find off is that the author always uses imperial measurements. Japan has been using metrics since the 1890s, although it does have its own type of measurements (tatami mats, Japanese cups, etc.). An American couple who had the finances or moving allowance to bring all their American kitchen equipment might benefit from using imperial, but I don’t see why not to give both styles of measurement. (This is still a problem with English-language cookbooks for Japan-based cooks.)

The chapter focuses on three types of rice dish (meshimono): rice with lobster, shrimp, and prawn; rice with eel, and rice with chicken and eggs–and some other meshimono as well. I would argue that meshimono is a bit different: there’s donburi, a one-bowl rice-based meal with meat, egg, veg, etc., and a sauce; there’s rice mixed with beans or nuts and served as a side dish. (Sushi is dealt with separately). I’ve also never eaten lobster in Japan.

Oyakodon by Ocdp via Wikipedia
Oyakodon by Ocdp via Wikipedia

The recipes that follow are several types of donburi: tendon (tempura donburi), unagi donburi, oyakodon; and then rice side dishes like chicken dish, kuri gohan (chestnut rice), and sekihan (azuki beans and rice). My personal opinion is that an author of a cookbook should present all recipes as if they are of equal deliciousness, but despite chiding the reader about eating “scary” Japanese food (just wait till the sushi chapter!), Griffin ranks the donburi. Tendon is basically just described as “crustaceans cooked in the dept-fat or tempura style and served in a bowl on top of white rice” (10). Yet, note the difference between how he describes unadon (eel donburi) and oyakodon (chicken and egg donburi, lit.: parent and child).

Unadon by 663highland. Via Wikipedia.
Unadon by 663highland via Wikipedia.

Unadon: “Second only to tendon among the meshimono is this Japanese way of preparing broiled eels and white rice” (13).

Oyakodon: “Even more delicious, for those who have a natural predisposition to chicken rather than eel, is this dish (14).”

Of course everyone has food preferences. Yet, to me, these are two very different dishes within the same genre. The dishes are both rich and both use soy sauce and mirin, but oyakodon is like a rich, creamy, not-quite-omelet on top of rice, whereas unadon has a barbecue-like sweetness from the broiled tare sauce and melt-in-your-mouth meat.

The other part of the description that bothers me is the “natural predisposition.” How much are our preferences are own, and how much are they a product of our culture? Unagi is the second-most popular dish for Japanese, but “even more delicious” is the chicken to the American, because chicken is normal. It’s this reinforcement of the very norms the author claims to try to overcome or expand that smacks of cultural imperialism–sometimes it’s just more subtle.

Snowy********* 崎陽軒赤飯弁当 * KIYOKEN Sekihan Lunch. via Flickr Creative Commons.
Snowy********* 崎陽軒赤飯弁当 * KIYOKEN Sekihan Lunch. via Flickr Creative Commons.

The recipe for “red rice” is somewhat less subtle: “Japanese love this dish. To foreigners, it presents a bit of an acquired taste problem, but it has its disciples” (17). He also calls for regular rice instead of mochi rice.

Griffin’s writing style reminds me of culinary gaslighting. He bounces between extolling the deliciousness of Japanese food and calling it gross; he urges his fellow expats (or, rather, their wives) to keep an open mind and expand their palates while simultaneously telling them that foreigners don’t like this food or that food, implying that American cuisine is normal and Japanese cuisine is a curiosity.

For example, the next recipe’s flavor text reads, “Chestnut Rice: here is an unusual way of presenting an old American favorite–the chestnut” (19). Is it unusual because of the rice? Because it’s not in a stuffing? Because it’s not roasting on an open fire?

The next chapter is the one on sushi, or, excuse me, “rice sandwiches.” My body is not ready.

Buzzword count: Unusual: 1 (I remember this being much more dramatic, but honestly, I think it’s the overall count in the book of adjectives about Japanese food being exotic, unusual, etc. in the flavor text in a book of recipes that I find odd.)

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