Add a Dash of Cultural Imperialism: Japanese Food and Cooking (1956), Part 4

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Ch. 3: “Rice-Sandwiches”

Image: p. 20 of Stuart Griffin's Japanese Food and Cooking
Image: p. 20 of Stuart Griffin’s Japanese Food and Cooking

We’ve made it to the sushi chapter, readers!

I’ve spoken with several people about Griffin’s choice to describe sushi (well, nigiri sushi) as “rice sandwiches.” While I think most Americans in 2015 have some idea of what sushi is, in the 1950s, outside of Japanese-American communities, some explanation may have been required. Reactions to “rice sandwiches” have ranged from “no, that makes sense” to “aren’t they more like hors d’oeuvres?“* to (my favorite) “Do you know how sandwiches work?”

Griffin writes, “Winter of summer, boiling hot or served cold, the culinary emphasis in Japan is always on rice…. Some form of rice is indispensable to any traditional Japanese meal.”

I concur, but would add that even with relatively newer arrivals to the home-cooking and comfort food such as omeraisu, rice is often included.

And now in sushi, the cold but tasty “rice-sandwich,” we find another delicious if strange application to which Japan’s food staple can be put, a great favorite with many “old Japan hands.” (p. 20. emphasis mine)

I have so many questions. In the US, sandwiches are served both hot and cold, so why would it be “cold but tasty” instead of “cold and tasty”? (By the way, in Kanazawa, sushi rice tends to be served a bit warm because it’s rude to serve cold rice in Kanazawan culture. The more you know!)

To the intended reader of the 1950s, I suppose, fish and rice are both supposed to be served hot. However, Griffin has already established raw fish as cuisine here, so the comment seems a little out of place.

The real issue here, and the one I keep rehashing, is the perpetual “oh, this is so delicious but it’s strange and weird and uncomfortable” attitude toward Japanese cuisine. It’s only weird if you present it as weird. Outside of individual preferences devoid of cultural norms and food safety and sustainability, is eating anything particularly weird? Eating organ meat is a good way to use the whole animal*, and shouldn’t be treated as gross or weird. Dislike for liver or kidneys should be a personal preference like dislike for melon or chicken.

One of the nation’s most noted dishes, sushi are simply vinegared rice-balls, roll around or topped with a wide variety of ingredients.

Next follows an explanation of how to make sushi rice, and then an explanation of the types of sushi: nigiri-zushi, norimaki-zushi, and chirashi-zushi.

Another item I’ve noticed is how the reader (Ms. American Housewife) is meant to know how to gut a fish. I’m not sure if this is a temporal-cultural divide, but I have no idea what to do with a whole fish, other than ask YouTube.

On nigiri-zushi with eels: “This is another favorite among Japanese, and surprisingly many foreigners have taken to it with relish” (25)

Translation shift: Griffin uses the word laver for what we would call nori or seaweed. This shows up in contemporary Japanese -> English translations still but tends to be corrected by native speakers. Dried gourd shavings: I had no idea what this was when I encountered it in the book. It’s kanpyô (かんぴょう).

From Ohkura (大倉) kaitenzushi in Omicho Market, Kanazawa
From Ohkura (大倉) kaitenzushi in Omicho Market, Kanazawa. Just look at that marbling on the flesh. Best kaitenzushi in the city.

On p. 34, Griffin explains what one might find in a sushiya: what the interior looks like with the counter, what condiments there are–useful information.

Food-Writing 101

Of course, he can’t resist one last dig at Japanese cuisine:

Sushi is indeed a Japanese favorite, being available on Japanese railway platforms, in basket lunches, at picnic grounds, almost everywhere. Foreigners have either liked sushi or learned to like it. (35)

Like literally everyone else in Japan? You either like something, learn to like it, or you don’t like it.

The concept of eating raw fish and rice cold together might have been, well, foreign, to his intended audience, but he doesn’t make it sound appetizing. He’s not selling the reader on the product. He doesn’t talk about the way ôtoro (fatty tuna) melts in your mouth; the delicate interplay of aji with ginger; the bite that the wasabi brings to the silky fish, enhancing the rich flavors; the umami of the soy sauce; the sheer sensory experience that eating sushi can be when it’s made with fresh, quality ingredients by skilled hands.

Historical note: a pair of nigiri-zushi went for 15-30 yen in Griffin’s experience. In contemporary Japan, depending on the type of restaurant and the quality of the fish, a set might cost 100-400 yen. A whole norimaki-zushi (roll) would set you back 100-200 yen in the 1950s.

If you’ve found his commentary on the oddity of Japanese food irritating, just wait. In Ch. 4, we’re delving into the world of  raw fish.

Key words
Strange: 1
Surprising: 1


*Griffin notes that because sushi is typically a meal in and of itself that hors d’oeuvres isn’t an accurate description (20). I’ll give him that.

**I almost typed “honor every part of the animal.” No, I haven’t been watching Hannibal again. Certainly not.


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