Add a Dash of Cultural Imperialism: Japanese Food and Cooking (1956), Part 5

Part 1 | Part 2Part 3Part 4

A slightly blurry photo of sashimi from a dinner at the Nikko Hotel in Kanazawa.
A slightly blurry photo of sashimi from a dinner at the Nikko Hotel in Kanazawa.

Get your lamps out, readers, it’s time for culinary gas-lighting, and I don’t mean the stove.

Warning: here there be gifs.

Ch 4 Raw Fish

If sushi is the engagement, sashimi, or raw fish, is the wedding. Now is the time to stop dabbling and plunge bolding into what may be regarded as the pièce de résistance, in the accepted French sense, and what some may regard as just the piece to resist, other will regard as the one they cannot resist.

Raw fish, to many foreigners, spells trouble.

“Raw fish!” one can hear them scream, “how could anyone think of eating such a thing?”

Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter, looking away, smirking
Source (Image: Hannibal Lecter smirking and turning away)

Yet many do, foreigners as well as millions of Japanese. What after all are raw oysters, clams, and mussels but raw fish?

The trick is in getting used to thinking about actually eating raw fish. Mental preparation is what one needs, not a new stomach or a new set of nerves. (36)

This is a fairly representative example of Griffin’s consistently inconsistent, infuriating writing style. How can one ask their readers to boldly go when they keep reminding us of how “weird” eating raw fish is?

For instance, I personally wouldn’t describe sashimi as an acquired taste, at least not any  more than eating fish is. “Aren’t beer, oysters, rice, whisky, spinach, frogs’ legs, snails, sweet-breads, tripe, and liver?” Griffin asks (36). This line is a particularly telling look into the eating habits of the Americans during the Occupation. Beer and whisk(e)y, as with most alcoholic beverages, do require some experience and guidance to develop one’s palate. Certain cuts of meat, particularly organs or pieces that clearly look like the original animal (whole legs, heads), may have unpleasant psychological associations or a different flavor than the flesh. Animals or plants considered to be “delicacies” may also evoke the same response. A person with no appreciation for mushrooms would be unlikely to enjoy matsutake or truffles. As for rice and spinach, the two most interesting items in this list, the former was and is certainly found in cuisines of the South, though the rice used in Cajun and Creole foods is obviously a different type and prepared quite differently. Spinach appears to have a long history in Asia and Europe, though I’m not entirely sure of the details of its popularity in the US, except that it’s more available fresh now than it was in the 19th century and tends to be grown in California and Arizona now. (Please send information if you are a spinach scholar.)

“Two Introductory Schools”

Griffin then discusses his theory of introducing sashimi to newbies as “Sink or Swim” and “Warned in Advance” (37). “Personally,” he writes, “I believe that unless I’d been tipped off ahead of time that someone was the unhappy owner of a queasy stomach I’d just serve the sashimi and its delicious sauce and say noting until called upon to furnish more positive identification” (37).

Source (Image: Hannibal Lecter, text: #bitch don’t text me)

As a person with moderate food allergies who knows people with severe food allergies: DO NOT DO THIS. This whole section comes off as even more awful after watching Hannibal:

Social etiquette will dictate the guests at least sample everything served them, and thus will be avoided the first mental fright that might come if advance information is given out.

Once eaten, chance are strong that the guests will become devotees, despite themselves. (37)

Griffin’s right that you shouldn’t try to shame someone into eating something (the “Warning in Advance” school), but that’s almost exactly what he does in the book itself.

…no meal is complete without [sashimi]. Get used to it if you can. Don’t eat it if you don’t want to. But you’ll never wean any son of Japan, or daughter either, away from it. (38)

Image: Jack Crawford says, “Shut your mouth” Source

I’ll say it again: What purpose do his admonitions about the treatment of guests even serve when all he does is treat Japanese cuisine as some aberration, as if he’s deigned to eat it but is also is better than not just readers new to the cuisine but also than the people of Japan who perfected the cuisine? Straight up cultural imperialism.

“An Artistic Triumph”

After he declares the introduction to be over, Griffin actually gets to the useful part of the section on sashimi, and, were I his editor, I would have cut all of the imperialist nonsense on pp. 36-37 and skipped right to the good part:

Sashimi itself is an artistic triumph, pleasing to the eye: the delicate red and gauzy-white tines of the fish flesh are in themselves appealing, but more so against the background of shredded white radish [daikon] and a deep green patch of seaweed.

A long, narrow dish is usually used but it may be a round bowl. Japanese often capture nature and the artistic outdoors by using a plate resembling a fish in motion, a quiet river nook, or a deep pool. The fish itself, seen through the seaweed green, evokes the image of the creature swimming lazily through the underwater reeds and roots. This is especially enchanting in summer when the whole effect of eating sashimi, complete with ice cubes, is both cooling and refreshing.

The beauty of sashimi is that it lacks, oddly enough, both the fishy smell and fishy taste that would be its undoing. The taste is delicate, but enchanting, and there is no unpleasant smell.

See, that wasn’t so hard. This is one of the only times in the whole book that he actually discusses the merits of Japanese dishes in terms of flavors, textures, and visual impact.

Wait, What?

There are two more brief items to discuss: what Griffin treats as normal.

After going on and on about how raw fish is weird but that sashimi doesn’t smell or taste fishy, he writes, “For flavoring, since sashimi is odorless and very delicate, Japanese use horseradish [wasabi], though a good foreign substitute would be hot mustard” (39). Note that he writes not that the wasabi enhances the delicate flavor and texture of the fish but that the fish requires something extra to make it palatable.

The biggest WTF moment for me occurs on p. 44, with the recipe for Chicken Sashimi. Normally, this is the dish I find most Americans, including myself, are squeamish about, having been taught that raw chicken is a hot bed for salmonella and must be prepared carefully and cleaned up after thoroughly. Griffin merely states, “One doesn’t have to associate with raw fish entirely. One can also turn with relish to raw chicken.”

Source unknown
Source unknown (Image: Hannibal Lecter, wtf)

Okay, sure, just spend the first four chapters telling us all about how eating raw fish and rice is weird, and then just bust out the “raw chicken is normal” card. FINE. WHATEVER.

Next time: maybe I’ll actually get to discuss a couple chapters at once instead of writing long-form diatribes on how the hell you throw in chicken sashimi like it’s no big deal after all that complaining about raw fish.


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