With Japan coming ever more into focus with the Rugby World Cup and Tokyo Olympics in 2019 and 2020 respectively, we are pleased to introduce our new guest blogger, Koj, who is half Japanese and opened a Japanese restaurant and cocktail bar in Cheltenham that seeks to educate and entertain anyone who (mistakenly) believes that Japanese food is all about sushi..
Introducing Kojitate: the pedantic but informative column about Japanese food
Authentic is a word that gets bandied around glibly. Last month, So Thai, rated by Tripadvisor as the number one restaurant in Gloucester, made the news by replying to a review that expressed disappointment in the authenticity of Thai restaurants in the UK. The member was comparing them to “Sydney where Thai restaurants are great”.
My own favourite at Koj Cheltenham remains the disgruntled reviewer that recommended readers to go elsewhere “forauthentic Japanese tapas”. A culinary oxymoron, if ever I heard one.
There are thousands of anecdotes across TripAdvisor, but the one that takes the biscuit is The Shed at Dulwich (in South London, where I grew up). I’ve recently shared the documentary on our Facebook page. It’s the story of Oobah Butler, a freelance writer, being paid to write fake TripAdvisor reviews. Disillusioned by the ease at which he could make or break the reputation of a business, he decides to stage an elaborate prank in which the restaurant itself is fake. He verifies his listing with a pay as you go phone and some faked photographs then coordinates a campaign of positive reviews from his friends. Within weeks, he is turning away bookings from customers intrigued by this ‘weird’ but ‘homely’ restaurant where you eat outside. It is impossible to get a table. Literally, because it doesn’t exist but after seven months, The Shed hits the coveted number one spot on TripAdvisor, ahead of over 18,000 actual restaurants. Deciding to call time, Oobah executes the finale to the story by creating a culinary version of the Emperor’s New Clothes. He finally accepts bookings from real customers, leads them blindfolded down the scruffy lane to his garden shed, surrounds them with actors and feeds them powdered soup in a mug and lasagne ready meals, topped with ‘foraged’ micro cress. The customers rave about the food and say they’ll be back.
Back to real life. One customer remarked to me that our food was delicious, but not authentic. “Not authentic?” I asked.
“Well, there’s no sushi.” That’s the point. We don’t do sushi, because Japanese people don’t just eat sushi. In fact, they rarely eat sushi, compared to all the other things they eat. As a result, we have a lot of customers who don’t like sushi, or fish at all, for that matter. Many of them have never been to a Japanese restaurant because they have been conditioned to believe that a Japanese restaurant is a sushi restaurant.
“Well at least you liked the food. Have you been to Japan?” I asked, hoping to discuss his memories of yakitori, shabu shabu, sukiyaki or okonomiyaki. He had not. But he had opinions and beliefs about authenticity.
The ultimate authentic Japanese dining experience would presumably involve sitting in a restaurant in Japan, surrounded by Japanese customers, eating Japanese ingredients, cooked by Japanese chefs, served on Japanese plates by Japanese waiters. But then you probably wouldn’t call it authentic, because it would be tautologically unnecessary.
So what hope for Japanese restaurants in the UK? Or Thai, or any other cuisine which is judged on authenticity? What does authentic even mean? Does it mean that the ingredients are imported, often frozen, rather than bought locally? Or is it authentic to adopt a Japanese ethos of celebrating the food produced by the seasons? Does having a Japanese chef make it more authentic? If so, I’m pretty sure that Jamie’s Italian restaurants have a pretty good chance of being authentically Eastern European. Does authentic mean that the dishes are cooked according to recipes published by an accepted authority on Japanese cuisine (like Shizuo Tsuji), without being bastardised by fusion or deconstruction?
One customer recently advised us that our ramen toppings were incorrect. He had been to Japan. We smiled and nodded politely because lunch service wasn’t the time or place for the debate. I didn’t realise there was a ramen rule book. That somewhere along the line, someone decided that enough was enough. That this peasant dish of carbohydrates, soup and scraps that originated in China had spent long enough in the Japanese development kitchen and could now be officially branded as a national dish called Ramen with toppings sanctioned by the Official Ramen Society of Japan (if such a society actually exists, I’m just making a point). For the record, most food historians reckon that ramen became popular in Japan around a century ago, after the first world war. As each kitchen tried variations depending on local and cheap ingredients, different versions evolved. Skip forward a century and Hakata is known for its pork broth, Hokkaido for its miso broth and Tokyo for its soy dashi broth.
How can any bowl of ramen be authentic? It may look and taste like one served at a ramen restaurant somewhere in Japan. Some might even argue that ramen isn’t even Japanese, at least not until it has a few more generations under its belt. Likewise, how can any Japanese restaurant in the UK be authentic? There are all sorts of restaurants in Japan. How can any restaurant in the UK claim to embody the authentic spirit of Japanese restaurants, all under one roof, by playing the culinary version of Japan’s Greatest Hits on repeat?
Next time on Kojitate #2 - The meaning of katsu
Why this ready meal might not be “authentic