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The myth of Japanese cooking

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Japanese cooking is all the rage at the moment.  In Japan, of course.  But not only.  London, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Singapore and so on.

Is Japanese cooking really that great?  Let’s take the top off the hotpot and have a look.

Perhaps, the most famous Japanese food is raw fish called sashimi.  But let’s face, we should not include this in an article on Japanese cooking.  It is not even cooked.  Sure, it is nice to have fresh fish.  Yes, it is beautifully presented.  But if you ever have sashimi in Japan, you will find out that they eat the strangest types of seafood.  

Then comes tempura.  When it’s all said and done, it’s just fried seafood and vegetables.  The Portugese taught the Japanese how to do this, in the same way that they taught the English how to make fish and chips.  Of course, it tastes nice, especially when the seafood is fresh and the batter is light.  But most fried food does taste nice.  Just ask McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken (that’s why we are all obese, fried food).  The Japanese can make a real mess of tempura when they throw fried shrimps or fish into a bowl of udong noodle soup.  The nice crisply fried shrimp goes all soggy.

Many rave about yakitori, a sort of Japanese chicken kebab.  But beware, you eat all the chicken in progressive servings – flesh, skin, tail, organs, intestine and all.   

What about sukiyaki?  Now that is just a case of thinly sliced beef or tofu cooked up in a mixture of soya sauce, sugar and so.  Like a hot pot (thank the Chinese).  Before you eat it, you have to dunk it in an egg sauce – raw eggs, what’s more!

And then there is shabu-shabu.  Again, sliced beef or pork boiled up in a light watery sauce.  Nice, but no great creativity.  Shabu-shabu became famous in the heady days of the 1980s, when finance ministry officials would go to shabu-shabu restaurants served by waitresses in mini-skirts, but without knickers.  “No pan” shabu-shabu!

You know, everyone raves about soba.  Why not?  It is just plain noodles made from buckwheat flour.  Usually eaten cold!

In reality, the very best Japanese food is ramen, which is just a noodle soup that originated in China.  It is very hearty and tasty.  But it is mainly eaten by salarymen at the end of a night on the town drinking. 

Gyoza, or fried up dumplings (another Chinese invention), are another favourite of the salaryman.  You can often see him eating gyoza and ramen at the same time.

A couple of weeks ago, I was dragged along to an okonomiyaki restaurant.  It is the latest thing.  I had to queue up for 2 hours to get into this quaint little place.  It is just a savoury pancake with all odds and ends thrown into it.  Another time I tried “monja”.  Again, all so fashionable, but it is only a runny version of okonomiyaki.  As with everything in Japan, there are many regional variants of this savoury pancake.  But when it’s all said and done, a pancake is a pancake is a pancake.

Overall, Japanese food can be put into two categories, refined and delicate, or tasty and hearty.  

But really, Japanese cooking is nothing compared with Chinese, French, Indian, Italian or Thai. 

What you can say about Japanese food is that it is usually beautifully presented.  Restaurants are often very elegant.  It is a real aesthetic experience.

It does seem to have one strong point, however.  According to OECD statistics, Japanese (along with Koreans) have the lowest level of obesity among the 30 OECD Member countries.  Less than 4% of the Japanese adult population have a body mass index of less than 30, compared with more than 34 per cent in the case of Americans!


Society at a Glance 2009: OECD Social Indicators -- www.oecd.org