Friday, December 21, 2007

Food Phases

There are various food-related phases one has when living in a foreign country. Most people don't end up hanging around long enough to get past the first phase and assume there's something wrong with you if you aren't mired in it. This is very much so the case in Japan where the food appears to be one of the biggest draws for tourists.

The first phase is the adventurous one where you're excited to sample local cuisine and see what you like and hate. Inevitably, there are also foods you viscerally reject and aren't even willing to try because of their source. Anything in the slithery, snake-like family is in the last category for me. I can't even look at a snake or snake-like creature without being creeped out. The last thing I want is to see one skewered, grilled and served in pieces on my plate. That means that eel has always been out of the question for me. Mind you, it doesn't help that I used to see a huge clear plastic bag of live, squirming eels in front of a local restaurant on my way to the station everyday when I was working in Shinjuku. The connection between the real deal and what ended up on the plate couldn't help but be firmly crystallized for me after seeing that sack-o-snake day-in and day-out for years.

The adventurous food sampling phase is followed by the regular consumption of the favorites from your new repertoire of food options. This is where you start patronizing all the restaurants which carry the dishes you've concluded that you really like and want more of. For my husband and I, the biggest favorite was yakitori. While the general definition is "grilled chicken" on skewers, the yakitori bars and restaurants carry a wide variety of grilled foods including vegetables, beef, and (ahem) chicken skin and intestines. During the first 8 years or so of our stay in Japan, there were many nights when we'd look forward to starting off the evening with a little lacquered box with rice (or a ball of yaki-onigiri, a grilled rice ball), a handful of chicken or beef skewers, and a few slices of pickled daikon on the side. We'd then add in some grilled shishito (a mildly spicy green pepper), an onion salad with Japanese dressing, and incredibly hot and fresh miso soup along with even more sticks of meat, chicken and green onion. It was an experience to be savored. Unfortunately, savoring it again and again eventually mitigated the excitement of the experience and it wasn't the most economical option for an evening meal.

After awhile, the novelty starts to wear off of your formerly "new" food favorites and what was once interesting and a fresh taste experience turns into the "same old thing" and you find yourself heading into the next phase. You aren't really compelled to prepare the Japanese foods you love yourself because there is no earthly way you're going to do a better job than the restaurants you frequented. In fact, in the case of many dishes, you can't even come close. At this point, you start to be adventurous outside of the indigenous cuisine and, at least in the case of Tokyo, find that there is a whole world of other restaurants like Indian, French, and Spanish which allow you to re-visit your adventurous eating phase though only for a short time as the range of non-native cuisine is far less than the range of native dishes.

Concurrent with all of the phases after the initial one is the slowly increasing wish to find some of your foods from back home. It starts with your delight at encountering one or two items which you hadn't seen in a year or more. As time goes by and the mundane (and expensive) nature of local restaurants settles into your consciousness, you start to think about cooking more for yourself and that, at least in my case, brings me back to western dishes. A lot of people are critical of people who live in Japan and eat like they do back home, but Japanese people living in other countries do the same thing. In fact, when a former student of my husband's visited us in the U.S. for as little as a week, he was pining for miso soup and rice for breakfast within days of his arrival.

It's not simply a matter of being mired in your own country's food culture which draws you to the dishes you grew up with. It's a matter of what you are good at preparing and what is satisfying physically and comforting emotionally. In the case of the visiting former student, I think he felt utterly inundated by the newness of his surroundings and that was more than enough change to digest mentally. The comfort of his usual breakfast and the way it both psychologically and physically prepared him to go out and face a world where he struggled to communicate and navigate was not a rejection of American food, but a concession to one small need to stay bound to his own culture as a means of coping with the stress of the culture shock and his feelings of relative isolation. It would be the height of ego-centrism to view his choices (or anyone else's) in this regard through the lenses of "cultural rejection." Not every choice says something about how the foreign culture is love or not. Sometimes choices only say something about the need of the person making them.


lina said...

like us Asian who can't live without our rice. :-) imagine paying an arm and leg for a fried rice in Europe (yes, we'll pay)

mjgolli said...

I was just talking to my dad tonight about foods from different countries. We were initially talking about British food, since a new authentic Brit pub opened up in a popular shopping area here in town. I remarked how "tame" our food, and the food of some other cultures is as England...and how truly bizarre food can be in other locales. It is all a matter of what you are used to eating and seeing. I am sure that Japanese people consider their food tame compared to stuff you can get in the US.

Dad was in Viet Nam during the war and ate monkey meat on a stick from a roadside vendor. The strange foods programs I watch regularly have featured fried grubs in Thailand, fermented tofu in Taiwan and giant ant eggs in Mexico...and lest we forget Durians?

And here I thought McDonalds was bad! :)

Emsk said...

As you may know I'm vegetarian, so there's not a lot I can do here. I think living in central Tokyo would be easy for there are a couple of vegetarian restaurants, but the trouble is I'd be going there all the time.

I go to Indian restaurants quite a lot, but to tell teh truth I'm growing weary.

My co-worker, who keeps kosher, and I went on the food hunt recently. His Japanese is good, so he ordered some udon, vegetables and rice for me and told me how to in Japanese. Because it's cheap and filling, I've been going back regularly. Today though I found myself feeling throughly sick of it. I came back to work saying that I was dying for a Marks and Spencer's sald, much to the amusement of my co-workers.