I love Japan (as you can probably tell by my past posts) but to say they have a very conservative view of food and cooking would be very, well, conservative. Some of my favourite food in the whole entire world is synonymous with that group of islands in the Pacific that went from being very poor to very rich in an insanely short period of time. Maybe this explains why some things they have there seem very odd in relation to how wealthy the average Japanese person is – they haven’t really adjusted their traditional culture to their relatively new modern reality.
Suggesting to most Japanese people, particularly older individuals that they should try some new seasoning or put a different kind of meat in a stereotypical dish will be met with apprehension or maybe just a nod and smile while they dismiss your foolish notion. Sushi chefs have to train for YEARS before they’re even allowed to cook the rice. Yes, I can appreciate the fine art and value they put in the simplicity of basically their national dish but, like, come on – it’s just uncooked fish, rice and seaweed. The whole reason it is their dish is because it was so cheap!
I remember the first time I went to an izakaya (restaurant bar with a more chill vibe) and saw chicken tendons and gristle on the menu… for a not so cheap price. I wondered ‘who would ever order this trip?’, only to have every Japanese person at the table order it – and some tripe. Did it taste amazing and my snobby western palette needed some altering? No… it was just as you would expect it. In fact, the chicken tendons were deep friend and my friends proceeded to suck the batter off and spit out the inedible part. Well, at least they got something from western society right.
Why put this on a menu alongside more edible food? More than likely, as I found out from a friend of mine who is a tour guide in Japan and knows an insane amount about Japanese culture and history (and who is Japanese, I might add), it dates back to when people would have to eat all parts of the food for the nutrition because they were so poor. The reason it persists is because some people have developed a taste for it over the years… but mostly it’s because it’s really hard to get rid of certain staples from Japanese restaurants, as people would have a fit over the change. Interesting!
This isn’t something unique to Japan but it does hit you a little more in the face when you’re here – this deference to the past. Even as more exotic flavours and dishes invade the Japanese restaurant scene, their traditional dishes remain un-influenced and many prefer it this way. Native Japanese will go out for spaghetti or grab a kebab, sampling all variety of different food and love the difference, but when it comes to their national dishes, there is very little tolerance for experimentation. Some may find this frustrating, but this visitor finds it intriguing and a part of what makes Japan such an amazing place.