For Japanese-American journalist and author Gil Asakawa, it’s incredible to see how Japanese food has become accepted in the United States.
“[I]t’s amazing to see the cultural evolution — nay, revolution — that now has Japanese restaurants in every city and sushi in supermarkets across the U.S.,” Asakawa writes in his book “Tabemasho! Let’s Eat!: A Tasty History of Japanese Food in America.”
Asakawa was born in Japan of Japanese-American parents who had moved back to Japan right before the attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II.
In an interview with Culturs Magazine’s Doni Aldine for the “Destinations with Doni” podcast, Asakawa talks about growing up in Tokyo and going to school on U.S. military bases.
“I had this very bicultural upbringing of hanging with U.S. Military B.R.A.T.s, during the day and then going home to the Japanese neighborhood, playing with my Japanese friends after school,” he says.
When the family moved to the U.S. in 1966, Asakawa was 8 years old, in third grade, “and my mom still cooked this mixture of Japanese food at home and American food and my dad would grill the steaks on the hibachi grill on the back porch.”
‘BICULTURAL FOODIE UPBRINGING’
Asakawa talks about having a “bicultural foodie upbringing” where his mother would make spaghetti with meat sauce for the rest of the family and salmon with rice for herself.
Between him and his older and younger brother — he was the middle child — Asakawa says he connected more than the other two with his mother about how she cooked things.
“I paid attention to my mom,” he says. “I paid attention to the cutting board she used and the sound that her knife — it’s called a hocho, a Japanese kitchen knife — the sound that it made when she was cutting carrots or cucumbers or … cabbage or anything, chicken, shrimp.”
Asakawa maintains a blog — nikkeiview.com — that concentrates on Japanese and Asian identity, racism and history as well as news. It was that blog that caused a publisher, Stone Bridge Press, to approach him over a decade ago to invite him to write a book, “Being Japanese American: A JA Sourcebook for Nikkei, Hapa … and Their Friends” about the history of Japanese-Americans. The book was published in 2004 and a second edition came out in 2014 due to an increase in U.S. interest in Japanese pop culture.
WRITING A NEW BOOK
“And then at some point I realized, you know what? I’m really into food and I’m going to ask Stone Bridge Press, my publisher, if they’d be interested in a book about Japanese food, not just the history of Japanese food, because there’s a couple of really good, well-researched books about that, but how Japanese food changed and evolved as it became popular in the U.S.,” he says.
I had this very bicultural upbringing of hanging with U.S. Military B.R.A.T.s, during the day and then going home to the Japanese neighborhood, playing with my Japanese friends after school.Gil Asakawa
Because when Asakawa first moved to the U.S. in the mid-1960s, his third-grade classmates would tease him about eating “raw fish.” Fast-forward to the 21st century and those same classmates’ grandkids are the ones going to their local supermarket and buying sushi “because it’s not weird or gross or exotic to them.”
Even sushi, which has such a huge popularity at restaurants in the U.S. nowadays, wasn’t something he or his family ate much of when they were living in Japan.
“My mom would make certain kinds of sushi for New Year’s and invite friends over, or we would go out for special occasions to restaurants that were known for their sushi,” he says. “And it’s kind of the same with Japanese-Americans in the U.S. … Yeah, we all eat sushi, but we didn’t necessarily grow up eating sushi.”
ASAKAWA ON EATING ‘LAME’ SUSHI
That said, nowadays Asakawa knows very well when he’s eating “lame” sushi, particularly if the chef cooks the rice in a certain way.
“The slight sweetness that goes into sushi rice is so important,” he says. “The way that sushi chefs have to fan the rice while they’re cutting it, they’ll never smash the rice, the individual pieces of rice, they kind of sprinkle the vinegar and then they kind of mix it and they fan it at the same time to cool it.
“You can tell when that’s not done right,” he continues. “I can tell when sushi rice has no flavoring in it and it’s just rice and I go, ‘Man, this is phony. This is just totally fake.’ If the rice isn’t cooked well that’s really a bad sign.”
The slight sweetness that goes into sushi rice is so important.Gil Asakawa
Asakawa is also not a big fan of the California roll, which has the rice on the outside without the seaweed wrapping.
“It was invented by Japanese sushi chefs in the U.S. but it was made to appease diners who were grossed out at seeing seaweed on the outside of a sushi roll,” he says.
ASAKAWA ON NOT SO ‘TRADITIONAL’ JAPANESE FOOD
One of the main things Asakawa learned while writing his book is that a lot of the food people just accept as being “traditional” Japanese dishes were appropriated from other cultures.
“After World War II, I write about how the three really familiar foods in America — Japanese foods — were sukiyaki, teriyaki and tempura,” he says, adding that tempura was actually something that came from the Portuguese in the 1700s.
“They would batter-fry vegetables for one of their Catholic holidays and it was called ‘tempora’ something or other. And ‘tempora’ — time — turned into tempura, which makes perfect sense from a Japanese perspective. And they started making that,” Asakawa says.
Ramen is another food that isn’t originally Japanese, according to Asakawa.
People think of ramen right away as a Japanese noodle, but it was originally a Chinese noodle dish, he says.
“The Chinese laborers on the docks of Yokohama Bay in the late 1800s, early 1900s would make it and sell it as street food from carts for Chinese laborers, dock workers. And then it became popular with Japanese laborers and then a restaurant started serving it. And then a restaurant in Tokyo opened that started serving it. But each time Japanese took, and this is very typical of the history of a lot of foods in Japan that are not Japanese in origin, they would adapt the flavors and adapt the textures to suit the Japanese palate,” Asakawa says.
This whole discussion of ramen starting out as Chinese and now being Japanese, to Asakawa “that’s a real reflection of the way food is a gateway to culture and that it evolves and it changes as it hits new cultures.”
Click here to listen to Asakawa’s full interview on the “Destinations with Doni” podcast.