Essentialised Japanese Cuisine: Washoku.

There are several stereotypes about Japanese people but an outrageous one is that they all eat whale meat or sushi all day long. Clearly, while be sushi, udon and ramen are our initial impressions of Japanese food, these don’t represent what all possible foods in Japan are.

Even the ‘essences’ of Japanese cuisine, or washoku, as represented from Japanese restaurants worldwide have foreign origins. Did you know that tempura has roots from Portugal missionaries entering Japan and ramen originated from Chinese settlers in Japan? These aren’t ‘traditionally japanese’ as their commonality might suggest.

Indeed, in Japan there are various foods that don’t resemble washoku yet are still equally japanese – Japanese renditions of western foods (yoshoku) and chinese foods (chuka). These include tenshinhan and chuka (first row), croquettes (korokke), omelette rice (omurice) and beef stew (nikujaga) (second row) and baumkumchen, matcha langue de chat and mentaiko sauce.

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In short, Japanese foods should not be essentialised. It is problematic because this idea could lead to expectations of foods ‘frozen’ at a particular time belonging to that national cuisine, leading to possible culture confusion. Deeper appreciation of Japanese cuisine constitutes understanding its transformations and development in space AND time. Foods within a place are constantly evolving through global, dynamic interactions, internal relationships and its histories, forming hybrid foods (yoshoku and chuka). Thus, foods are snapshots at any one point in space time. What is old, and established may not adequately characterise the food of a place: its interactions define it no better than its old customs, and local uniqueness is constructed on global influences (Massey, 1995).

More from Massey (if interested):

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