You don’t have to know Japanese food, or Japanese, to know “washoku.” Thirteen months have passed since UNESCO designated it an Intangible Cultural Heritage. Traditional Japanese cuisine now belongs to the world – for better and for worse, says Spa! (Dec 30 – Jan 6).
The positive aspects are easy enough to identify. Applause is always encouraging, and Japan, feeling unsure of itself ever since its economy stalled 20 years ago, needs some. If it’s on a global scale, so much the better. The UNESCO brand boosts tourism, the restaurant business, agricultural exports, respect, self-respect. What can be bad?
Rising litter levels on Mount Fuji since that iconic peak was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 2013 suggest the answer. Washoku is not fast food. What’s best in it demands expert workmanship and seasoned appreciation. Once a thing makes it onto everybody’s list-of-things-to-experience, it is no longer assured of getting either.
Chocolate sushi, mango sushi, cheese-and-raisin miso soup, Kobe beef grilled to the texture of leather and served on French bread – these are among the enormities cited by Spa! as it scans “Japanese” restaurants around the world. The quotation marks are called for. Pseudo-Japanese establishments abound, says Spa! – run by Chinese and Korean entrepreneurs who use their own import networks to lay in cheap substitutes for Japanese ingredients and undercut their legitimate Japanese competitors. Overseas, who knows the difference? Many do, of course – but many more don’t.
Genuine washoku calls for choice ingredients, grown in Japanese soil, nurtured with Japanese care and costing Japanese prices – high to begin with, higher still when import costs are factored in. An additional problem is tightened European Union restrictions on Japanese food imports since radiation levels soared after the March 2011 nuclear power plant meltdowns.
Substitutes often have to do, with Japanese restaurateurs more conscious of authenticity and less conscious of cost – alleges Spa! – than their non-Japanese competitors. Even in places where Japanese dining is long-established, as in London’s Finchley district, cut-rate competition is moving in and – again, the allegation is Spa!’s – putting washoku to shame.
Is the situation hopeless? Is washoku doomed to languish abroad for want of standards? Fortunately – no. One entrepreneur who might be pointing the way forward is Maki Sano, who opened the washoku restaurant Suzu in London eight years ago.
Things have changed since then, she says. “Unlike when I first started, there are very few people in London who have never eaten Japanese food. People know the difference between authentic and fake. We even have people phoning before they come to make sure the owner is Japanese.”
So spreading knowledge and connoisseurship is one strategy, and to that end, Sano has written a book, “Sushi Slim,” which has been translated into 11 languages. Another is collaborating with unexpected partners – in Sano’s case, a video game company; together they come up with menu items that appear in the games and on Suzu tables.© Japan Today