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Japan’s Itameshi & America’s Food Truck Craze: Representing our Generation through Food

7 Dec

 

flickr/boo_licious

A few months ago TheAtlantic.com featured an article by Corky White on Japan’s latest culinary obsession with all things Italian. Itameshi (“Ita” is short for “Italian” and “meshi” is the Japanese colloquial equivalent for “food”), originally referred to traditional Italian cuisine and now also refers to the practice of infusing Japanese flavors into Italian staples such as pasta and antipasti. The idea of mixing Japanese and Italian food sounds strange at first—especially if sushi and marinara sauce are the first things that come to mind—but it’s really not. For example,this recipe is basically tuna pasta with the substitution of certain ingredients: soy sauce is used in place of salt and furikake (a mixture of dried seaweed, sesame seeds) is used in place of the herbs such as basil or parsley.

What intrigued me most about the article was White’s proposed reason for Itameshi’s current popularity. For the older Japanese individuals he interviewed, Itameshi appealed to them because the rustic character of Italian cuisine reminded them of a “long-gone Japan.” As a nation that lost its cultural and national identity to the rapid modernization and Westernization of the Meiji Restoration, the nostalgic quality of Itameshi cannot be ignored.

But I am convinced that Itameshi is popular for other reasons; after all, it has only recently become very popular despite its 50 years in Japan. Itameshi first experienced moderate popularity during the post-WWII period when major cities were saturated with American troops. In the 1970s its modern incarnation welcomed a small boost in popularity when chefs began introducing more Japanese flavors and ingredients such as ponzu (citrus soy sauce) and shiitake (Japanese mushrooms). And until recently, Franco-nippon cuisine, a blend of French and Japanese flavors, has been more popular. So why is Itameshi extremely popular now after 50 years on the food circuit? Instead of looking to the older generation for answers, we should look to the younger demographic.

I would argue that Itameshi is now more popular than ever because its current Japanese-infused form represents the essence of Japan’s younger generation. According to some of my friends from Okinawa, young adults in Japan want to adopt completely foreign lifestyles such as the American lifestyle because they think the greater social and economic freedom is invigorating. But in the end many settle for a hybrid lifestyle in fear of being ostracized for deviating too far from the social norm. So for them Itameshi isn’t just a food trend—it’s a manifestation of their identity and that is why it is so popular. And more importantly: it’s affordable, unlike Franco-Nippon cuisine; and it’s easily accessible, with many local eateries, such as the popular Italian Tomato, within close proximity.

But does this only apply to Japan? After reading this article on fusion cuisine I began to think about culinary trends here in America. Fusion cuisine, organic food, and food trucks are all greatly popular, yet very different. Do we become schizophrenic when we think about food? Or is there a single driving force powering the co-existence of these various crazes? Having schizophrenic tendencies while thinking about food sounds like a blast, but I can make a stronger argument for the latter. Like Itameshi in Japan, food trends in America have come to represent our generation. Fusion cuisine reflects how we are intermixing what was once partitioned ethnic communities; organic food reflects our commitment to living green in light of environmental and health concerns; and food trucks reflect the impact of media on our perception of how food should be eaten.

Of all three, I would consider the food truck trend to be the most interesting representation of our generation—especially for those living in Los Angeles.

The popularity of shows such as Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives have glorified the itinerant eating lifestyle and made us infatuated with the idea that we can experience the world through food. Realistically, we can’t all travel the world like bad-ass Anthony Bourdain or tour the country driving a red Chevrolet Camaro convertible like spunky Guy Fieri, but we can recreate that experience by patronizing the various food trucks L.A. has to offer.

These mobile kitchens serve food that is—and don’t hate me for saying it—the same fare we could get at a restaurant. You could easily walk into the neighborhood pizza parlor for a slice of pepperoni pizza comparable to that of the very popular Slice Truck. But the overall experience, starting with finding a truck serving what you’re craving at the moment, to finding a nearby spot to eat before heading home, provides more than a means to satisfy our appetite; it provides us with the opportunity to explore and discover tastes like the food celebrities on television.

Let’s say for example, that you’re craving a banh mi sandwich. You could either be like Anthony Bourdain and book a flight to Hanoi or you could just check the Nom Nom Truck’s twitter to see where they’ll be serving their famous banh mi. If you convince a friend who’s good with a camera to tag along with you, you could probably make your search for the perfect banh mi sandwich look and feel like what you would see on No Reservations. With both scenarios, you’d finish the night with a belly full of barbeque pork, picked carrots and radish, and cilantro, but you’d be a couple thousand dollars richer if you skipped the plane ride all together.

Everyone thinks that they’re singlehandedly bringing something innovative and exciting to the world of food, but in the end we’re all just using manipulating food to define how our children and grandchildren will remember our generation. And to add insult to our already injured egos, this is something we’ve seen repeated through history.

Think about it. Trends from the eras when our parents and grandparents grew up were also fundamental in defining their generations. During the 1920s and 30s, flappers adopted fashions popularized in France by Coco Chanel to signal the advent of the modern woman who saw no need to answer to a man. In the 1960s, men and women of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds used music to express to express their feelings on war, race, and civil rights. Using food to define our generation is just the modern version of what fashion and music accomplished in the past.

What will be next? Fashion, music, and food were around long before they began to reflect the character of their respective generations. I’d say anything is fair game.

So ladies and gentlemen, place your bets and cross your fingers. I think we’re all in for quite a treat.

I’m back!

15 Nov

flickr/adactio

First off, sorry for the lack of updates recently. Graduate school applications have taken over my life and my immune system decided to go on vacation early this year. I promise I’ll be around more consistently from here on out.

This morning I woke up feeling horrible. Congested, sore throat, coughing, the whole shebang. I felt like I was a walking billboard for some new cold medicine. But after a cup of hot tea (with honey, of course) and this quick read by Helene York over at theatlantic.com, I started to feel a little better.

The article’s title, “What Americans Can Learn From Japanese Cuisine,” is what first caught my attention. What can we learn from Japanese cuisine that we haven’t already? Practically everyone knows what sushi is and can probably name their personal favorite. According to York, it’s the love invested into the preparation of each element of a meal. She uses Yoshinori Horii’s noodle-making presentation at a recent food conference in Napa Valley as an example:

The crowd of 250 or so mostly chefs and food company executives were mesmerized by this simple magic, appreciating the speed, sheer physicality, and elegant simplicity required to make these non-extruded long noodles. He got a standing ovation.

But what I enjoyed the most about this article was her proposal for how we should adopt aspects of Japanese cuisine to our own:

Japanese cuisine has its shortcomings too—high sodium and pickling, almost no whole grains, and a fondness for threatened seafood species—but my point is not to laud or deride. Let’s consider the elements that differ and imagine applying them to our own context. What if we adopted a goal of eating 30 food varieties every day? What if we aspired to wabi-cha cuisine as a complete work of art?

Although this specifically refers to Japanese cuisine, I think it’s a great way to look at all types of ethnic cuisines. We have experienced recent success in adopting other cuisines into our own–just look at the popularity of fusion cuisine today, but I think there is more ground to explore. As already mentioned, beauty and appreciation can also be found in the preparation of the food itself, and I feel that this is the missing puzzle piece in contemporary fusion cuisine. Fusion cuisine seems superficial with all the emphasis placed on blending generalized flavor profiles.

So perhaps what we should be aspiring to now is a new type of fusion cuisine that focuses on the preparation process in addition to the flavors presented on the dish.

 

Nostalgia…

20 Oct

Not necessarily of watching masterful takoyaki vendors in Osaka, or any other part of Japan for that matter, but of Hawaii.

Every summer and winter break I go home with two things on my agenda: visit family and eat. Most of the time, the two overlap–afterall, for my family good food is a must-have at all gatherings.

But certain foods require special trips. In terms of sweets, it’s definitely Leonard’s Malasadas for their amazing Malasada Puffs and Kansai Yamato for their amazing chocolate mochi filled with dark chocolate ganache and coated with cocoa powder. For the savory items, the list is much, much longer. Chun Wah Kam, Futaba’s (if I’m lucky), Bangkok Chef, and the list goes on.

One thing I always make multiple trips for is the takoyaki at Shirokiya. The thrill of seeing the cook deftly form the balls with the aid of just two thin metal skewers and the anticipation that makes you salivate when they package your order is something I don’t tire of.

But the best part of the entire experience is actually eating the takoyaki. Because most of the time I’m sharing the order with my mom.

-E.Kim