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

7 Dec



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.