Cynthia Lin, Contributing Writer, Food Culture
The culture of American cuisine has long been a hodgepodge of various ethnic influences. Whether we merge regional elements and call it “fusion” or transform outlandish entrees into All-American icons, what’s eaten here is really a melting pot of global victuals.
Take the hot dog and hamburger, each of German origin, yet so symbolic of the States. Then there’s the pizza, obviously Italian, but such a big part of our social diet. Or, of course, General Tso’s Chicken – explicitly Chinese, but exclusively American.
At last week’s International Restaurant and Foodservice Show of New York, the showroom traffic at the grand culinary affair in the Javits Center seemed to perpetuate this trend. The crowds were disproportionately concentrated at the northern end of the grounds. It wasn’t the aisles exhibiting the latest in restaurant technology or innovative marketing. It wasn’t the lane displaying local farming. It wasn’t the gelato-packed dessert carts.
It was the community of booths housed under a banner labeled “Flavors of Japan.”
Sure, over the past two decades, Japanese dishes beyond teriyaki -- like sashimi, maki, and shabu shabu –- have seeped into our culinary vernacular. But to many urbanites’ surprise, this confluence has mostly only taken place in major metropolises.
This time, in a sort of second coming, Japanese cuisine in the United States may be more widespread and deeply-rooted.
There’s the added foundation of political drive and social awareness. The surge in battling childhood obesity and promoting healthy living is one beyond the diets fads of the past decades. For the first time, it’s not just liquid regiments or carb elimination. It’s a conscientious note to update our basic eating culture – one the Javits crowd seemed to seek among the Japanese booths.
As I circled the fifty-some displays, I came to appreciate the thoughtfulness behind Japanese food. It’s the exact opposite of scale and excess. Already world-renowned for their delicate presentation and attention to detail, their cuisine is really no different.
Edamame gyoza, no bigger than the size of golf balls, were neatly bundled in packs of six. Silken tofu, at 60 calories a serving, was gently sliced in cubes with a single dribble of maple syrup – to cater to North American taste buds.
Individual 4.2-oz packs of gluten-free noodles were sealed air tight, available in soy milk and brown rice varieties. Rice wine was taste tested in clear miniature pixie cups. Macha powder for tea and healthier baking. Wafer cookies laced in ginger roots. And even the peculiar concept of canned bread was launched in the spirit of individual portioning and sustainability.
The culture of Japanese and American eating cannot be more different.
But as the Eastern world moves to take a page out of the Japanese cookbook, we just might learn that food doesn’t necessarily have to emit brawn and grease to taste good. It can be prepared with taste and wellbeing in mind, for a healthier meal and lifestyle.