Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Jesting Palate

At the end of his book Down and Out in Paris and London, his exploration of the underbelly - the "dirty handkerchief" side - of two great cities, George Orwell was able to sum up his experience: "Still I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning."

I didn't have to be hard up, or quite as hard up as Orwell was, to arrive at the same conclusion about a "smart restaurant." I've eaten in some high end restaurants in my life, but always at someone else's invitation. It was never my idea to spend an extraordinary sum of money for a meal. I confess to having a quite undeveloped palate when it comes to "fine dining." I find that pub grub is far more a8ppetizing. But I am not a fool. I can eat at an Old Spaghetti Factory without suffering a loss of prestige or self esteem. Taco Bell is always an option.

I don't pretend to know much about fine dining. I know why the fork is always on the right and exactly how the knife is held. But that is practically it. I do know enough about esthetics, however, to know why food should be arranged on a plate to maximize the satisfaction of a person's hunger. Fine dining establishments, however, aren't known to attract hungry patrons.

For many reasons, some less clear than others, Japanese food is becoming the new haute cuisine. The French term means literally "high cooking", and was developed in the French royal court as a deliberate effort to differentiate food that was eaten by commoners from food eaten at court, simply because only someone in the highest circles of French society could afford to eat something like caviar. Since the 17th century, it has become a cuisine with special ingredients, prepared by highly trained chefs, presented to the diner in high end restaurants. As much attention is paid to the presentation of the food, the way in which it's arranged on a plate, according to aesthetic principles intended to appeal as much to the eyes as the nose. Such meals are also intended to cost an amount of cash that puts it out of the reach of the average diner. If you have to ask the price of the dish, the saying goes, then you probably can't afford it.

But the current interest being lavished on Japanese food is especially surprising to me because, while I have been enthusiastic about various aspects of Japanese culture, their literature and films, since I was in my teens, their food has always defied my appreciative abilities. To me Japanese cuisine is like their music, played with the biwa, the kotō or a bamboo flute, which is interesting but only tenuously recognizable as music. No one can accuse me of ignorance in these matters, after reading Japanese literature (in translation) voluminously, from Akutagawa Ryunosuke to Oe Kenzaburo, and championing Japanese films from the more "Western," extroverted Kurosawa to the more refined and "distinctly Japanese" Ozu. I lived in Japan, thanks to the U.S. Navy, for three years in the 1990s and I have absorbed the highly individual - and loving - observations of Japanese culture from fellow transplanted Westerners like Alan Bloom and Donald Richie.

Unlike some other national cuisines, like Italian or Mexican, or even Chinese, Japanese food does not, when it sees you coming, jump out of it's chair and run forward to embrace you in greeting. Japanese food is alot like the Japanese themselves. It is reticent and standoffish. Its flavors don't jump out at you. It is subtle. It is, to use a worn out phrase, an acquired taste - which only means that you won't like it on a first or second tasting. You will have to be patient and work on liking it.

And this is precisely where I leave the room. First, anyone with sense should reconsider trying to like something that he didn't like on the first go. Second, while there is a number of Japanese dishes that I enjoy, like katsudon (or pork donburi), soba noodles, and yakitori (barbecue chicken), and while the Japanese have perfected the art of brewing beer so that Kirin is one of the finest lagers in the world, I don't enjoy much of Japanese cuisine and I have never found saké to be a palatable tipple, served warm or cold.

A discriminating gastronome can find enough in Japanese food to tantalize his taste buds, as long as he is selective. Arguments promoting its appeal to more refined palates are, I think, counterproductive, not to mention snobbish. But there is more to it than this. If an American unacquainted with Asian culture were to travel to Japan or Korea or to Hong Kong, probably one of the first things he will notice is that the people aren't all shorter than he is, or nearly as short as he expected them to be. As anyone who has visited Asia for a few decades can tell him, there is a definite trend among Asians for taller and more muscular young people. Asians in their twenties are taller and heavier than their parents, just as their parents are also bigger than their grandparents. When I was in Japan, I heard reports of schools having to supply 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th graders on up to high schoolers with bigger desks. This trend can be traced all the way back to the end of World War II when Japanese people first began to be exposed to Western varieties of food and Western lifestyles. A more prosperous Japan meant a higher demand for protein in the diets of average people.

Statistics keeping track of the average height of 17-year-old Japanese men reveal that, in 1948, just after the war when Japan was occupied by the U.S. military, the average height was recorded at 160.6 centimeters, or 5'3". By 2013, after several generations of Japanese had been exposed to foods other than traditional Japanese cuisine, i.e., rice, fish, and vegetables, the average height was recorded at 170.7 centimeters, or 5'7". In 65 years, the height of the average 17-year-old Japanese man increased ten centimeters, or four inches.(1) Clearly, this has to do with a much higher intake of protein in the Japanese diet, which is a reflection of the greater prosperity of Japanese society. These statistics are also surprising in light of the fact that Japanese people are longer-lived than any other indigenous population.

Sirloin steaks used to be served in restaurants with a slice of bacon wrapped around them. The bacon is there to heighten the flavor of the beef, which is so lean that it's difficult to distinguish it as meat. Japanese beef, as always at a premium price from your butcher, is deliciously marbled and melts in your mouth. Anyone can find interesting pleasures in a national cuisine that is as unique as Japan's. But I find its pleasures attenuated, conditional, and its nutritive value dubious, at best. Pushing it at fine dining establishments is sensible, but I don't see average diners in great numbers lining up for raw fish and rice wrapped in seaweed. Eat as much sushi (or sashimi) as you like, but don't forget the wasabi.


(1) See "Trend of the average height of Japanese Men." .

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