Jan 15, 2022
[Column] New Year's Eve in the US: An opportunity to think about Japanese foods

Monthly column in Asahi Newspaper Hokkaido version
January 15th, 2022. Noyuri Mima

 This year, I started the year on the West Coast of the US. I had planned to have my family here from Hakodate, but it was canceled due to the Omicron variant appearance.

 I thought it would be a lonely New Year’s day, but my student and her husband, who are successful in their work here, invited me to their home from the end of the year. So, on New Year’s Eve, we had New Year’s Eve Noodles. The noodle soup made with Hakodate’s kombu (seaweed) and katsuo (bonito) is exceptional. I enjoyed it with grated daikon.

 Have you ever thought about what Japanese food is? I don’t mean the name of a particular dish, but what makes Japanese food unique. When I was asked to explain it in the US, I was confused.

 I guess it’s the use of seasonal vegetables and fish. But that is also the cuisine of other countries. Is it the use of kombu and bonito broths? What, if nothing else, can be called Japanese food?

 The other day, when I visited a Japanese friend who is a visiting scholar at the same university, I was surprised to see the kitchen table. It was like I was looking at my kitchen because the seasonings were almost the same. Soy sauce, Mirin, Sake, Rice vinegar, Miso, Sesame oil, Sugar, Salt, Broth stock, etc. There were also dried shiitake mushrooms and dried wakame seaweed.

 When I saw the series of seasonings, I thought Japanese food is a dish created using these seasonings.

 In large grocery stores in the US, you see vegetables labeled “shishito,” “daikon,” “yuzu,” and “edamame” in alphabets. You will also find “shiitake” and “shimeji” in the mushroom section. Even in California, a famous citrus fruits place of production, small oranges labeled “Satsuma mandarin orange,” also in alphabets, are popular.

 Other foods whose Japanese is directly named in English include “wagyu.” These must have been bred, tasty, and carefully cultivated in Japan. In the US, they are accepted as luxury food by people who are particular about taste.

 Our daily diet and palate in Japan seem to have a more complex and delicate structure than other countries. This “Japanese food” that we have taken for granted since childhood, along with its history and tradition, should continue to be passed down to us as a culture.

 New Year’s Day in the US was an opportunity to think about Japanese culture through food. While adopting new elements, I will cook dishes with an awareness of the “foundation” of Japanese cuisine. I would like to express my gratitude to my parents for providing me with an environment that develops my palate and to my student and her husband for allowing me to share meals with them during the New Year holidays.