Delicious Lies

The column “Discovering HSE and Russia" in the December issue of The HSE Look by Tadamasa Sawada explores the questions of authenticity and cultural exchange using the example of Japanese restaurants in Moscow, and invites the readers to reframe their experience.

Delicious Lies

Since I left Japan, I have lived in the USA for 8 years and now live in Russia. Occasionally, people from both countries ask me about the quality of the “Japanese” restaurants in Russia or in the USA. It is always easy to reply by saying that they are not sufficiently authentic, and that they cannot be called “Japanese" restaurants, and then go on to point out every detailed difference between these dishes and authentic Japanese versions. But, do they really have to be authentic?

Replicating Japanese dishes is difficult outside of Japan because their ingredients may not be available or can taste different in different countries, particularly, vegetables and fish, even meat. For example, eggplants can be found easily on the shelves in supermarkets both in Japan and in the USA (also in Russia), but this does not mean you can simply cook some simple Japanese eggplant dishes with the eggplants you can buy in the USA because eggplants in the USA usually have a much thicker skin than the eggplants in Japan. The skin of the eggplant will not melt in your mouth if you cook an American eggplant the same way you cook one in Japan. Now, consider ocean (salt water) fishes. Some travel in the ocean seasonally and come to the coastal areas of Japan and to the west coast of the USA in very different seasons. Some ocean fish that taste great in Japan are not well-regarded in other countries maybe because of time within their reproductive cycles they come to their coastal areas (e.g. pacific-saury). Some fish live only in the Atlantic Ocean or in the Pacific Ocean, not in both, and such fish will suffer if eaten raw after having been carried across the Eurasian or American continents. Even meat can be different. You can easily find paper-thin sliced beef and pork in Japan but not in Russia or in the USA. Good beef in Japan tends to be fatty (like Kobe beef) while it is difficult to find good red beef there. Japanese people commonly eat raw egg and the supply route for eggs in Japan is designed to do this safely. A Japanese mixed-spice “shichimi” is illegal in some other countries because it includes roasted (deactivated) cannabis seeds.

Now let’s think about the Chinese dishes served in many “Chinese” restaurants in Japan. Most of them are far from being authentic. This discrepancy can be attributed to a specific Chinese chef, Chen Kenmin. He arranged Chinese dishes for Japanese customers and his recipes became the standard for Chinese dishes in Japan. His quote says “my Chinese dishes are with little lies but they are good lies, delicious lies.”

The same thing also happens to the Japanese, Russian and American dishes. Some Japanese restaurants in Russia serve a larger variety of sushi with pickled fish (e.g. pickled herring) than the most common sushi restaurants in Japan do. I have never seen sushi with pickled herring in Japan but it is impossible not to note that it tastes good. Also, a “California roll” (a sushi roll with avocado) in the USA is an American invention but it is becoming popular in Japan, too. But, note well that a California roll tastes better in the USA than in Japan because of the superior quality of the American avocado. Please don't expect to find good borscht in Japan. Borscht needs beets but beets are rare in Japan. Instead of making borscht with beets, some restaurants try to imitate their flavor by using white turnips. It may taste good but it doesn't taste like real Russian borscht. So, we can always complain about the dishes of our own countries when served in different countries, but it makes much more sense to enjoy these “delicious lies”.

by Tadamasa Sawada, Assistant Professor at the School of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences. His research is focused on mathematical psychology, visual perception, and modeling in vision science.

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Read more in the full December 2018 issue of The HSE Look