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 Post subject: Japanese folk - food culture question
PostPosted: Fri Dec 28, 2012 7:35 pm 
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In the last year, I've read quite a few Haruki Murakami books and have become a huge fan of his work. One thing really bugs me though, and it's that food is a really common theme throughout his books (which are all set in Japan - and Murakami is Japanese) but all the food is Western. Spaghetti, pancakes, meatballs, hamburgers, pizza; not a lick of what I think of as Japanese food is mentioned.

My theory is that because Murakami writes in a way that is surrealist and escapist, that things are meant to be just a "little bit off" - including the idea of a Japanese man sitting down at a diner in Sapporo eating a hamburger. My husband thinks this is an accurate idea of what Japanese food culture really is, and that I'm idealizing Japanese food too much. I think people in Japan definitely do eat Western food sometimes, but all the time? I don't buy it.

Am I wrong, or is he wrong, or somewhere in between?

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 Post subject: Re: Japanese folk - food culture question
PostPosted: Fri Dec 28, 2012 10:11 pm 
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Well, I'm not sure if my perspective would be accurate, but whenever I visit family in Japan we always eat mostly traditional Japanese food. There is a lot of packaged stuff in the grocery stores that is American/Western, like spaghetti or potato salad, but there is also a lot of stuff like seaweed salad (tasty!), onigiri, inari, nimono (this boiled vegetable thing), and mochi. There's also a lot of stuff that's kind of fusion cuisine- bread was technically not introduced into Japanese culture until the Portuguese brought it over, but it's been assimilated into the culture enough that there is distinctly "Japanese" bread. Also, stuff like tempura and katsudon are not technically traditional, just wanted to mention that. There's definitely a lot of Western food available, and people like it, but there are lots of traditional restaurants that serve things like soba and these cool bento things as well.

I visited my family in a rural area, though, so it might be different in the big cities.


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 Post subject: Re: Japanese folk - food culture question
PostPosted: Fri Dec 28, 2012 10:36 pm 
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It's been a while since I read 1Q84, but I seem to remember that for one of the main characters, Murakami would go into very detailed descriptions of his meals. Something like this: when he got home, he made a salad of cabbage, carrots, and seaweed, then ate it with some leftover rice that was in the refrigerator and drank half a beer while gazing out the window longingly...

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 Post subject: Re: Japanese folk - food culture question
PostPosted: Fri Dec 28, 2012 11:06 pm 
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i'd say, for a big city like Tokyo, it's pretty accurate in my experience, especially of the "young modern" folks. i've read all his books, and i'd find it was a mix sometimes, too (like what theangryboy said) - western and japanese foods together, if i'm remembering correctly.. spaghetti served with broiled fish and sunomono or something like that..

there is plenty of "western" food in japan - but a lot of it, if not most, will taste a bit different to the average american/westerner visiting. hamburg is big, so is spaghetti, and when eaten, has a distinct japanese flavor to it (unless you're eating in an italian restaurant, but sometimes even still), because often it's prepared with japanese seasonings/flavors. their own twist on the dish, but still called the same thing.. so when i read his books, and read the "western" foods, in my mind it's always japanese style, the way those foods would be served in japan.

if that makes sense.

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 Post subject: Re: Japanese folk - food culture question
PostPosted: Sat Dec 29, 2012 12:19 am 
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I love Murakami, and never even thought about the food descriptions really (just that his main characters drink a lot of beer, especially when they're thirsty, which doesn't make sense to me in a physiological way), so this is fascinating to me.

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 Post subject: Re: Japanese folk - food culture question
PostPosted: Sat Dec 29, 2012 2:58 am 
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I just finished Kafka on the Shore and everything they ate was Japanese. Food wasn't a prominent theme, but when the characters ate it was exclusively Japanese. Interesting.


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 Post subject: Re: Japanese folk - food culture question
PostPosted: Sat Dec 29, 2012 3:04 am 
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allularpunk wrote:
I love Murakami, and never even thought about the food descriptions really (just that his main characters drink a lot of beer, especially when they're thirsty, which doesn't make sense to me in a physiological way), so this is fascinating to me.


I drink beer when I'm thirsty all the time. Maybe not the healthiest, but refreshing...

(I'm a fan of Murakami but it's been a few years so I don't really remember the food descriptions, this is all I have to add to the conversation.

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 Post subject: Re: Japanese folk - food culture question
PostPosted: Sat Dec 29, 2012 6:34 am 
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Murakami has a very strong western influence in his writing (most famously he talks about Vonnegut but other authors as well) and his work was probably influenced a lot by his work with global culture (he opened a cafe and worked with jazz as a young man). he also was a visiting writer in various places around the US, so I think his perspective is more unique than especially Japanese. More importantly, remembering his works that i've read, i don't think he's above the idea that certain foods might be more romantic or impactful in a certain story. i'm not sure how to express this but i think that in japan, just like if not more than in other places certain foods/restaurants/environments let people fantasize that they are french, or italian... i think he goes with this a lot.


even when people do eat lots of foreign food (and Murakami, young and studying/living in tokyo, would have had plenty of opportunity for that) i find it hard to believe they wouldn't return to the basics now and then (it's just as easy to get an onigiri or yakitori at the convenience store instead of a hamburger). But Murakami isn't chronicling every meal, just the ones he thinks are important enough to mention, and for his plot he probably thinks that having someone eating a hamburger in a diner in Sapporo shows, like you said, a bit of weirdness. [i think about how overjoyed i was to find a diner-style restaurant in Tokyo, they're not that common]

As a translator I think about this another way- Murakami is famously a difficult and controlling author to translate, and I was following the account of his one translator who did whatever the most recent book was. I would like to see the original and see if he didn't request that it be translated a certain way. for example, is he translating "izakaya" and "ochazuke", a little corner restaurant and classic hangover food, as "diner" and "hamburger", for example. explaining the cultural baggage inherent in ochazuke wouldn't be feasible, but if you talk about going into a diner and ordering gravy fries, it gives that same sort of feeling. And Murakami has enough knowledge and comfort with american culture that he probably would know that.

as for beer, in japan when it's summer and you're hot the whole [marketed] attraction of beer is that it kills thirst. i think i've heard that pretty much everywhere though, even in the US. it sure is nice when the beer is cold, even if i'd prefer a glass of ice water.

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 Post subject: Re: Japanese folk - food culture question
PostPosted: Sat Dec 29, 2012 6:39 am 
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I love Murakami.

When I read Super-Frog Saves Tokyo it stood out to me that the protagonist arrived home with shopping bags full of fresh vegetables and tinned salmon, to find Frog in his kitchen. My mother always bought those sorts of foods, but along with lots of Western convenience foods too. In my experience people in England don't tend to shop just for veg and fish so I interpreted it as being a Japanese way of eating.


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 Post subject: Re: Japanese folk - food culture question
PostPosted: Sat Dec 29, 2012 9:46 am 
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Interesting! My most recent reads have been The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and A Wild Sheep Chase, so I guess those are the ones I remember the food most. Infact, I'm reading A Wild Sheep Chase right now, and all the food has been Western-style.

torque wrote:
As a translator I think about this another way- Murakami is famously a difficult and controlling author to translate, and I was following the account of his one translator who did whatever the most recent book was. I would like to see the original and see if he didn't request that it be translated a certain way. for example, is he translating "izakaya" and "ochazuke", a little corner restaurant and classic hangover food, as "diner" and "hamburger", for example. explaining the cultural baggage inherent in ochazuke wouldn't be feasible, but if you talk about going into a diner and ordering gravy fries, it gives that same sort of feeling. And Murakami has enough knowledge and comfort with american culture that he probably would know that.


That's true, I didn't think of the impact that translation might have. I wouldn't understand what ochazuke means to someone who lives in Japan, so it's interesting to think that Murakami may have opted to substitute for something that would evoke the same feeling for a Western audience.

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 Post subject: Re: Japanese folk - food culture question
PostPosted: Sat Dec 29, 2012 10:24 am 
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Oh yes, I don't dispute that beer is refreshing when it's hot outside! It just doesn't quench thirst is all :)

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 Post subject: Re: Japanese folk - food culture question
PostPosted: Thu Jan 03, 2013 6:11 pm 
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Yeah, chazuke--rice with tea poured over it--isn't comfort food to most westerners, even if you have eaten it before!

Most Japanese I've seen, both in the big cities and in very very very rural areas, eat mostly Japanese food, with the occasional foray into "western" stuff like burgers and pizza. However, those things are altered to match their palates.

For example, pizza often has corn on it (hard to eat--it rolls off!) or squid, and burgers are often teriyaki flavored, etc. And while you can get spaghetti at the local 7-11 or equivalent, you are more likely to find it in a sandwich (they also make sandwiches out of potato salad--yay starch on starch!), and even more likely to find Japanese noodles, like soba or yakisoba instead.

And as a generality, younger Japanese are more likely to eat more fast foods (of western influence), like Makudonarudo (McDonalds) or Pizza Hut, than older Japanese. But that is true in most foreign countries anyway.

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 Post subject: Re: Japanese folk - food culture question
PostPosted: Thu Jan 03, 2013 7:33 pm 
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Tea with rice poured over it sounds like comfort food to me, and I've never had it. But now I need to. Can you tell me more about how to do this alinaspencil? What kind of rice and tea and in what proportions?

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 Post subject: Re: Japanese folk - food culture question
PostPosted: Fri Jan 04, 2013 8:00 am 
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honestly the vast majority of ochazuke people eat is made from a packet mix (usually not vegan). But if you go to a restaurant that has it, it's often homemade. the basic is tea, and rice, and usually umeboshi. maki's got a basic recipe- i notice hers doesn't include salt, since she's assuming you'll be putting salty toppings on it. dry cut wakame is good for this since it's salty and vegan [in my house it's rice, wakame, some fried up salty snacks, shredded nori, and gomashio]. if you don't have any extra salty goodies, put some salt on the rice. it should be salty.
http://justhungry.com/2004/01/ochazuke_rice_w.html

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 Post subject: Re: Japanese folk - food culture question
PostPosted: Fri Jan 04, 2013 8:43 am 
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this thread makes me want to revive the japanese food thread, and make january japanese food month.


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 Post subject: Re: Japanese folk - food culture question
PostPosted: Fri Jan 04, 2013 9:05 am 
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Thanks so much torque! I got so excited when the link suggested using ho ji cha, which I adore, and sounds like it will be so nice in this. I can't wait to make it!

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 Post subject: Re: Japanese folk - food culture question
PostPosted: Fri Jan 04, 2013 9:19 am 
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if you deep fry stuff, the balls of little fried batter that you have to skim off between batches can be awesome for this type of application [in japan they're called agedama and you can get bags of them from tempura restaurants]- it provides a nice greasy crunchy topping for ochazuke. I don't fry stuff anymore but i used to have a stash in the freezer from when i fried food, and i'd take some out now and then for ochazuke and for furikake too.

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 Post subject: Re: Japanese folk - food culture question
PostPosted: Sat Jan 05, 2013 5:13 am 
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Yup, it's just what it says-- (hot) tea poured over (cooked) rice, in a bowl.

Typically, that is green or black tea poured over white rice. Eaten with whatever you feel like. You can use tsukemono, ko-ko, any kind of pickled daikon, cabbage, cucumber, anything.

No measurements necessary. Add as much as you want.

Since I don't like tea, this isn't comfort food for me. But the related and very similar okayu, watery rice (rice with extra water, so it's like a salty porridge) is exactly what I want when I get an upset stomach, and in fact, the hotel manager's husband in Thailand brought me a bowl of this the last time I was sick in my room, without me even asking! Must be Thai comfort food too!

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