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Creative Authenticity – Japanese-ish Cuisine and Ninja Conspiracy

June 7, 2012

There are a couple of good Japanese restaurants in Chennai. My favorite is Momoyama, which serves great food at a reasonable price. One of their signature dish is called ‘Tori no Subuta’ translating to ‘sweet and sour pork of chicken.’ Yes, sweet and sour pork made with chicken. The intended meaning is ‘sweet and sour chicken’ or ‘sweet-and-sour-pork styled chicken.’ I guess, since sweet and sour pork is a quite popular dish in Japan, they translated it in this way. The translation sounds funny for the natives. So what? It tasted fantastic and I would order it again next time.

When I’m outside Japan, I always was asked which Japanese restaurant is a ‘true’ Japanese one. Some self-claimed ‘authentic’ Japanese restaurants serve food which is too creative for the Japanese. I enjoy and appreciate the creativity of these Japanese-ish restaurants.

‘Hourensou no Oshitashi’

To check the restaurant’s authenticity, you should look at the menu under the appetizer section. Go down the list, and if you find an item called ‘Oshitashi,’ then busted. The restaurant is not authentic. The dish is actually called ‘Ohitashi’ without the first ‘s’ in Japanese. Ohitashi is a common dish, meaning ‘soaked.’ Some vegetable – spinach, or Hourensou, is the most popular – is boiled and chilled. You will sprinkle bonito flakes and soy source when you eat. A very simple vegetable (but not vegetarian) dish. As this item is very common, you will never find a typo at a Japanese-run restaurant. However, this error is commonly seen at many Japanese-ish restaurants in the US. I wonder why.

The Ninja Conspiracy Theory

My theory goes like this:

Somewhere in the United Stats, there is a secret society to decide what is authentically Japanese. This society, probably named something like ‘Notable Intellectuals for Naming Japanese Authenticity’ or N.I.N.J.A., picks up a dish and publicize it as ‘truly Japanese’ via the underground network of the Japanese-ish restaurant industry. One day, the translator of the society accidentally added an extra ‘s’ when they were developing the list of authentic Japanese appetizers. The list was published and, as any authoritative body does, they denied the error. This is how you find ‘Oshitashi’ everywhere.

Philadelphia Roll and Hibachi

Oshitashi is not the first one certified as ‘authentic’ by them. Sushi and Tempura might be the first batch and they did a pretty good job on defining them as an open field for creativity. Hayashi, my favorite Sushi buffet in Nashville, has a dozen of colorfully decorated Sushi rolls – from ‘Rainbow Roll’ to ‘Tempura Sushi.’ After trying these creative Sushi, now I almost think Philadelphia Roll and Spicy Tuna Roll are quite normal. (But please do not even think about ordering them in Japan. They only have less creative ones!)

Hibachi is one of the masterpieces that the N.I.N.J.A. society (or whoever behind this plot) has ever introduced. I’m talking about the ‘Japanese’ restaurants where you will be seated to a big table with the built-in hot plate and the chief will entertain you by juggling the food and the knives. My first Hibachi experience was in Atlanta and I truly enjoyed the performance (the onion volcano!) and the food. I’m convinced that if someone starts a Hibachi restaurant in Tokyo, Japanese people would love it as it seems quite new.

Oh by the way, Hibachi in Japan is a charcoal container looking like a flower-pot, traditionally used as a heater in the house. Nothing to do with grilling or juggling.

Today’s Lesson

Steak at an ‘authentic” American steak house in Tokyo comes with miso soup and steamed rice. McDonald’s here had a time-limited menu called ‘Idaho Burger,’ a burger with hash browns in it, and ‘Beverly Hills Burger,’ a burger with a fried egg and avocado source.  Let’s call it even.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 11, 2012 1:40 am

    I like your humourous N.I.N.J.A. conspiracy theory for spreading misinformed Japanese authenticity. I’m sure you’ll have more examples later on Japanesenish (horrible adjective) authenticity.

    I’m actually weary of the sweet ‘n sour meat thing. Yes, my mother did make 1-2 dishes..that used a bit of ketchup. How um….”Chinese” authentic.

    • June 13, 2012 9:05 am

      Jean, talking about ketchup, Chinese restaurants in Chennai always have a pot of ketchup next to soy source. Sometimes small packets of ketchup come with Indian curry or Italian pizza, too. I bet ketchup here has gained a different status.

      • June 15, 2012 9:56 am

        Ketchup…ugh. How um..awful. I like it in bratwurst hot dogs with lots of spicy mustard. That’s where it belongs. :)

      • June 15, 2012 7:07 pm

        Jean, you made me hungry. And bratwurst is something that I cannot easily find here. Hope I have a dream of hot dogs tonight.

  2. June 15, 2012 8:11 am

    Hey Shinobu, I loved your blog !! You’ve got a nice sense of humor. I was pleasantly surprised to realize you’re based at chennai now. I work at bangalore now and was at chennai for a long time. I love travelling (haven’t done much outside of India though) and would love to catch up with someone like you who’s travelled quite a bit. My sister and my in-laws are based at chennai so I’d definitely land up at chennai sometime.

    • June 15, 2012 7:14 pm

      Thanks for your encouraging comment, chewthesepics. Bangalore! That’s top of my must-go list. I will definitly have a weekend visit (and eat and drink) there soon. Please drop me a line when you come to Chennai. Oh by the way, I heard there is a good Japanese restaurant in Bangalore.
      – Shinobu

  3. June 15, 2012 8:28 am

    Maybe you could introduce me to some Japanese cuisine if it’s okay with you :)

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