9. You don’t know anything
We all construct internal narratives about people and imagine we are clever enough to imagine their back stories; we take visual and ‘psychological’ clues from our own subjective perceptions and think we can understand who other people ‘are’ (at least I do).
But you can’t, not really.
Take the nurses: one, perhaps my favourite, is this sweet, gentle, quite big young woman with squinty laughing eyes, modest and shy ( but not grovelling or pathetic, which I absolutely cannot abide ), for me quite easy to talk to as she just talks to me like a normal human being and laughs very easily.
Looking at her though and her self-deprecating – embarrassed, almost -air, in this sexist, categorizing, weight-obsessed country in which women are supposed to be like dolls, I had assumed that she, I am sorry to admit, was probably ‘unmarriageable’, likely to live with her parents for a good many years until they too became her care patients.
Today, though, as I walked gingerly around the ward on my cane, I saw her there, day off, casual clothes, new expression ( firmer; more adult; self-contained), sitting there happily with her three, very beautiful children of 4,3, and 1 -she had come with them to visit her grandmother who was in the same hospital – friendly, but more distanced, obviously; I am only her patient when she is working, and I realized, wow, I got that TOTALLY wrong – she has kids, she is married ( Japan doesn’t do unwed mothers ), I know nothing. Unmasked ( literally :the staff wear surgical masks all the time) , you come to see that what you presume about people is just that – an assumption.
10. Mitsouko is kind of magnificent
Mitsouko and I will never be proper, betrothed, bedfellows. But for some unknown reason I had been craving her presence. So when Duncan came across a sealed vintage parfum for just twelve dollars or so at a recycle shop a couple of weeks ago in Tokyo, I said I wanted it.
I know this perfume like the back of my own hand. And yet it surprises me. There is always some other facet of its forested, chypre complications to beguile you or draw you : be it the Japanese incense furls in the base, the suppressed, underflowing florals, or the dark spiced facets of the muted peach.
The most amazing aspect of this perfume though is shared by only one other perfume that I know, 1955’s Chanel Pour Monsieur, and it is one I find difficult to describe. Whether or not it is because of the downy, dulcet contrasts between the base of patchouli moss and the citrussy bergamot up top, I don’t know, but both of these perfumes alter the air around you, also allowing you to smell quite clearly the other scents you have been wearing that your nose has become immune to and you can’t tell the existence of any more; you can suddenly smell everything around you again quite clearly, like different palimpsests of scented reality.
And all this from just one dot on the skin of parfum.
11. I have never liked Japanese food
I have to qualify this ‘shocking’ statement a couple of times or more before delving into what is a far more loaded and complicated issue than it need be, but for a great deal of people in this country, Food Is Everything. It Is Life. And to denigrate this supposed holy grail of culinary civilization, is almost akin to a national insult.
For someone from England, where food is basically just food, not the entire reason for being and existing (an attitude I can’t help but personally look down on; but there are reasons for that also, which I will come to later ), it is very difficult for me to truly understand the constant, extreme obsession – and it really is an obsession – with what you put in your mouth and release from the other side of your digestive tract on a daily basis to the point where it becomes the purpose of existence. I find it bestial.
I myself think of food more as fuel, as something to enjoy – and I do really enjoy it, I am no anorexic – but not something to dominate my entire way of thinking; to be the main object of my desire, MY REASON FOR LIVING, what drives me to get up in the morning, no, never. When you talk to many people here, though, it sometimes seems that it is. As if there is nothing else. That eating in itself is the object of life, like an animal. I actually really hate it. But to try and grasp the reasons for those differences, as usual ( yawn), you have to think culturally analytically.
Firstly, I have to qualify saying I don’t love the sacred washoku by admitting that obviously, hospital food is not representative of the food you can find outside. I do realize that. It is a soft, mushier version for the toothless, and the aged, with less salt, sugar and general flavourfulness, which is why in all countries it is thought of as unpalatable, and especially by my fellow rehabilitation patients.
Despite its slight pallor though, this hospital’s food is actually well-made and of good quality, nutritionally balanced and fresh, and if I had been able to stick to solely what they have given me ( it is a calorie controlled diet to reduce the burden on my new knees) I would be a slender man indeed. The problem is, most of it I find really revolting on quite a profound level, and I just can’t stomach it, so my ‘diet’ has been ‘fortified’ by a hell of a lot of other things brought in for me by Duncan and other people, as otherwise I would have sunken into a morose, foul fishiness of despair.
Not that I think that Japan is a country of bad food. Quite the opposite is true. The level of food culture here is probably second to none in all my travelling experience, in the sense that you just don’t get bad restaurants because they would close. Japanese people will not tolerate mediocrity when it comes to what they eat; there are restaurants and eateries everywhere, everywhere; it is cheaper to eat out than cook at home, and what they serve in these establishments had better be top notch or at least pretty decent or else no one would ever go there again. Literally.
England, despite its supposedly ‘foodie’ culture, can never approach this. It is two or three times as expensive and three times less enjoyable. D and I couldn’t get a truly good meal last summer if we tried; and we did: things were only ever so-so at best, overseasoned but underflavoured ( like perfume, Japan understands the importance of top notes, middle and base; the cooking is nuanced and full but not strong with artificial flavours like the food that we had for example in America).
No, to be honest I started to avoid going out for meals when I was back home as much as possible because I essentially considered it a general waste of money ( at the same price I could have bought a new bottle of perfume instead ): chips from the fish and chip shop ( delicious, perfect, inexpensive) were ideal for me, to be honest, or else some good home cooking. You can’t beat a nice Sunday roast with your family.
And then you come back to Japan and realize that, those lovely roast beef dinners aside, everything is better. Everything. Much, significantly, better. The bread is better ( Japanese bakers often win international patissier competitions) The yoghurt is better ( but not the cheese: you can’t beat a nice block of mature English cheddar); the Italian and the Chinese are incomparably, disastrously better – it would be embarrassing to try them side by side: even the European food is better ( no, seriously, one of our very favourite restaurants is Chez Tsubame near where we live, a steakhouse/ German French place, always thronging with people – a place we love going to because the food is never less than perfect -the soups, the salads, the salmon meunière ( magnificent!), the hamburger sets, the scallop cream croquettes, it is mine and D’s ideal place to eat. Not cheap, but a proper meal with a nice bottle of wine and dessert usually comes to about 5,000 yen ( or fifty dollars) a head, and we always leave happy and completely satisfied.
And then there is Japanese food itself, far more extensive than the sushi and tempura that is known in other countries.
When I am in the mood, about once or twice a week or so, because traditional Japanese food does form a small part of my repertoire, I will go to a teishoku style restaurant like Ootoya or Yayoiken, popular places that serve rice, miso soup, salad, and the main dish of your choice, always perfectly cooked and tasty hearty fare which you choose by ticket beforehand from a vending machine.
Whether it be grilled fish, Nagoya pork cutlet, or nanban chicken; fried oysters, ginger pork hotpot or beef and green pepper stir fry, the choices are uniformly excellent, come with endlessly refillable rice and green tea, and come to a grand total of under 1000 yen. Tell me in England where you can get a satisfying meal for six pounds eighty three. For the price, the quality is absolutely amazing. And Japanese people are thrifty and economical and so such places naturally abound. You can eat cheaply, and you can eat very well.
Not that all food is cheap here, though, obviously. Traditional kaisekiryori, Japanese haute cuisine, can be extortionate. High end sushi and sashimi places in the middle of Tokyo or Kyoto will leave you bankrupt, as will any ‘kokyu’, or high class restaurants of note.
Then again, there are the ‘family restaurants’ that serve a wide range of dishes at decent prices, and for the more traditional Japanese fare like Oyakodon, or soba or udon, low cost eateries that cost between six and ten US dollars; kaitenzushi places that are far more affordable for sushi loving families, popular with millions of people, Nihonjin and foreigners alike, as the dishes of choice come round on the conveyor belt and you fill your hungry belly with raw fish.
I wouldn’t know, though, because I just don’t like it and never have done. I just vastly prefer the taste of fish when it is cooked. Japanese people are often up in arms about this : but HOW can you not like sushi?
I don’t know. I just don’t. And neither do I like sukiyaki, yakiniku, shabby shabu, gyudon, most of it in fact, heresy though this will be to the ears of a significant number Japanese, who truly believe, and quite often tell you, that this is by far the greatest cuisine on the whole of the earth and who CANNOT accept, or comprehend, that you don’t like it. They find it simply incomprehensible.
Yes, I like tempura, and some nabe and okonomiyaki, but this food is never, ever going to be my favourite, not by a long mile, and I knew that the second I arrived here. Oden, a kind of soup stew that people adore here, with all manner of simmered and broiled – and floating- food objects grimying about the broth, made me heave the first time I smelled it.
Comfort food to many Japanese, especially in winter, it is more like an unclean sewer, where things from the kitchen sink have dropped down and been boiled and turned grey and then slopped on a plate ( the hospital gave me a version of it the other day for dinner and Great Buddha it was wholly repugnant).
The fundamental problem, for me, is in the fundaments. In Chinese food it is soy, oyster sauce, and whatever it is that makes that sublime gravy they use that rocks my boat ( Chinese is probably my favourite food in the world, something Japanese people loathe hearing you say as they are arch enemies: sorry it just tastes, infinitely, INFINITELYmore enjoyable to my palate!); Indian uses fatty buttery ghee, yoghurt, herbs and spices so I am there in a jiffy before you can say chapati; Mediterranean all those tomatoes ( GOD I miss tomatoes, they are the base of all food for me and I am dying just surviving on this fermented fishy shit); give me olive oil and garlic, give me Greek, give me Turkish – now THAT is the way to cook meat, not this flabby, white-flecked, ‘melt in the mouth’ vileness of Japanese food that so sickens me (I detest the way they cook meat, it is just disgusting), oh god the horror of horumon, or offal, just the smell of it; all these watery, unearthly moingy textures that render my stomach; the raw creatures, the mildewy wetness, the smell of it….. it has got to the point, now, with some of the food that just a sniff of it and I just have to push it away ( or else have to hold my nose and just swallow ).
The problem, as I was saying, is the base. I have a very deep problem with seaweed. With the smell of it – any variety – and the taste. That marine, rank, undelicious odour. can’t help it. I grew up in England. Seaweed is what floats in the bay, what drifts onto the sea; ALGAE : what dries in the sun, popping, and decomposing with ants and those tiny tiny lite crustaceans, and though the memories of my childhood beach holidays might still be good for me, the smell, even then, did not appeal.
Japanese food is based on the broth known as dashi- a combination of boiled kelp seaweed and kazuoboshi fishflakes, that forms the basis of Japanese cuisine. I have come, over the years to be able to tolerate it. I can eat it, sometimes, but not all the time. Deep down, I don’t really like it, but I have got used to it now from living here so long.
Seaweed, a staple, and a natural and nutritious source of minerals on these islands for millennia, and what people have grown up with since childhood, finds its way into plenty of food here though, unfortunately – from the horrible black strands of the nauseating hijiki to the slimiest green, rock-clinging wakame to one kind, whose name I don’t know , with its slithery snake like strands of the most pungent, algae-like foulness that there are no words for me to describe how utterly HORRIBLE this taste is to me, hidden in rice ( which I don’t really like that much either), among fancies, coiled; chopped; emitting the odour of washed-up tentacles in the sun…… to me, it is the absolute culmination of repugnance.
Naturally, we all have our preferences. Our likes and our dislikes. Innate, I don’t know, or learned. Before coming to Japan, though, I didn’t consider myself a fussy eater. When I lived in Italy I could eat ( and in fact loved), everything. What didn’t I like as a child in England ? Liver pate, steak and kidney pie ( not that anyone really eats that any more), really putrid French cheese. I can’t really think of anything else, to be honest. I didn’t like mushrooms or broad beans, though I quite like both of those now, as an adult. But coming to Japan, wow, it was a real eye opener ( and mouth closer). I just…. couldn’t. So much of it. So slimy and offputting. Fermented. Soaked. Profoundly peculiar.
This I would have left just at that, because I don’t consider eating to be the most important thing in my life by a long shot and in any case there is so much good food available here, as I said: Japan is a cornucopia of fresh, well made things to eat and if not you can just make your own. The supermarkets and import shops are fantastic. You are not going to starve to death here, you can get practically anything that you want, so even if like me you find yourself not entirely to the indigenous offerings, you can pick and choose as you like. And if all fails, if you really insist, there are always McDonald’s, Burgerking and KFC ( yes, the people here adore their American junk food, ass well, although I happen to think that the homegrown equivalents, Mosburger and Becker’s Burger are healthier and more rewarding).
But any case, I like to think that I have enough cultural IQ and sensitivity to not go proclaiming from the rooftops, “Japanese food is foul!” “Japanese food is disgusting!” even if that may well be what deep down I actually think about at least half of it.
Because who actually gives a damn about what I think? The general consensus by everyone else is that Japanese is among the world’s very top cuisines. It is venerated, and rightly so. It is art. From the attention to detail and exquisite presentation (I am l physically embarrassed when I see pictures of ‘sushi’ from other countries, as are most Japanese I would assume) to the ‘subtlety’ of the flavours- to the freshness of the ingredients to the seasonal variety of the dishes that evolve from month to month with the changing of the weather, washoku is an ancient tradition that I do in all honesty deeply respect. It’s just such a terrible shame that it doesn’t actually taste good.
No, sorry, ignore that last line, I couldn’t resist it. But you see, there is no such thing as objective deliciousness. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, as the wisdom of that old saying goes.Try telling that to Japanese people though. And this is where my bottomless irritation comes from. This country is obsessed, obsessed, OBSESSED with their own food. And this is irrefutable.
When I lived in Rome I don’t remember people going on and on and on about their food. It all just tasted glorious and amazing and I ate it. End of story. And perhaps it was just the friends I had, or all the experiences I was living, but besides great dinner parties at friends’ apartments in the beautiful of district of Trastevere, where we had delicious home cooked food and drank wine, I simply don’t remember alimentation being the main topic of conversation. Because, quite frankly, I would have been bored to death by it if it had been.
Here, good gracious. I know that Britain and many countries worldwide have seen the rise of ‘foodie’ culture; gourmet and Michelin star fascination ( I personally have no interest in any of this: I am a total peasant when it comes to eating: liquified molecularly reconstructed abstract art foam squiggles on a plate with torturously titled concepts are just completely not my bag ( again, just give me a bottle of perfume instead !) – I am much happier with a plate of penne arrabbiata and a nice handful of freshly grated parmesan, with side salad, thankyou very much, or else some bread, some olives and some tomatoes).
I know that cookery programmes are all the rage- The Great British Bakeoff, all the celebrity chefs and all the other stomach based mumbo jumbo, and that Britain really thinks of itself as a gourmet nation now, but none of it, none of it, can compare to the daily onslaught of Japanese TV- which, thank Amaterasu, I haven’t had for about twenty years now but which I can’t on occasion avoid, is engrossed, captivated and endlessly possessed by the endless, mind-drilling quest for The Perfect Food. People watching other people eating. Celebrities travelling the country in search of untasted regional ‘delights’, entering a well known local eating establishment, as other celebrities, boxed in the right hand corner of the television screen look on with fake or real bemusement and fascination as the dish is served, as the chopsticks or spoon or fork penetrate the food’s glimmering surface, and the camera swoops down, or hones in, and the morsel quivers moistly on the implement like a pornographic money shot, and we wait, we wait with great anticipation, for what they are going to say ( even though we know full well in advance because we have seen this a million, billion times before – god, I am literally getting a headache writing this, outside in the hospital garden, because I find it so organ-achingly annoying), and we see the studio paid actor or actress moving their mouth down on the piece of local dish and we watch as they close their eyes and chew or savour it and the famous people in the TV screen corner look wide-eyed with gluttonous interest as the seconds are passing agonizingly and then, when, the eyes come alive again and the mouth opens wide, the eater will exclaim, with gut-pounding enthusiasm…. OISHII!!
Or, UMAI !!! It’s delicious !! !
And everybody claps. And I just want to shoot the screen to smithereens.
But this is fine. Just ignore me. I am just a grumpy, opinionated fuck who is stuck in a wheelchair. I am not a television person anyway. People need their entertainment, and if that entertainment for them means constantly watching other people eating, then that is great, even if for me it’s a mind-gnawing, suicidal abyss. It’s fine if people travel the country to try a particular bowl of noodles, or take overnight trains to Hokkaido to eat snow crab, or six hours by bus just to try a tiny slab of beef in their holidays, if they ever get them, and are entirely focused all the time on what they can eat, because that’s what gourmets, and true food lovers, are meant to do.
And I suppose it is fine ( even if I actually think that it isn’t ), that the first question anyone will ask you when you travel somewhere is how was the food, or that people will mainly go to Italy, or France, for that reason, and that nobody asks you about the architecture, the atmosphere, the art, the way of life, the people, the landscape, the history, no – it is always the food, and if that holds no appeal then half the people won’t even want to go there. Ever. No ‘delicious meal’ no deal. And this. appalls me.
The food, for me personally an incidental detail, was actually crap in Laos, Mexico, and the Czech Republic, but that said, it took nothing away from the beauty of Luang Prebang, the stunning Aztec pyramids, or the Gothic vampire bridges of Prague in the early morning mists, all of which thrilled me and were more memorable and important than the sopped perishables that glid down my fucking throat. I am willing to forgo my ‘favourite foods’ for a few days for these other sensory, emotional experiences ( because who gives a shit!) but many people here in Japan are doggedly not, and it is definitely valid enough a reason for them never to venture out of their comfort zone. Food. Is. Everything.
Again, different culture, different priorities: who am I to judge, etc etc, etc, but then again, with the deeply superior attitude that Japan has in its own culinary heritage towards other nations, judgement becomes an extremely relevant term.
British food, for example, is a big, national joke. It is famously horrendous, apparently, tasteless, awful – and even usually polite people here sometimes can’t restrain themselves from making snide remarks. One student of mine once did the same, a sarcastic gleam in her eye as she asked me how the food was in my country, the received wisdom being that London is good for sightseeing and afternoon tea, but you’ll be at a loss what to do for dinner. Better take the cross channel train for that from King’s Cross, and enjoy a leisurely, properly cooked meal in dear old Paris.
And I can’t really deny of course that there is me some truth to this. I remember very clearly the first time I went to France on a student exchange. When I had a pain au chocolat and a cafe au lait at a common, bog-standard Parisian bistro, I simply couldn’t believe what I was eating and drinking. So simple. But so perfect. So utterly, and totally, delectable.
That was in Paris. But even after that, when we went down to Moulins to stay with our respective families, and I was overwhelmed with homesickness ( I was only thirteen ), I was still deeply intrigued and sense-stimulated by the way that they served up a salad ( vinaigrette :delightful!); the method of cooking meat and serving it with baguette ( one of my favourite things on earth, with butter- how the hell had I been surviving on crappy white processed bread all those years?) and perfectly cooked meat in sauces I had never tasted before served with petits pois, far more interesting, and redolent. After years of plain boiled British vegetables, peas suddenly made some kind of sense.
To my young and tender Anglicized palette, much of the food that I ate on that trip was exotic and rich, the sauces and the garlic quite voluptuous, though I probably wouldn’t have known that word then. But even so, all was exciting and new, the peak being a huge Easter celebration held in the countryside where all the extended family gathered, and I tried my best to speak French with deaf old ladies in their nineties and there were kids running around all over the place and a feast; a real feast, a banquet, set for everyone there with tables and tables of beautifully turned out, time-consuming dishes, some of which I was horrified by ( a plate of cow tongues organized cruelly in an upward curling circle) but it was also the first time I tried real mayonnaise with cold hard boiled eggs and an asparagus salad – utter heaven, in fact – and for the life changing piece de resistance, dessert: a pouding a la vanille with real vanilla beans, those also a first, that completely and utterly blew my mind. I remember gasping in pleasure; the texture of it, the gorgeous, vanillic creamy flavour ; like nothing I had ever had back home ( I still think that the best editions of Shalimar that I have had take me back to that day), a brain-altering experience that, I suppose, showed up my blandly cooked home country’s food for what it was.
That is what the current Japanese stereotype of the UK is now based upon. As having no taste. As being the culinary equivalent of watching paint dry. A famous actress once scornfully proclaimed with an ironic, half-knowing smile that she ‘loved British food, it’s so easy! Just put the meat under the grill, boil the vegetables, and serve !’ much to the side-winking amusement of her knowing, Japanese television audience.
But no matter how many ‘world class’ restaurants open in London, this does, to a certain extent, still hold true. I saw an article somewhere saying that the capital was now the culinary capital of the world….. YEAH, RIGHT!
You don’t judge a city or nation’s food by the number of astronomically priced celebrity restaurants there are for the super rich, but how the quality of the food is generally, across the city. And in that case, despite my own proclivities and tastes, there is no doubt whatsoever that Tokyo immediately pulverizes London into nothing. Traditional British food, aside the pies and bakes and pastries and crumbles and raspberry trifles – ( love!) does ( does it not?) largely consist of boiling up something, chopping it up and grilling it, and then plopping it down rather haphazardly, on a plate.
I oversimplify. I can imagine enraged British foodies reading this feeling very indignant that someone who hasn’t even lived in the UK for over twenty years could make such sweeping generalizations. For whatever reason, food is a very passionate subject for large numbers of people. In all countries. After all, if I must state the very obvious, it what we ingest into our stomachs is what literally keeps us alive . I GET IT.
But in Japan, to me personally, the all consuming interest in all things related food just reaches quite gut-miring preposterous levels. Ever run out of things to talk about? Just mention food and your conversation will be swimming. When the class isn’t going too well, and you are wondering what the hell to doto make it work, just watch students’ expressions completely transform as they break into smiles and the light in their eyes becomes fiercer. Practically the very moment you mention Japanese food likes and dislikes. The very facial musculature transforms sometimes, as only THIS were the truly interesting topic of conversation. And I find it astonishing. Even now. The cultural difference.
I was mentioning the piece that you are reading now to Duncan yesterday when he came to visit me in hospital ( burdened down, bless him, with French bread, avocados and all manner of diet-busting necessities ) and we agreed that, as school and university students, food as we remember, had simply not factored remotely into our consciousness. It just did not feature.
I actually didn’t meet him until the very last week of my time at my college, but all the same, in all the time that we didn’t know each other, we were running around the same town and colleges so consumed with passions and ideas and people and the sheer beauty of it all that who the hell had time to even contemplate what you ate? It felt utterly irrelevant. I have virtually no memory of it. You either fixed yourself something in your college room kitchen or you ate in the college canteen; tasty, serviceable selections that I was perfectly satisfied with because it was never my priority or the focus of my day: call me pretentious and overly ‘cerebral’ but I always did value mind over matter.
I think this is probably a quite British thing, though. The aristocracy and rich upper classes traditionally actively disdained talking about food, as they did about money- it was considered vulgar, so perhaps, though of ‘lowlier stock’, and nothing of an aristocrat myself ( though some of the nurses apparently think that I am) some of this mindset has snobbishly, disdainfully, rubbed off onto me.
However, I have been influenced by Japan now for so long that such food unconsciousness as I might have felt once is impossible ( plus, as you get older, perhaps you start to appreciate the ‘finer things, and on top of that I have become much, much better at cooking: slapdash, haphazard, instinctual, but on the whole, tasty).
So you might say that in some ways, I have capitulated to those masses who are besotted with their guts and said, yes, yes, yes, your divinely ordained food is infinitely superior, yes yes (just shut the fuck up and don’t TALK about it anymore. Eating Japanese food is the closest we will ever get to heaven on earth.
So you can see how and why the Japanese government applied to UNESCO for the country’s washoku to be given Intangible Cultural Heritage Status, a few years ago- and succeeded: so many artisans and sushi chefs and specialists in all the wide variety of culinary styles ( most of which I don’t like, but that’s by the by) are still here perfecting and continuing traditions that go back centuries and millennia. It is for this reason that the Japanese have the right to feel proud. If they really want to. This doesn’t mean, however, that we need all the attitude, and the terse, disparaging comments about other countries’ food.
D and I, being English, do once in a while ( shock! horror! No pre-preparation in marination! No fish flakes to soil the goodness !) have what we call a simple, unfussy ‘English dinner’, ( the shame ! the simplicity !), with nary a glistening fish entrail, or raw chicken’s liver, or aqueous squid’s eye, in sight. Plain food, just a piece of grilled fish or meat and boiled vegetables, because that’s what we feel like on that particular evening and would prefer that to the squelchy; the rubbery; or still alive ; or else a nice cottage pie with vegetables and gravy – yum -just comforting foods that are tasty and uninvolved, just something to wolf down and get on with the main focus of the evening : whatever that might be.
And when we DO really want to focus on the food, to spend money on a sense-pleasing, genuinely delicious meal, then we will usually go to our favorite Nepalese restaurant in Ofuna, where everything on the menu is completely up our street (few things are more enjoyable for me than a really spicy curry), or else to the Isezakicho district of Yokohama to have authentic Thai, which I really adore, with its coconut, lime, and lemongrass tang. I love the herb chili contrasts of Thai and Vietnamese food, the amalgam of cool and hot, the complexity of the flavours. It is gorgeous. I get physical, erotic pleasure from it, it’s like perfume, and nothing in Japanese food comes even close.
And yet despite the profusion of all kinds of restaurants, because in case you hadn’t realized it yet from reading this, Japan is a FOOD country, the overt superiority complex of a place that also looks down on what it terms ‘ethic’ cuisine- which usually means Asia, as though Japanese food itself were not also ‘ethnic’ ( which is a really objectionable and thoughtless, moronic word in my view), is what ultimately infuriates me the most.
As I have already said ad nauseam throughout this interminable piece ( are you not feeling sick yet?), though I personally have a deep aversion to some of the essentials that make up Japanese food – and just writing this is bringing up taste memories of everything I have consumed in the hospital over the last seven concentrated weeks ( I don’t think I will ever feel the same way again, no really, I’m kind of traumatized), in general I would not, go around making my revulsion public. Thai or Vietnamese cuisines, though, to many people here ‘smell bad’, or ‘stink’ ( a person quite close to me doesn’t even consider them ‘food’); there are countless people who have an inexplicably morbid horror of the smell of coriander, one of the endlessly tedious food fads you get here, where everyone is raving about mangoes, or acai berries, or chia seeds ( but again I ask you, who gives a flying fuck!): you are either in the ‘can eat coriander!’ or ‘can’t eat coriander’ contingent ( yawn myself to death as I refuse to even answer, but I will tell you, because you must be FASCINATED to know……( yes I do quite like it, but not as much as Duncan does); all the endless debates who can eat spicy food and who can’t, just shoot me now this endless absorption with what you put in your mouth and then ranking it.
I am tired. As I am sure you yourselves must be having to read this. This subject exhausts me for some reason, EXHAUSTS me, because I am so bloody sick of it, but please feel free to comment and/ or psychoanalze me if you see fit and you feel the inclination, it’s just that this looking down on Asian cuisines to me really smacks of the racist imperialism of seventy years ago, an assumption that Japan has always had of superiority over other Asian countries ( even if people rarely acknowledge it openly) that just drives me to distraction. It is there, under the surface.
The darker skin, the more ‘pungent’ the food.
Heaven is a white bowl of Japanese rice, some pickles, some fish, and some miso soup – the food of the mountain gods that I personally, once I get out of this hospital, where I have had to eat it every day – am unlikely to ever, ever want to eat again.