One thing that is a constant concern/minor irritation for me as a foreigner in Japan is all the favourites everyone wants to know. Often just about the only question some people can nail is ‘What (insert noun phrase here) do you like?’ Or they don’t nail it, but persist with ‘What do you like (category)?’ Or sometimes, ‘Do you like (insert broad category here)?’ which is also not nailing it so much when what they want to know is what kind you like. Case in point:
“Do you like Japanese food?’
‘Yes, I do.’
Asked what kind of Japanese food I like, it troubled me for a long time as to how to answer honestly. I’m not good at favourites. I love food, but I can’t choose a favourite. I like lots of colours, lots of different books, TV shows and music, and I don’t have a favourite movie, soz* kids.
So I tried telling them a few things I liked, like sushi and soba, and then they would ask if I liked udon, natto, etc. That was good in that it got kids to ask questions, but it also took a long time, plus none of those foods really communicates or contains what I like about Japanese eating, namely the sort of food often eaten at home.
I tried to describe it once or twice, saying things like ‘rice and soup and salad and fish’ and what the askers decided I meant was 定食 teishoku, a ‘set meal’ that you can buy at a family restaurant kind of place and comes on a tray. That was not what I meant, but what I meant was home cooking, and that wasn’t what the kids wanted to hear or expected. I didn’t know the phrase for what I meant, but more recently, I have discovered that there is a little-known term: 一汁三菜 ichiju sansai ‘one soup, three sides.’
The traditional Japanese diet is famously well-balanced overall, but it has changed in recent times to embrace more imported dishes/foods like bread and dairy products and more available meat. I think overall it’s still pretty balanced, and generally a pleasure to eat. They don’t usually overdo it on the meat, or on anything, in fact. Portion size is usually smaller than what you’d see in Australia, though still plenty and cheap, and vegetables are skilfully and lovingly prepared so they always taste great. Vegetables play an important part in most Japanese meals, including breakfast, which is possibly what I like best about Japanese food. Why shouldn’t people have vegetables for breakfast? Well, in my case, being a bit zombie-ish and rushed in the morning, it takes too long. But at a hotel or if out for breakfast, yes.
Meat or fish is part of most meals, generally in small to moderate quantities. Japan is not really vegetarian-friendly, although people understand the concept if reminded of how some Japanese Buddhists avoid animal products at certain times.
There don’t seem to be so many people following diet trends in Japan as in Australia – I haven’t seen anyone avoiding carbs or ‘going paleo’ for instance, though many women and girls often seem to eat only a little of anything. Eating disorders are on the rise, apparently.
When food is advertised in Japan, it is all for the enjoyment of it. I have not seen any advertisements with the main selling point being that something is low-fat, for example, although low-fat milk, margarine and yoghurt are everywhere. I don’t yet have the vocabulary to know whether people care about good fats and bad fats, but dietary fat in general doesn’t have the same stigma it does in Australia. Lean meat is cheap meat in Japan because most people prefer the taste of fatty meat, and yakiniku (grilled meat/Japanese barbecue) is one time when people do eat a lot of meat.
In daily life, though, people like to say that you should eat something because it’s healthy, like natto (slimy fermented soy beans). I don’t know if Japanese people tell this to each other, or if I just hear it all the time because I’m foreign and people know there’s a good chance I won’t like it. Either way, it’s most popular for breakfast. If you see any image of a Japanese person (on TV, in an advertisement) eating breakfast, it will include natto.
Food in Australia
… this is for those who don’t know, mostly, but when people ask what we eat in Australia, the answer is, food. I may have mentioned this before, but for me the typical Australian dish is either a barbie (BBQ) or spaghetti bolognese. Aside from Vegemite, Pavlova, lamingtons and ANZAC biscuits, none of which is a meal, what constitutes ‘Australian food’ depends on whether you live in the city or the country, and which city and which part of the country.
Australians generally don’t eat bread three times a day, contrary to what Japanese people sometimes ask (or tell) me. People do eat a lot of wheat-based food, although maybe that’s lessening now with people deciding that gluten and carbs are both the devil, and with the rise of the ‘paleo’ diet. However, for those people who do eat carbs in all or most meals, it’s probably a combination of bready foods, pasta, rice, potatoes and then other stuff like oats or other grains in breakfast cereals, soups etc. It’s generally not common to combine different carbs in a meal, although some people use bread to wipe up sauce from pasta. I thought this one-starch-at-a-time was a worldwide thing, but in Japan, it’s not unusual to have a noodle meal with a serving of rice on the side. Or for school lunch, to have a big bread roll with a bowl of spaghetti (no spare sauce there!) or fried noodles.
For many people in Australia outside major cities, well, my experience of country eating is “meat and three veg” (grilled lamb chops with potatoes, peas and beans for example), roasts, barbeques, and casseroles. I think it’s probably based on the kind of diet the settlers/invaders had when they came over from England back in the day. But in cities, especially major cities, it’s more varied and multicultural: Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, Indian and Greek are some of the easiest foods to find in Melbourne, along with Thai, Korean, Turkish, Lebanese, and then more rarely, Ethiopian, Spanish, Moroccan or Mexican. French-influenced cooking has always been popular. Japanese is on the rise. It’s expensive to eat out, but still popular. My impression is that at home, most people cook a variety of things influenced by the aforementioned culinary styles.
In Australia and probably much of the West, a lot of food is marketed more on its nutrition – or what’s not in it (no added X, Y or Z!) and how guilt-free you can feel than how enjoyable it actually is to eat, depending on the kind of food, of course. A luxury ice cream will be typically advertised with a sexualised image of a woman, or a woman enjoying indulging in (the sensual pleasure of) the ice cream or luxury chocolate etc. A hamburger is usually advertised with a blokey bloke (not too blokey though, don’t want to narrow the target audience too much).
Sometimes really specific foods are advertised, too. Not just products like Vegemite, but bananas, avocados, mandarins, and lamb – by the industries that produce/grow the foods. I haven’t noticed this sort of advertising in Japan. Is it only Australia?
By the way, if you come across オージービーフoojii biifu in Japan, it’s not supposed to be ‘orgy beef’ but ‘Aussie beef.’ So the first time some Japanese conversation students asked me what I ate at home, and if I ate オージービーフoojii biifu, well, it was confusing. Anyway, ‘Aussie beef’ is supposed to be one of the most famous and most eaten foods in Australia. I think this is because Japan imports a lot of beef from Australia (and the US) and sells it significantly cheaper than domestic beef. Australians eat more poultry than beef, according to this OECD data, but we also eat more meat than any other country in the world. In fact, Australians eat a lot in general, but according to a 2015 survey only 6% of Australians eat as much as the recommended amount of vegetables. So not a great balance. Come on, Australia.
For younger people it seems quite common to be some kind of vegetarian (hello big cities) and it’s becoming uncommon to find an eatery without a vegetarian option.
Unexpected note: According to Wikipedia, only 2% of Australia is actually vegetarian, compared to 4.7% of Japan. Where are they hiding? I’ve never met a Japanese vegetarian, so this was a big surprise to me.
Ok, that’ll do us for this post. If I had to choose a food that I want to eat when I get back to Australia, it would be a Turkish or Lebanese banquet, and second would be yum cha. Oh, and throw some haloumi or goat cheese in there somewhere. What’s your take, reader? What Japanese or other country-specific food do you like?
Please read again! またお願いします！ Mata onegai shimasu!
*’Soz’: colloquialism for ‘sorry’ that I kind of like because of how casual and somehow unapologetic it is. Probably Australian, although I wasn’t able to confirm this with any trusted source. It’s the kind of abbreviation Australia would make though, e.g. Gary —> Gaz. Darren —> Daz. (or Dazza) Lauren —> Loz