Oh Tempura, Oh Mores!

The New York Times has been on a Japanese culture kick this week which I just couldn’t let pass without note. There have been not one, but two articles in praise of Sushi, and an appreciation for a Roots Kabuki troupe on tour in the US.

On the eating side of things, Trevor Corson (yes, that Trevor Corson) argues that if you’re going to eat sushi, eat it like a Japanese, or at least like Japanese used to:

When I lived in Tokyo, eating sushi generally involved a trip to a tiny neighborhood sushi bar. The chef, like a good bartender, knew everyone by name and bantered with his customers while he worked. Instead of tables and menus, people sat at the bar and asked what was seasonal and most flavorful. The chef delivered a delightful variety — unpretentious little fish with great character, crunchy clams, surprisingly tender octopus.

When sushi took root in the United States in the 1970s, a few Japanese chefs tried to educate Americans about the variety of seafood eaten in traditional sushi, and a few made the effort to recreate the neighborhood sushi bar, with its cheerful chatter, trusting relationships, lack of menus and reasonable prices.

But the dirty little secret of American sushi is that from the beginning, many Japanese chefs assumed that we could never appreciate the wide-ranging experience the way their Japanese customers did, so they didn’t bother to educate us. Simple sushi took over, featuring the usual suspects: tuna, salmon, boiled shrimp.

Today, most Americans remain wary of the stern-faced sushi chef, and dare not sit at the bar — we wouldn’t know how to order or to control the bill. Many chefs, in turn, tell me that they’re fed up with the way we Americans mishandle our sushi, so they don’t bother to serve us the fun, flavorful and more peculiar toppings.

So Americans are stuck between chef-driven omakase meals at elite restaurants that cost a fortune and the cheap, predictable fare at our neighborhood places. Both extremes have deepened our dependence on tuna — at the high end, on super-fatty cuts of rare bluefin; and at the low end, on tasteless red flesh that has often been frozen for months and treated with chemicals to preserve its color.

The dirty little secret of Japanese sushi is that a lot of Japanese eat sushi the same way that Americans do: ordering set plates, even take-out sushi that depends on fatty and salty flavors to drive business. The second dirty little secret is that the supposedly wide-ranging palates of Japanese sushi consumers have been trained since childhood to eat everything they’re given without showing favor; perfect for the Japanese restaraunt business in which the customer determines how much they want to pay, their status, instead of what they want to eat.

Corson is backed up by Steven Shaw, who argues that Japanese public health advice is better and that the conventional US warnings about pregnant women consuming raw fish are unwarranted. Most of the danger, he says, comes from raw shellfish, and if you avoid that — and go easy on potentially mercury-heavy fatty fish — then sushi is good for you. It’s nice to know that we didn’t take any excessive risks when my wife was pregnant, though you never feel good about ignoring “best practice” advice.1

Continuing the “I knew that, doesn’t everyone?” theme comes a review of the Heisei Nakamura-za troupe — led by Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII — which is trying to revive the flagging fortunes of Kabuki

But as the scion of a theatrical dynasty that goes back to the 17th century — the numeral behind his name indicates his place in an unbroken line of masters — he feels the lure of Kabuki as it was in its rough-and-tumble early days, when its very name meant off-kilter, out of the box, strange and new. It was a rowdy, plebeian entertainment then, not some cultural treasure. In 2000 Mr. Kanzaburo [sic] founded the troupe Heisei Nakamura-za to strike the old spark.

“Please don’t misunderstand,” Mr. Kanzaburo [sic] said recently from Tokyo, through a translator. “It’s not that I dislike the classical Kabuki. I love the classics, and they are important. Also, I don’t believe you can be a Kabuki actor unless you have mastered the classics. I don’t want to aspire to new directions by denying the classics.”

This is Mr. Nakamura‘s second US tour, and he’s been tweaking things to engage US audiences — showing whole plays instead of excerpts, inserting English dialogue, encouraging crowd commentary — in both his tours. The work he’s showing seem quite classical — well, late classical — in tone, including sex, violence, disguise and SWAT teams….

Update: The troupe’s presentation of a kabuki comedy got a great review, too.

  1. though, as anyone who’s read a guide to pregnancy lately can tell you, there’s a lot of goofiness masquerading as “best practices” and it’s very hard to take it all seriously after a while  

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