Japanese Cuisine and Vancouver’s Authenticity

One important aspect of all ethnic-based consumer culture is cuisine. Vancouver’s Japanese cuisine and sushi scene has skyrocketed over the past two decades. When I first moved here my mother told me that the first time she’d ever seen sushi was back in the early 80’s when she visited Vancouver. Sushi had not yet made it’s way to the east coast to Montreal, where my mother was raised, or even to the metropolis of Toronto where she was studying. In an article from The Vancouver Sun, Metro Vancouver’s sushi explosion: 600 and counting, journalist Douglas Todd notes that Vancouver may be “the sushi capital of North America”. Even now, “Sushi is more popular on the West Coast than the East Coast of North America, Tostenson said. Toronto, for instance, does not have nearly the number of sushi outlets per capita as Metro Vancouver”. The article also notes that back in 1976, “there were only three restaurants in the city that served sushi … Now, there are more than 600 sushi outlets in Metro Vancouver. And that does not include sushi counters in supermarkets across the region”.

Vancouver was one of the first Canadian cities to introduce Japanese food, and is now being dubbed “the sushi capital of North America”, so how has Vancouver’s strong, yet recent, roots regarding Japanese food influence it’s authenticity? According to the article, “most [Japanese restaurants] are not run by sushi chefs” and Vancouver’s sushi scene is not authentic because “most of the city’s sushi outlets are run by ethnic Koreans or Chinese”. However, I decided to judge for myself and look at my three favourite Japanese restaurants in the city and judge their authenticity to a real Japanese dining experience. Unfortunately, I was unable to reach any of the restaurants managers or other personnel to ask them if they considered their restaurant to be authentic, however I decided to check out the websites of the three restaurants, Minami, The Eatery, and Shota, as well as use my own experiences dining at these restaurants. I consulted Japan Guide online to compare my dining experiences at these restaurants to a traditional Japanese experience.

Minami:

Minami is a upscale Japanese restaurant in Yaletown. The restaurant prides themselves on all things Japanese, from their art work, currently featuring the work of Japanese artist Hideki Kimura, to their dish-ware, “Japanese porcelain originating from the artisan town of Arita, Japan”. The website claims that “with [the] company’s roots in Japan, owner, Seigo Nakamura strongly believes in preserving the Japanese culture in any way that he can”. The company’s corporate philosophy is also based on “Ningenmi, a Japanese term used to refer a person with outstanding humanly qualities: sincere, thoughtful and passionate.” In these senses, it is apparent that the owner, Mr. Nakamura, kept Japanese culture and tradition in mind when he created Minami.

However, regarding their Westernization, Minami’s website advertises “a combination Japanese and West Coast cuisine in a comfortable rustic space”. Not all their food is made through strictly Japanese preparation, as they combine Western ingredients and techniques with traditional Japanese dishes. An example of this is their Aburi sushi, or “flamed sushi”. According to the site, “owner Seigo Nakamura innovated the Aburi concept by creating specialty sauces and using non-traditional Japanese ingredients to complement the unique taste properties of each fish”. The site also notes their “unique takes on beef, pork, poultry, and seafood dishes to enjoy with your choice of sake, wine, or specialty beverage”.

My dining experience at Minami reflects exactly what their website suggests; I was eating Japanese-style food, in a Japanese-feeling restaurant, but I was still engaging in a western experience. However, in contemporary Japan, a lot of elements of the Western eating style has been implemented, in a way, making it Japanese itself. For example many restaurants in Japan no longer rely on floor seating as the traditional style, but use Western-style tables and chairs. Another example is that while “paying in cash is most common … more and more restaurants also accept credit cards or IC cards such as Suica”. Overall, Minami seems like a pure fusion of North American and Japanese concepts.

The Eatery:

The Eatery is self-described as “the funkiest place for Japanese food” and “one of the neighbourhood’s favourite destinations for innovative sushi”. This is to say the experience is not a traditional one. But is it authentic nonetheless? With its bright lights, sensory overload in decor, and a (Western-style) DJ every weekend, it does not seem like it would be. However, a plethora of restaurants in Japan (albeit non-traditional ones) are starting to use experience and decor as a primary factor in their dining experience, eating culture, and consumer culture. This article http://kotaku.com/tokyos-most-unusual-restaurants-offer-more-than-food-1147350054 outlines some of the interesting and unique restaurants in Tokyo’s modern sushi scene. Food-wise, like Minami, The Eatery puts innovative twists on their traditional dishes, including funky names such as the “Aloha roll”, or the “Tex-Mex Roll” which is a classic California roll combined with a salsa mix.

Shota:

Shota is probably the closest dining experience to what the Japan guide described. although the seating was raised, most of the tables were bench-style on both sides with little matts for each person to sit on. I was automatically offered tea as well, which is common practice in Japan. The food itself, for the most part, seemed authentic, with only a few options being Westernized or repurposed from traditional Japanese dishes. Their website also advertises their origins. The director, Maggie Hon, who has always, like myself, been enthralled with Japanese culture, lived in Japan for three years and now strives “to provide a rich experience to all customers by sharing her knowledge and insight on Japan through food and personal relationships”. Although the eating experience at Shota still feels very westernized, it is probably the closest experience to authentic Japanese food that I’ve had in the city.

Overall, it is apparent that many of Vancouver’s Japanese cuisine is a mix between traditional Japanese foods and dining experiences, and western styles and familiarities. This makes sense in a North American context, as westerns don’t want to feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar while they eat, however they do want some sort of ethnic connection and authenticity to the food they are eating. It’s also important to note that while these restaurants are all westernized in one way or another, that doesn’t make them inauthentic. In the words of William Tsutsui in his book, Japanese Popular Culture and Globalization, which I recently read for my Anthropology 215 class (Japanese popular culture), “the Japanese are ‘underhanded agents of cultural plagiarism’ and Japanese pop [culture] is profoundly derivative of Western, and particularly American, mass entertainment forms” (Tsutsui, 26).

Until next week,

Leah

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