Monday, August 1, 2016

Notes from Japan 1: Food and drink.

This blog has been dormant for nearly six months. Now that I'm into the last week of a 3-month visit to Japan, I feel this is a good time to write down a series of notes. In these, I'll try to summarise various features of Japan that I found striking and that had an impact on me

One of the topics that always comes up in Japan is food, so let's start with that. No two things in the universe differ in conception as much as Japanese and Indian food. Some of the differences are self-evident: Indians use strong flavours and cook food for a long time, while Japanese use subtle flavours and cook food quickly and lightly, or not at all. When it comes to meat and fish (what we call "non-veg"), Indians have a very restricted palate. While 70% of Indians are "non-vegetarian", most of them eat eggs and chicken, a smaller number eat mutton while coastal Indians eat a limited variety of fish. Beef and pork are also eaten in India, but both are subject to taboos by different communities and in consequence they are banned in the cafeterias of government institutes (in practice, neither is served in virtually any cafeteria that caters to a diverse population). I should mention that in India, alcohol too is banned from the campuses of government institutes and also many private institutions.

Contrast this with Japan - there are three distinct types of eel eaten here: unagi, anago and hamo. Dozens of varieties of fish are sold in supermarkets, along with octopus, squid, shrimp and roe (fish eggs). Popular meats include pork, beef, chicken (but not lamb or goat, to my knowledge). Occasionally one also finds horse meat, or -- at the other end of the scale -- crickets and other insects. Japan has dedicated restaurants for offal (called horumon or sometimes "hormone") which, we are told, includes esophagus, heart, pulmonary artery, uterus, mammary, diaphragm, pancreas, intestine and rectum. The average Indian, even a hardened fan of "non-veg", is no doubt finding this hard to read! But it gets more intense. At a sushi restaurant in downtown Kyoto, a signature dish is a kind of fish that is kept swimming in a tank and taken out only after the order is placed. Its meat is sliced into sashimi and the skeleton, with head and tail intact, is mounted artistically on the same plate. Your host will then point out that the tail of this skeleton keeps gently waving -- a sign that the fish was alive until very recently. After you finish the sashimi you can ask for the skeleton to be deep-fried, it is then crunchy and absolutely delicious.

No doubt, one can spin the above into a tale of a cruel populace that lacks respect for living creatures. But I'm afraid Indians would have a hard time to convincingly do that. While they are alive, I suspect Japanese animals (of all shapes and sizes) are treated a lot better than their counterparts in India. Given that food here is lightly cooked and often raw, hygiene also has to be of the highest standard.Anyway I don't wish to attack or defend anyone's way of life. I just find it remarkable that there are very few taboo foods here.

Vegetables and fruits are, of course, a bit of a casualty in Japan. A single large eggplant or tomato can cost as much as a filet of salmon (say, 3 US dollars), while just yesterday I saw large peaches in Nishiki Market for the equivalent of 8 US dollars (over 500 Indian rupees) each. Personally, I'm looking forward to resuming my high-fruit-content diet as soon as I arrive in Pune next weekend!

One striking fact is that the north-east of India as well as all the "far east" countries including Japan, China, Korea and Southeast Asia seem to include a large variety of animals and seafood in their diet. They are also similar in another regard: unlike the middle-eastern and Indian cultures (and some Anglo-Saxon cultures too), alcohol is quite simply a normal thing. It can be served pretty much anywhere and on any occasion. Advertisements for restaurants often show a nuclear Japanese family sitting at a table with bottles of beer in front of the parents and ice-creams in front of the children. Alcohol can be consumed together by, say, faculty and students. At my farewell party in Kyoto, held in front of a seminar room, liquor strong enough to power a small airplane was shared by all amid growing noise and hilarity. A faculty member approvingly told me the students would continue drinking until all the liquor was finished, often till 2 or 3 AM. In restaurants where Japanese people go to drink, customers become noisier and more drunk as the evening wears on, but the "predictable" outcome does not happen. There is no molesting of other customers or aggressive behaviour to strangers.

Admittedly there is a slight change since 1990 when I first came to Japan: today it is not possible to dispense alcohol (or cigarettes) from a vending machine unless you swipe a card that proves you are an adult. So under-age drinking is certainly frowned upon. But for adults, the sky is the limit. By the way, I don't claim there is no alcoholism in Japan or that it isn't considered a problem. Just that there is absolutely no impediment to consume. In sharp contrast, very strong impediments have been placed in the way of smoking, another Japanese tradition. It is  now illegal to smoke on the street in Kyoto and this is quite strictly enforced. This is not because cigarettes are "taboo", but because of the very clear health implications.

From a conservative Indian point of view (not mine, of course) the high levels of meat and alcohol consumption should have caused Japan to turn into an immoral, reckless, debauched, violent society. And nothing can be farther from the truth - indeed everyone knows this is a civilised, hard-working nation where the creation of wealth co-exists with a love of intellectual pursuit, aesthetics and art. Japan boasts 22 Nobel laureates, not at all bad for a nation whose population is a little larger than that of Maharashtra. And India has a four times higher rate of gun-related deaths per capita than Japan. If you are looking for a country that has unrestrained vigilante lynch mobs, then only one out of India and Japan fits the bill and I'll leave the correct answer as an exercise.

So these are some observations for every Indian, left-wing or right-wing, liberal or conservative, to chew upon - or swig - as per their preference.

1 comment:

sukratu said...

Did not visit your blog for several months. But thinking of food and drink, I cannot help but remember Shammi Kapoor (with whom you were acquainted, I know!) and in general the Kapoors. Here is a nice interview of Shammi Kapoor over dinner that I enjoyed watching....