Putting the Bite On Pseudo Sushi And Other Insults

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By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 24, 2006

TOKYO -- On a recent business trip to Colorado, Japan's agriculture minister popped into an inviting Japanese restaurant with a hankering for a taste of back home. What Toshikatsu Matsuoka found instead was something he considered a high culinary crime -- sushi served on the same menu as Korean-style barbecued beef.

"Such a thing is unthinkable," he said. "Call it what you will, but it is not a Japanese restaurant."

A fast-growing list of gastronomic indignities -- from sham sake in Paris to shoddy sashimi in Bangkok -- has prompted Japanese authorities to launch a counterattack in defense of this nation's celebrated food culture. With restaurants around the globe describing themselves as Japanese while actually serving food that is Asian fusion, or just plain bad, the government here announced a plan this month to offer official seals of approval to overseas eateries deemed to be "pure Japanese."

Some observers here have suggested that the government's new push for food purity overseas is yet another expression of resurgent Japanese nationalism. But the mentality in Japan also echoes a similar movement by several nations -- including Italy and Thailand -- now offering guidelines and reward programs to restaurants abroad to regain a measure of control over their increasingly internationalized cuisines.

So beware, America, home of the California roll. The Sushi Police are on their way.

A trial run of sorts was launched this summer in France, where secret inspectors selected by a panel of food specialists were dispatched to 80 restaurants in Paris that claimed to serve Japanese cuisine. Some establishments invited the scrutiny, while others were targeted with surprise checks. About one-third fell short of standards -- making them ineligible to display an official seal emblazoned with cherry blossoms in their windows or to be listed on a government-sponsored Web site of Japanese restaurants in Paris.

Matsuoka, who took over Japan's top agricultural job in September, is the mastermind of the new "Japanese restaurant authentication plan." He said it does not always take a culinary sleuth to spot an impostor. "Sometimes you can tell just by looking at their signs that these places are phony," he said.

"What people need to understand is that real Japanese food is a highly developed art. It involves all the senses; it should be beautifully presented, use genuine ingredients and be made by a trained chef," he continued. "What we are seeing now are restaurants that pretend to offer Japanese cooking but are really Korean, Chinese or Filipino. We must protect our food culture."

In recent years, few culinary traditions have witnessed the kind of global boom, and distortion, of Japanese food.

In the United States alone, the number of restaurants claiming to serve Japanese food soared to 9,000 in 2005, or double the number a decade ago, according to Japanese government statistics. The government projects that the number of Japanese restaurants worldwide will leap to 48,000 by 2009, more than double the current level.

Some have gone all-out to ensure authenticity. Masa in New York City imports its fish from Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market while Umu in London regularly flies in the soft water of Kyoto, Japan's old capital, to make its bonito fish broths. But they are largely exceptions in a world where the Japanese fear their food is being lost in translation.

In the United States, the proliferation of counterfeit Japanese foods now includes seaweed rolls stuffed with smoked salmon and cream cheese. In Canada, Vera's Burger Shack in Vancouver is offering tempura-battered onion rings. As the recent test in Paris showed, even such gastronomic bastions as France can be guilty of sushi sacrilege.


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