Maintaining standards of Japanese food abroad


They've been nicknamed the sushi police. In response to horror stories from Japanese travelling abroad and being shocked by what passes for Japanese food outside their borders, the Japanese agriculture ministry is developing certification standards for restaurants abroad that want to call themselves Japanese. Their results are supposed to be out at the end of this month with inspections to begin in April.

You can't say that the Japanese aren't looking out for the psyche of their citizens abroad. (But if they've made the effort to travel to another country, shouldn't they be eating the local food instead of Japanese food?)

Comments (47)
  1. Frederik says:

    I think the Italians have a similar system.

  2. Neal says:

    "if they’ve made the effort to travel to another country, shouldn’t they be eating the local food"

    Why? Seriously.  If I have to travel to another country for business why wouldn’t I seek out a restaurant that serves food I’m familiar with and like?  If I travel for enjoyment I ask the same thing – I’m going to see the sights or maybe the people or the art.  

    Why do some people equate travel with food and believe sampling the culture requires sampling the food?  I live in the US and won’t eat least 95% of the dishes you’ll find served at American restaurants – and that’s really a conservative estimate.  

    Plain hamburger, plain chicken sandwich, plain roast beef, plain fries…  no colored veggies in my meals, no salads, no soups, no chunky sauces, no cheese, no dressings, etc.

    Gourmet restaurants – I’d starve to death before eating ANYTHING considered a culinary delight or eating anything cooked by a real chef.

    Seriously.

  3. Suzuki says:

    I’m Japanese who enjoys local foods when I travel abroad. However, my American friends always take me to their Japanese restaurant somehow. Actually, I’ve never seen the American-Japanese style restaurant (they cook fried rice behind plate) or Teriyaki restaurant in my homeland. American Japanese food and real one is like apples and oranges.

    And unfortunately some Japaneses don’t like  American food but they have to go abroad on business or something. The certification will help people like those. I’ll take my friends who want to eat Japanese food to the certificated restaurant because I don’t go Japanese restaurant by myself, and hope they’re satisfied.

  4. Pete says:

    If the US did the same thing, would McDonalds pass muster?

  5. Will Sullivan says:

    I think the point is that they don’t want crap restaurants passing themselves off as "Japanese" because that gives the impression to those who eat there that Japanese cuisine is awful.  The most popular style of Japanese cooking in America is sushi, which requires skilled chefs and proper food handling.  Anything less and people who don’t know better walk away thinking it was the style, not the restaurant.  

    Think of it as a kind of national chain.  When you open a chain restaurant, you are required by that chain to serve certain types of food within a well defined set of standards.  Failure to do so will cost you your membership in the chain.  Serving stinky sashimi would cost you your certification as well.  Not sure exactly how they will enforce this, but I think its a great idea.  "Authenitc Japanese" now may actually mean something.

  6. This reminds me when I lived in Germany.  I spent all my time eating local food, so I never really gauged the quality of American style food anywhere.

    One day, the work cafeteria featured "Pizza USA-style"… topped with corn.

    I used to work in a pizza joint as a kid.  Never did a customer ask for corn, and they would ask for some really strange stuff.

  7. Dan says:

    Neal, if you are travelling just to see the sites and arts, I would suggest that you could also cut the hassle of a flight by seeing them on the Discovery Channel instead.  But then something tells me that this is what you already do.

    Seriously.

  8. Bob says:

    I actually had corn on pizza when I was in South Korea.  I quite liked it.

  9. John Goewert says:

    So, if a restraunt fails to comply, do they send out the Yakuza?

  10. George says:

    Perhaps a bilateral effort could deal with the Mexican/Italian restaurants (tomato sauce on your choice of starch!) I used to see in Denver, or perhaps time has done so.

    Next up: the "Irish" bars that don’t have Guinness on tap or pour it cold.

  11. andy says:

    See "Protected designation of origin" [1] for the EU equivalent (at least I believe it is equivalent to this). This means that you’re breaking the law if you label marzipan as "Lübecker Marzipan" and you don’t comply with the rules for producing such marzipan.

    [1] Protected designation of origin, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protected_Designation_of_Origin

  12. Steve says:

    Dave,

    You often don’t have to try things to know you wont like them. For example I HATE Indian food. How did I know that before I was forced to try it? Curry smells like a$$ and I don’t want to eat anything that smells like that.

  13. Anonymous Coward says:

    Hey Raymond, I dont know if you realize this, but the periods in your book look like plus-signs to me. Was that actually on purpose? It’s kind of disconcerting.

    [What does this have to do with Japanese food? -Raymond]
  14. Speaking as an American who likes to eat in Japanese restaurants, this sounds like a great idea to me!

    As for Japanese tourists, one hears a lot of stories about them travelling in groups, speaking only Japanese and eating only Japanese food. That’s not what I would do in their place, but if it makes them happy it’s their choice.

  15. Neal says:

    "I would suggest that you could also cut the hassle of a flight by seeing them on the Discovery Channel instead. But then something tells me that this is what you already do."

    Ahh Dan, you do know me so well… NOT.  I’ll thank you to know that I only experience and enjoy my women on tv.

  16. JamesW says:

    @Steve

    ‘For example I HATE Indian food. How did I know that before I was forced to try it? Curry smells like a$$ and I don’t want to eat anything that smells like that.’

    Your going to the wrong restaurants. Seriously.

  17. cK says:

    Neal,

    You are absolutely missing out 95% of life.  My friends wives all dislike anything but American food (aka burger, pizza and etc) and you know what they are not only pick about their food but they are picky about everything in life.  I agree with another poster, you at least have to try it at least once before deciding if you like it or not.  

    Steve,

    There are lots of things that smells bad but are absolutely delicious.  For example, stinky tofu and that foul smelling fruit.  People are addict to that stuff.  Again, if you haven’t try it and dismissing something just because it doesn’t smell great is ridiculous.  I bet you’re the type to buy the software before trying them out :)

  18. Barry Leiba says:

    Yes, the French have done this for a long time with (of course) wine and cheese — they take a hard line in dealing with companies who try to call products "Champagne" or "Bordeaux" or "Brie de Meaux" if they were not produced in the proper region according to certain standards.  Of course, it’s not a guarantee of a level of quality; you can have your vineyard right on the banks of the Dordogne and still make a lousy Bordeaux.

    And, um…

    Can we stop making nasty comments to people who choose not to be culinarily adventurous?  It’s their choice, and there’s no point in berating them for it.  Civilité, s’il vous plait.

  19. Brian says:

    the reason I hate people that only eat hamburgers is I often have to go to lunch with them, and that severely limits our options.

  20. MS says:

    "Next up: the "Irish" bars that don’t have Guinness on tap or pour it cold."

    As far as I can tell, Guinness is supposed to be served cold (says so on the bottles, IIRC)

  21. Zach Collins says:

    I don’t mind this at all, honestly.  I don’t particularly like sushi, but living in California, I can’t count how many "Japanese" restaurants I see serving food that, if not lower quality than I would want associated with my home country, but food that /isn’t even Japanese/ in origin or style.  But its quite cute in a way, a co-worker once noted that the places that you’ll find the best sushi are the places you find the least US natives.  "Californian’s like California rolls, not raw fish."   In any case, on the off chance I do decide to eat Japanese or sushi, it’ll be nice to be able to more easily cut the brush.  My only concern is how much this would affect the business of sushi resturaunts who don’t claim to be Japanese but get associated by default; decent brown rice sushi comes to mind.

    Its also funny to hear about this thinking about foreign style resturaunts in Japan.  Italian is pretty popular in Japan.  But their envisionment of Italian, while decently good in its own right, is FAR from Italian.  As in, I’ve been to upscale italian restaurants that had NO basil, or garlic, anywhere, on any plate.  Japanese Mexican is also a complete joke.

  22. ChrisMcB says:

    "Why do some people equate travel with food and believe sampling the culture requires sampling the food?"

    I guess it is debatable whether or not the local food is part of a culture.

    And travel itself doesn’t equate with food.

    But I like to eat "local" foods when I travel for a few reasons. If it is a local food then chances are I can’t get it at home. (Sure there might be one restaurant in the area that serves it, but I would have to find it)

    Local foods generally taste better locally. How many times have you heard people say "They don’t make X like they do back home." There is some truth to that, for a variety of reasons. The water has different flavors, perhaps the local cooks know how to make the local delicacy better.

    I hate going to McDonald’s abroad (other than to get a soda with ice) because I can go to a McDonald’s locally ANYTIME.

  23. hito says:

    I am japanese. I think the reason for this is if someone eat wrong japanese food, they beleave IT is japanese food. So they misunderstand japanese foods and cultures.

  24. Cooney says:

    "the Japanese agriculture ministry is developing certification standards for restaurants abroad that want to call themselves Japanese. "

    So, yeah, are they planning to trademark Japanese food or issue some sort of meishou for the good ones to hang on their door? You can’t walk into Joe’s Japan-style eatery and expect to get them to stop claiming they serve Japanese food.

    Oh, and corn on american style stuff – WTH? Does the rest of the world think we serve everything with a side of corn?

  25. Gabe says:

    Cooney, corn (maize) is a crop indigineous to the Americas, so it makes sense that something with corn on it could be considered "American-style". Kind of like how French fries are not what the French necessarily eat, but are fried in the French style (deep-fried as opposed to sauteed).

    In general, the best ethnic food is found by going where people of that ethnicity eat. If you can’t find any people of that ethnicity to ask where they eat out, go to the restaurants where they work. It’s almost certain to be good if the menu is available in that language.

  26. steveg says:

    The old new thing is… Japanese food? :-p

    Methinks a certification system would only really be taken up by the more up-market places. For instance I wouldn’t expect any of the numerous take-away-only Japanese places here in Sydney to bother with it.

    Corn on pizza: I’ve only seen this in the UK and I thought it was weird then and upon reflection I still feel the same. Pizzas remain corn-free in Australia (kanagaroo pizza is good, stear clear of emu).

  27. Cooney says:

    Cooney, corn (maize) is a crop indigineous to the Americas, so it makes sense that something with corn on it could be considered "American-style".

    Except that we don’t do that here – they sell corn soup in vending machines in Japan. That’s like putting teriyaki on a burger and calling it Japan style

    Kind of like how French fries are not what the French necessarily eat,

    Yeah they are. They call them pommes frites and use mayo.

  28. Cooney says:

    I’ve only seen this in the UK and I thought it was weird then and upon reflection I still feel the same. Pizzas remain corn-free in Australia (kanagaroo pizza is good, stear clear of emu).

    Pizza anecdote: CPK Peking duck pizza is so good. I’m seriously put out that they don’t do that any more.

  29. Dave says:

    "Gourmet restaurants – I’d starve to death before eating ANYTHING considered a culinary delight or eating anything cooked by a real chef."

    You are missing out on so much of life, and that’s fine; it’s your choice. If you want others to respect your feelings on what you dislike, it would be good for them to know that you had at least *tried* it once.

  30. Dean Harding says:

    That’s like putting teriyaki on a burger and calling it Japan style

    You mean like those KFC ads where they’ve got a martial-arts chinese guy jumping around, trying to advertise their "asian-style" burger… because it’s got sweet chilli sauce?

    I can’t find a link to the ads now, but they come on every couple of months, whenever KFC decides to do their "asian-style" burgers for a while.

    (What is "asian-style" anyway? Every country in Asia has very different cuisine, to lump them all together is like trying to say all European countries have the same cooking style)

  31. Tim Lovell-Smith says:

    Having lived in Japan and eaten real Japanese food, and now living in Australia, I can identify 2 basic classes of Japanese restaurants here:

    The good ones: these serve real Japanese dishes + local variations. The food is delicious, and traditional dishes has similar flavour to what it would in Japan. The local variations are like what Japanese people would eat if they lived here – similar style of cooking, new and exciting ingredients and flavours. These often have Japanese on the staff.

    The crappy (and invariably cheap) ones: these serve a very limited range compared to what you might hope to find in japan, and their food is what I can only call fake versions of Japanese dishes – fake in that they use totally different seasonings, make it sweeter than Japanese taste dictates, and take inferior care in how the food is prepared. Every time I eat at these restaurants I am guaranteed disappointment. These are often fully staffed by non-Japanese (but funnily enough Asian staff)…

    The net effect is I fully support the Japanese government in this. I can totally see why they don’t want this second class of restaurants considered Japanese cuisine. It reflects badly on Japan.

  32. Steve Smith says:

    Whatever.

    I fail to see how this is going to help much.  If you want the best available Japanese food, look around for the restaurants that have a lot of Japanese people in them.  But you might like crappy Japanese food, who knows?  

    No sushi I can afford in the US is as good as what you can get in Tokyo for about $1 a plate (2 pcs).  But it’s pretty good where I go.

    I do have the advantage of a Japanese girlfriend.  But tofu and I don’t really like each other, and natto I can’t stand within 50 feet.  Sushi, tempura, gyoza, and sabashio are to die for, though.

    Once you’re old enough that sex is no longer one’s preoccupation 95% of the time, culinary delights are a big part of enjoying life.

    I love Mexican, Italian, German, Polish, and some Indian food too.  And French when I can justify the cost.  And I’m getting pretty hungry now.

    Quite fortunately, I’m not nearly as fat as I deserve to be.

  33. Norman Diamond says:

    You can’t say that the Japanese aren’t

    looking out for the psyche of their citizens

    abroad.

    I thought the goal was to look out for the psyche of foreigners in their own countries?  For example if a U.S. resident who has never gone to Japan goes to a so-called Japanese restaurant in Japan, how will they know if they’re getting real Japanese food or a U.S. invention?  I thought the intended purpose was to inform that kind of person.

    (But if they’ve made the effort to travel to

    another country, shouldn’t they be eating the

    local food instead of Japanese food?)

    When you go to restaurants in the U.S., do you always eat American food?  Don’t you sometimes go to Italian or Mexican or (cough) Chinese or anything else?  I often go to Japanese restaurants but sometimes Italian or French or Chinese etc.

    Meanwhile in Japan I have seen teriyaki sauce on burgers (not in high class restaurants) and in Singapore I saw Col. Sanders Chili Sauce (on fried chicken not hamburgers).

    Wednesday, February 07, 2007 10:54 AM by Will Sullivan

    The most popular style of Japanese cooking in

    America is sushi,

    Oxymoron alert ^_^

    Wednesday, February 07, 2007 11:43 AM by John Goewert

    So, if a restraunt fails to comply, do they

    send out the Yakuza?

    The government doesn’t give orders to yakuza.  It’s the other way around.

  34. Xarium says:

    I’ve not been to Japan but I’d be willing to bet that no restaurant for Westerners makes anything even remotely close to their traditional food.

    After spending a couple months in India and nearly dying from lack of protein & iron (I’m a big fan of meat), I now get a chuckle every time I see an Indian restaurant with "Beef Vindaloo" or some other red-meat on the menu.

  35. Saifis says:

    Another aspect of this that most people seem to miss.

    The problem with Sushi is that it is raw fish, wich can go bad pretty easily, and when handled by poeple that do not have the proper knowledge, can easily result in food poisoning.

    As a Japanese, and having experience living in America, some so called Japanese restruants seemed to lack proper care of the fish they were serving.

    Having people get sick eating what is supposed to represent Japanese culture is clrearly something to pay attention to.

  36. Jonathan says:

    Here in Israel, many Jewish people are religious and keep kosher to varying degrees. So there are Rabbinates that supervise the kosherness of food-serving businesses (and food-producing factories), and issue yearly certificates that the place abides this rabbinate’s definition of Kosher. Then people can choose which rabbinate they trust, and look for their certificate.

    It’s kind of like X.509 certificate authorities, where you choose which one you add to your "trusted root cert authorities" list.

    Yes, going out with the more-strict religious people here can get difficult. I don’t know how they travel abroad – I had a 4-day business trip with one, and it was… difficult.

    So the Japanese gov can start this kind of program, and if they raise enough awareness from Japanese-food-seeking patrons, it could work.

  37. required says:

    Having people get sick eating what is supposed to represent Japanese culture is clrearly something to pay attention to.

    I don’t think anyone believes their local Japanese place represents Japanese culture, they go there because they enjoy the food that is served there. "Indian" food in the UK is very different from real Indian food, and the label also covers Pakistani and Bangladeshi food. In fact there are even "Indian" dishes which are supposed to have been invented in Britain.

  38. Robert Moir says:

    "If you want the best available Japanese food, look around for the restaurants that have a lot of Japanese people in them."

    So by that standard I ought to go to McDonalds to get authentic american cusine? Wonder if they do corn pizza?

  39. Nish says:

    Raymond,

    This is not just a Japanese thing. Indian restaurants in the US serve food that’s drastically different from how they are made in India. In fact, there’s no such thing as Indian food – India has too many cultures and each have their own type of food. I come from a state called Kerala and we have our own dishes and stuff. So a chicken vindaloo would be kinda foreign to me.

  40. Chui says:

    Most Chinese restaurants serve stir fry. This is the basic style of the Cantonese. The Hokkien prefer a simmered stew in dark intense soy sauce. The northern chinese eat less rice but more wheat based product like noodles and buns.

    Describing Chinese cooking as stir-fry is like describing western medicine as antibiotics.

    It’s a darned narrow view.

    When checking out Japanese restaurants, I try to see what their tempura looks like. If it looks like a piece of battered sausage, move on.

  41. Sven Groot says:

    I’ve had assurances from some Chinese friends of mine that if you want good Japanese food, you should go to China. If anything it’ll be cheaper than in Japan. :)

    Actually most Japanese restaurants in the Netherlands are run by Chinese (we have quite a few more Chinese inhabitants than Japanese), and many will do both Chinese and Japanese food.

    I’m not sure about the accuracy of the Japanese food available here, but I do know that what we call Chinese food is nothing, and I do mean *nothing*, like what they eat in China. Half of the signature dishes of a Chinese restaurant over here aren’t known at all in China. And for reasons unknown, no matter how much you order for Chinese take-away, you always end up with enough rice to feed an orphanage. :P

  42. Peter says:

    Let me add on to Tim’s comments…

    Most "japanese" restaurants in the US are run by Chinese and Koreans. I discovered this when I was taking Japanese language classes. There is more profit in running a pseudoJapanese restaurant than running a Chinese (market saturated) or Korean one.

    Here in Denver, we have an Aikido dojo that has a restaurant adjacent. They are run by the last traditional apprentice of the guy who founded Aikido. Delicious food, and unlike anything else you’ll find.

    For one Japanese language class project, I made tofu. Which I learned to make when living in Indiana. WTF! Soy is grown in almost every field there, yet the only tofu one could get was skanky. So I learned to make my own. Which surprised even the teacher. Camcorder over my shoulder, babbling in Japanese with subtitles on 3×5 cards held up. And the finished goods brought to class.

    Oh, and like most other software companies, ours did the fashionable thing and hired a bunch of Indians. However, some of us, who don’t get to travel did take them out to a bunch of Indian restaurants in the Denver area to find out which ones had food that resembles authentic Indian food.

  43. On eGullet this item was discussed a month or two  ago, probably in the Japan forum. Although in general food-fascinated folks like myself are supportive of efforts to improve Japanese cooking, some people were disappointed that the organization behind this effort seems more interested in improving the Japanese food export market than in food quality per se. If you end up having to import things that would be better, even if less natively Japanese, if sourced locally, then the effort will not be successful from a culinary point of view.

    However, the standards for Japanese food are so low in most of the US, including Seattle, that I’d certainly welcome some sort of meaningful metric or standard. Restaurant reviewers in Seattle also have amusingly distorted understandings of Japanese "standards", usually listing a litany of only-in-America sushi rolls before they even mention dishes that actually might be consumed in Japan.

    On the other hand, there are some bright spots; I can think of four perfectly decent Japanese restaurants in the area.

    Domo restaurant in Denver, which Peter refers to, is quite a treat, as it serves things that are actually relatively uncommon in contemporary Japan, yet still fiercely Japanese in style.

  44. Victoria Wiggins says:

    I can’t believe the rest of the world doesn’t put sweet corn on its pizza (so goes with tuna). Next I’ll find out pizza in Hawaii doesn’t come with ham and pineapple.

    All restaurants are there to make money, they do this by producing food that appeals to the people who are likely to frequent it. This is why the style of Indian food is different in Spain (very mild) to England (full of sugar and fat). You can’t make people lose money for the sake of authenticity. If a restaurant is actually bad it won’t stay open.

  45. David Pritchard says:

    In Spain, Japanese restaurants have now been banned from serving genuinely raw fish. I think it has to have been frozen. All due to some food poisoning bug that was going around. I wonder if any restaurants will get certified with that rule in place?

    As regards Indian food in Spain: I’m kind of glad "masochistically spicy" isn’t on the menu here – that seems to be more about a kind of male rite, similar to downing twenty pints of beer, than actual eating.

  46. Dewi Morgan says:

    In the UK we have few options: "Yo! Sushi" has become the MacDonalds of the Sushi world, at least in terms of its omnipresence. Or there’re places like the Korean-run Gili Gulu in London, which serves roast chicken and spring rolls on the conveyor with the sushi.

    And then there’re some in the backstreets where you go for a proper "Japanese experience", where you are most likely to see mostly Japanese faces, the menus are in Japanese (subtitled if you’re lucky) and the food looks at you with tiny, dead fishy eyes.

    It was this last category that turned me off Japanese food, not the Yo Sushi or Gili Gulus of the world, both of which I enjoy immensely (especially the "all you can eat buffet" at the latter).

    In the same way I’ve never had a decent pizza in Italy. Unlike the US, Italian restaurants tend in my experience to serve pizza on a base that’s so thin and overcooked it could be mistaken for a burned pitta bread, with the too-few toppings underdone, except for the cheaper vegetables.

    Part of it, of course, is what you are used to: I imagine Italian nationals look at a deep-pan pizza with a whole mess of toppings with the same horror as I look at their artful but unsatisfying creations.

    But I think also that those nationals who emigrate are the innovators, willing to improve on the basic design and build on it. Chicago’s Italian community did it for pizza, and were hailed for it. I hope that the emigrant chefs from Japan get the same positive hearing, and this Japanese initiative doesn’t damage innovation in their restaurants.

    But to argue against myself for a moment: in Bradford (the UK’s "curry capital") the backstreet curryshops with few white faces in (and no forks – you eat with the pitta bread) served some of the most wonderful curry I’ve ever had. Big curry houses often cater to those who’ve been drinking lots of beer and want to show off how "hot" they can eat their curry: so hot they can normally not taste any of the flavours. Backstreet restaurants are all about the taste of the food.

  47. kd says:

    Echoing what nish and a couple of others have been saying:

    props to the japanese government to get something like this started, cos (like nish says) this isnt something affecting japanese cusine alone. In fact, I’d go the whole nine yards and say that EVERY CUSINE IS MISREPRESENTED IN A LOCALE THAT ITS NOT ORIGINALLY FROM.

    But this might be a good thing actually. For eg, most restaurants in India have a chinese menu, with items in them that I’ve not seen on any chinese menu in the US (prime example: gobi manchurian); and I’m sure none of them show up on any respectable menu *in china*. But we indians happily munch on this "chinese" fare that’s so indian, its the only way its palatable to us (most of them have with gravy options, btw which are spicy).

    Another good example are US chains such as TGIF that have opened up here, and simple stuff like stuffed potato skins DO NOT even remotely resemble the original thing; but people like it anyway.

    So the locals can continue to eat what they can eat, while thinking they’re trying out a foreign cusine.

    OTOH, for the gourmets who really want to consume the real thing – be they locals or visitors from the original country – such certification would be great.

    Of course, with a country like india where there are equal (if not more) cusines as languages, I really wonder who’d bell the cat!

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