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Re-claiming our (food) heritage

• Most people who know me well know that I’m more than a bit obsessed about food. As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, I’ve traveled all over the world and sampled food from the ranks of Michelin-starred haute cuisine to questionable street cart vendors. However, one of my new life goals is to spread the gospel and re-claim our food heritage by formally promoting a cuisine I’m dubbing JASHOKU or Japanese American food.

• Most people who have traveled to Japan know that there are two basic types of Japanese food – washoku and yoshoku. Washoku describes the traditional foods of Japan eaten for hundreds of years, including sushi, tofu, tsukemono and anything else that we’d consider “real” Japanese. The emphasis is on natural, locally sourced seasonal ingredients and simple preparations. In 2013, washoku was declared a UNESCO intangible cultural asset and listed among the world’s cuisines as one that must be preserved as a world cultural treasure. This was the food that traveled with our Issei ancestors and became the basis of our cultural diet.

• The second major group of food eaten in Japan every day is called yoshoku, or foods introduced to Japan from other countries, hybridized to suit Japanese tastes and made a part of the everyday modern culture to the point where many Japanese citizens do not know the real origins of the dishes. Having its origins during the Meiji Restoration, this style of cooking includes items like omuraisu, curry raisu, spaghetti Napolitan, and hamburg steak. The original dishes were previously seen as too foreign, spicy or greasy for the Japanese palate, the adaptations to these dishes helped them to become firmly entrenched in the everyday diet.

• In contrast, jashoku is 100% American. It is our own. Borrowed liberally from washoku, Chinese, the glorious amalgam of cuisines that is Hawaiian, and even Korean, jashoku encompasses the weird and wonderful home cooking that was invented out of a longing for familiar tastes, the necessity to substitute ingredients driven by either poverty or the inability to obtain items, and a desire to melt into America while still retaining a sense of cultural heritage. Shoyu mayonnaise, hamburger royale, bacon fried rice, and teriyaki hot dogs are all examples of dishes that arose out of our parents and grandparents Americanization dynamic. Modern staples include teriyaki burgers with takuan, the ubiquitous California makizushi and the Hawaiian huli-huli method of cooking massive amounts of chicken teriyaki every summer.

• That we have a unique culinary heritage shouldn’t really surprise anyone. Most immigrant groups have had their ancestral cuisine modified by coming to America. Although the number one dish in Chinese restaurants across the United States is General Tso’s chicken, this dish doesn’t exist in China. Nor do egg rolls, broccoli beef or the JA favorite, Hong Kong steak. Many Irish Americans eating corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day don’t even know that in Ireland, back bacon is used instead of corned beef, a product borrowed from Jewish neighbors in New York because it was cheap and available. My friend Freddy Sanchez who owns a fabulous taqueria in Northfield has on his menu the ironic “Old El Paso” taco consisting of ground meat, cheese, lettuce and tomatoes along side his authentically delicious tacos al pastor and lengua. While most immigrant groups have had their own washoku Americanized, they’ve done so with the understanding and pride that they’re adding a bit of their own unique heritage, if a bit watered down, to the cultural tapestry of the American diet.

• So why haven’t JAs done the same and extolled the virtues of jashoku?

• As part of a Facebook group, I was surprised to learn that many JAs around the country are totally unfamiliar with any of the foods I’d consider jashoku. Those who grew up completely apart from other JAs, mostly in the Southern and Eastern parts of the U.S. seem to have little or no cultural memory of JA Americanized home cooking. They may have vague recollection of comfort food related to washoku not found on most restaurant menus, e.g. chazuke, but no notion of the fact that a pot of rice should be made with all dishes, Japanese in origin or not, including spaghetti, and that shoyu improves the taste of everything it’s sprinkled on. Even in the Midwest, I run into yonseis who have no idea of the food that sustained their parents and grandparents in good times and bad. Can we let this unique part of our lives be lost on the next generation?

• For those who either don’t cook or don’t know where to begin on this cultural ethnography, it’s getting harder and harder to find restaurants who serve JA home cookin’, especially with the closing of the Hamburger King, one of the last of it’s kind. However, the clever can still shuttle between Sunshine Café and the Hawaiian- leaning Aloha Eats, both on Clark Street, and still experience the jashoku vibe.

• Lest anyone tell me that jashoku is not a real word in Japanese, I already know. But just as Japanese uses words that are contractions, loanwords and abbreviations such as anime, pokemon and konbini, so shall I use jashoku to define JA food. Gotta name it to claim it.

• In my consulting business, when clients want to reach specific ethnic groups, I tell them that in America, the first thing that is lost is language and the last thing to be lost is food. So while for most JAs, proficiency in Japanese is lost and ain’t gonna come back, let’s re-claim our food heritage and not only pass it along to the next generation, but make sure it has its rightful place on the American menu.

• Bob Kumaki is an author and Managing Principal of the Ronin Group.