Sushi police disbanded
Being a purist is all well and good, but when it becomes an obstacle to spreading the goodness of Japanese food globally, things had to change.
JAPANESE experts are taking a more liberal view of what constitutes authentic Japanese food to satisfy the world's growing hunger for sushi and otber traditional dishes.
As slices of raw fish grow in popularity in Europe, North America, and even this part of the world, pseudo-sushi and fusion style dishes are now classified as authentic Japanese cuisine, said Yuzaburo Mogi, the chairman of the Organisation to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad (JRO).
JRO has decided to repaint Japan's food cup ture to invite creativity and contribute to the diversity of international cuisines, rather than excluding anything outside of the traditional standard.
In 2006, tbe Japanese Ministry for Agriculture deployed a group of"undercover" food specialists to inspect the authenticity of Japanese restaurants abroad. Members of the mission were dubbed the "sushi police" and were criticised by the foreign media.
The secret agent operation aimed to distinguish purebred Japanese food from the avocado-tainted Californian roils and fake-crab "kanikama" uigiti that was becoming more and more common in overseas Japanese restaurants.
Since Japan's food is perceived as being low-calorie and healthy, the number of Japanese restaurants has more than doubled
in the United States in the past 10 years and tripled in Britain in the last five years.
In Thailand, the Japanese food market has expanded by more than 20~; a year since 2000, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries.
Overall, the Japanese food market abroad is growing at an annual rate of 8.5%, but most of the restaurants offer what is considered Japanese food in a fusion style, according to the Japanese Ministry for Agriculture.
Despite the ministry's reluctance to give its stamp of approval to the non-traditional Japanese fare, JRO Chairman Mogi says a wider interpretation is needed.
"We should interpret 'Japanese food' more widely, as overseas chefs are working to satisfy local tongues," Mogi said at a recent press conference.
Japan itself has historically benefited from food imports. Tempura, which is believed to be Japanese, was originally brought in from Portugal, and ramen noodles came from China.
"We don't necessarily have to limitJapanese nationals to maki.ng Japanese dishes," Mogi said. "As long as they study about it, anyone can and should be able to prepare Japanese food."
Mogi wants to keep the momentum of Japanese food proliferation going by providing workshops to train chefs in culinary skills. He says overseas branches should be established to help research local tastes and how they can be satisfied in Japanese culinary fashion.
Through education, the non-profit organisation hopes to upgrade the quality of Japanese restaurants, especially in terms of
hygiene, by sending out experts to promote the safety and security of Japanese cuisine.
Non-compliance with the sanitary standards for Japanese food has resulted in some food-poisoning cases, the JRO said.
Mogi believes training and education are crucial to improving the quality and safety of overseas Japanese restaurants.
"Overseas chefs didn't know enough about how to prepare raw fish," Mogi said.
The group's objective is not to monitor and supervise Japanese restaurants abroad, he said.
Unlike what the government attempted to do earlier, the JRO is trying to increase the number of chefs and diners who enjoy a more refined version of the culinary art.
As a by-product of the education campaign, the JRO and the agricultural ministry aim to encourage increased exports of Japanese food products.
The rising demand for Japanese food helped boost exports of agricultural and marine products, especially to the United
States, to US$590.41 rail (RMl,Bbil) in 2005, up from US$364,07mil (RMl.OSbil) five years earlier, the ministry says.
"We don't want people to misunderstand us," Mogi said. "It is very unfortunate that the term 'sushi police' came about. We should be able to introduce our food in various cokiurs and styles."