Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Food in Japan

Today I want to write about my impression of the food in Japan.

To head off questions early, I'll make mention of the disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Power plant and the radiation-in-food fears. I live in Iwate prefecture, which is in the Tohoku (northeast) area of Japan. The coast of Iwate was hit by the monster tsunami. I am around 300 km away from the Fukushima plant, and inland, so my town was not hit by the wave. The earthquake registered 6.1 at my location. There was minimal damage, but electrical power was lost for three days and the roads were closed to all but emergency vehicles.

So, is there radiation in my food? I really have no idea. Is the government doing a good job checking food? I have only my impression and what I've read or heard. I do not go about watching them do the testing, so I can't say. Lots of people seem to have strong impressions and opinions about it. I honestly don't know. I did receive a newsletter from my local international center which showed a chart of tested radiation levels in local produce and meat. All the levels except a couple were nonexistent, according to this newsletter. The items that did show a result were still under the limits Japan has set as "safe."

If you can read Japanese, this site is apparently a grassroots radiation testing group in Japan. I looked at the numbers a few months back, for produce tested in the capital of Fukushima prefecture, and some numbers seemed very high to me. However, I am not trained in nuclear science. I'm not an expert. Look at the numbers for yourself.

The airborne radiation in my area is at the global average. See this site for airborne radiation all around Japan. If I'm getting radiation other than what I would normally get from background radiation, it must be coming from my food. I try to buy as local as possible, or from other countries, when I buy produce and meats. I have chosen to eliminate Japan-caught seafood. I have also chosen to eliminate Japan-grown rice. The worry I have is, what is ending up in processed foods, pre-made bento boxes, and restaurant food? If hot produce is still getting to market because the government wants to support the farmers from Fukushima, it's most likely to go to the lowest bidders--those who will reprocess it (in which case, it will no longer be tested for radiation levels, so I've heard) or those who will resell it in school lunches or bento boxes.

Other times, however, produce has shown up in the grocery stores, clearly labeled (in Japanese) as being from Fukushima prefecture, and it's being sold cheap. Fukushima peaches, which are apparently somewhat famous, sold way cheaper than usual this year--and people bought them. To me, the country seems divided between those who want to stay far away from Fukushima produce, and those who buy it because they want to support the farmers. By and large, there appears to me to be an attitude of "if we don't talk about it, it isn't real." Certainly, worrying about it all the time will do nothing but drive you crazy, but once you've taken all the precautions you can, it comes down to a choice: leave Japan, or stay and take some risk.

As a 31 year old gal who isn't going to have kids (ok, maybe a 1% chance of that) I choose to take the risk. I do my best to avoid products I think are risky, but at some point--I have to eat. Life is a gamble. I guess I've worsened the odds a bit. Some people drink and smoke and so worsen their odds. I stay in Japan and worsen my odds.

All right, so now that that's out of the way: food. What do I think about food in Japan? It's been tough to adjust to eating here. So many foods I ate regularly in the US are just not present. As a tourist, traveling and eating here is no big deal, but living here constantly, breakfasts, lunches, and dinners have to be sorted out and prepared. It hasn't been the easiest thing for me to adjust.

  • Breakfast: I always ate a mixture of healthy, grainy, crunchy, munchy cereals in the US. Here, the only cereal is corn flakes. You can get plain, sugared, or chocolate flavors. That is the standard option. Corn flakes do not suffice for me. I have found bags of granola, and they aren't bad. A few months ago, I found muesli in an import shop. I now combine the three. Luckily, soy milk is available. I've added to my breakfast yogurt and bananas. Yogurt is an issue. I used to buy a big tub of simple, low fat, vanilla yogurt, and it would last me a week. Here, the tubs are tiny. I've also been unable to find simple low fat vanilla with a short ingredient list (generally I can't read the ingredient lists, but shorter is always better). I now buy a tiny (regular sized) tub of unsweetened non or low fat (I can't tell which, but it doesn't taste like whole fat) yogurt twice a week and add a spoonful of jelly (which I also find in import stores) to sweeten it and cut up a banana into it. That's my breakfast.

  • Lunch 1: I make my lunch to bring to school. Initially, I cooked rice and added chicken, veggies, and an egg, all cooked up on the stovetop (I have no oven, as is usual for a small Japanese apartment). I make my own dashi stock and so would add some of that to the mixture. Only white rice is available here. I have heard rumors of brown rice being available somewhere, or that you can buy direct from farmers, before it's polished into white rice, but I have been unable to get a resolution with those options. Since I ran out of my pre-March 11th rice, I've switched to a different lunch.

  • Lunch 2: I finally found whole grain spaghetti in the import store I discovered a few months ago. Finding anything whole grain in this country is very difficult for me, and it's been one of my biggest complaints. I do not understand the Japanese aversion to whole grains. I've read that, long ago, only the rich could afford to consume white rice, because it took so much extra processing. Peasants ate brown rice. Eating white rice was a mark of status and wealth. As it became easier to make rice white, more people eagerly switched over, because it's a prestige issue. Brown rice was happily abandoned. Of course we now know that brown rice is much healthier, but despite that, it appears there's no market demand. So, I switched to pasta. I now make or buy pasta sauce (I can get it at the import store), add some chicken and veggies, and I'm good to go.

  • Dinner: dinners vary. I've gotten into the habit of making ham, cheese, and tomato sandwiches. Unfortunately, the bread available is only white bread, and the only lunchmeat available is ham. Good cheese only comes shredded. The pre-sliced cheese is actually processed cheese along the lines of "American cheese" which is as gummy and plastic-like as the US version, so I have to buy the shredded variety. I microwave the sandwiches, so the cheese doesn't fall all over the place.
It sounds like I'm being very negative about the food here. Apparently, the Japanese like it fine. I've just had trouble adjusting. There are, however, some foods that are great here, like the many, many sweet breads with chocolate or cream or fruit or whatever on or in them. They make tasty desserts. Eating ramen or tempura out is always fantastic. I also love kara-age (a type of bite-sized fried chicken) but it's not very healthy because it's so fatty and oily.

Another thing I heartily approve of is the absence of corn syrup in the foods here. Remarkably, my skin has cleared up a lot since I came here, and I credit the absence of the corn syrup. Of course, it could just be coincidence, but whenever a care package of sweets shows up from the US and I start eating the snacks, my face breaks out. I still love my favorite snacks from the US, and do enjoy the care packages, just not the acne.

Along the lines of corn, however--who ever thought that putting corn on pizza was a good thing? They were wrong. Corn does not belong on pizza. I am firm in my belief of this, and will not be budged.

One other thing that is reversed from the west--fatty meats are the good meats here. In the US, the lean cuts are the best. Whenever I have discussed this issue with people from one side of the pond, they always seem stunned by the attitude on the other side of the pond. In the US I grew up knowing that you eat the leanest meat you can, remove the skin, remove the fat, because it's healthier. People in Japan eat the fat and the skin because... I'm not sure. Do they think it tastes better? Maybe in the past, when calories were at a premium, fatty foods had higher value because they give you more calories? This is one more thing I'm just never going to be able to understand or accept. I don't want to swallow globs of fat.

One thing I love--is the selling of local farmers' produce in the supermarkets. There's the factory-farm section, and then there are the bins where local farmers have their stuff. Often, there are laminated signs and photos of the family that runs the farm. All supermarkets have this. I love buying from the local produce bins because I know I'm supporting the local farmers, I can be sure of where the food came from, I know it's fresh--and it's often cheaper! The only drawback is that it's very seasonal.

One thing I don't love, is how dang expensive some of the produce can be--especially fruits. Bananas are cheap year round. Apples are cheap in season. Strawberries are all right, in season, if you don't buy the big ones. In the US, strawberries are not sorted by size. You get a little basket, and it's full of all kinds of sizes. Here, they are sorted by size, and lined up carefully in the box. Larger strawberries cost more. I can get oranges from the US for an all right price. Any other fruits are a luxury choice. Grapes are far more expensive that I've ever seen them. Likewise, peaches. Cherries can be gotten sort of cheap, but only during the short season. I would never consider buying a watermelon here. I could spend that twenty bucks on something else.

I guess I'll stop here. This has turned into a very long entry. I expect, a Japanese person moving to the US would encounter another set of food frustrations. I have learned how to eat here, and take a multi-vitamin in case I'm missing anything important, but it has taken some adjusting.

Mata, ne.

No comments:

Post a Comment