Last fall we got a flyer in the mail for a new Chinese restaurant that was opening up. I was going to scan in the flyer and try to write something witty about it but lethargy set in and I never got around to it. I’ve since passed by the place on the bus a number of times but it’s a major trek for someone without a car so until tonight I didn’t have a chance to take a photo. This evening I was walking home from Kokura so I made a point of going by. With camera in hand.
Before I get to the photo, let me give a wee bit of background. The establishment in question is run by Big Bear’s Group, a company that operates Big Bear’s Pizza in Kitakyushu. It’s a chain of pizza parlours whose flyers frequently make their way into our mailbox. In addition to the usual Italian toppings, Japanese staples that would seem more at home at a sushi bar—nori, mayonnaise, and fish roe, among others—are available. Sometimes all on the same pizza. But this is typical of pizza here, and most foreign cuisine in general. Usually, in addition to a traditional ethnic dish, there’s usually an option to make it more Japanese. This is usually accomplished by taking out the spiciness or adding Japanese flavours. Hence curries without any heat and seaweed and/or fish eggs on pizza and spaghetti. In fact the other day when Lia made curried red lentils at school with her English club, the consensus among the members was that the cardamon was “too hot.”
I think part of the reason for the “Japanification” of foreign foods is the tendency for people to want to stick with familiar flavours. But based on my observations, the major reason is that with a few exceptions, all the cooks, chefs, and bakers here are Japanese, have trained in Japan, and have rarely ventured across the seas and as such they don’t actually know what authentic ethnic dishes taste like. It’s like that line from The Matrix
How do the machines know what Tasty Wheat tasted like? Maybe they got it wrong. Maybe what I think Tasty Wheat tasted like actually tasted like oatmeal, or tuna fish. That makes you wonder about a lot of things. You take chicken, for example: maybe they couldn’t figure out what to make chicken taste like, which is why chicken tastes like everything!
Except that in our case, it’s sometimes painfully obvious when they get it wrong, because those of us from the outside know.
Leaving aside my ambivalence toward the Japanese approach to foreign dishes, I have to say that they do their own cuisine better than I had dreamed was possible. Even after it’s been sitting out on display for an hour or two, the shrimp tempura at the local supermarket is better than any that I’d had back home. Of course this could be a reflection on the quality Japanese restaurants on the Canadian prairies, or at least the ones I could afford to eat at.
Coming back to Big Bear’s Group, I have nothing to say about their ethnodiversity experiments or their marketing strategy. In fact, when I look at this photo, even if I ignore issues of cultural appropriation and political correctness, my brain still seizes up in a loop of “this is just plain wrong in too many ways.” I’d best let the picture speak for itself while I try to reboot my brain.
And yes, they do serve curry.