Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A raw deal

Hmm? Sounds a bit fishy to me.

No stinky sushi, please.

Japanese restaurants invited to win approval of the sushi squad

It may look like sushi, taste like sushi and wriggle like sushi, but for the gourmet in London, Paris or New York, the question remains: just how Japanese is this raw fish?

Officials in Tokyo are offering a worldwide “authenticity screen” for restaurants that purport to be Japanese. The scheme, they say, may lead to an equivalent of the Michelin star system for the world’s 25,000 Japanese restaurants. The kitchens of these establishments will soon be visited by teams of experts, run under the auspices of Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, who will assess the provenance of ingredients and how far they offer a real taste of Japan.

The origins of the wasabi horse-radish (preferably from the Izu peninsula), miso paste (preferably from the Nagano mountains) and pickled ginger (preferably from Tochigi) will all be scrutinised. Rice is expected to be the most frequent area of failure: a true sushi master will insist on Japanese koshihikari rice grown in Japan.

The same variety grown in California might, just, be acceptable. Faux pas may include serving Chinese soy sauce, or miso soup in a porcelain cup.

The organisers, who see the campaign as promoting Japanese food and its health benefits, are anxious not to appear to be unleashing a squadron of international “sushi police”.

When an authenticity screen was mooted last year it was condemned by chefs round the world as “meaning-less”. The popularity today of Japanese food was self-evident without diners being bothered about authenticity, it was argued. Officials at the Japanese Foreign Ministry admitted that the original plan had soon become a “PR catastrophe”.

But organisers of the new scheme emphasised that certification would not be used to denounce as “fakes” those restaurants that did not meet their standards. Instead, establishments that serve genuine Japanese food will receive a seal of authenticity to act as an assurance of high quality.

The seal will be useful for those drawn to the food’s health benefits, which depend on the genuineness of ingredients, particularly the fish and the tofu. The life expectancy of Japanese people has caught the eye of Russia’s billionaires, and miso soup, once just a staple of the ordinary Japanese home, has become a red-hot export market.

The seal’s design, displayed yesterday, resembles a coat of arms, with chopsticks, a Rising Sun background and the petal of a cherry blossom. The award will go to restaurants that meet five criteria of authenticity and can show that they have mastered the classics of Japanese cuisine.
The scheme is to be administered locally. The inspectors are already in Bangkok, Shanghai and Taipei. They will arrive this year in London, Amster-dam, Los Angeles and Paris.