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Culture and Education

Asian Food Culture—New Cuisine Born Out of Diversity

Kyungmook Kim
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

What is Asian Cuisine?

Asia is massive and diverse. The region includes Turkey to the west and Japan to the east, and Kazakhstan and Mongolia to the north and the islands of Indonesia and East Timor to the south. Just as the cultures of Asia are diverse, so are the culinary traditions.

I would talk about the cuisines of Asia, and consider the features of Asian food cultures across the region. For example, in Northeast Asia, rice is the main staple food and noodles are widely eaten. Side dishes often use meat and vegetables, and when prepared, they are flavored using bean paste, soy sauce, fish sauce, spices and a variety of other ingredients. In addition to an array of flavors ranging from sweet, spicy and salty to sour, Asian food also has a variety of fragrances and coloring. The ways of eating can be divided into two main methods: the chopsticks and spoon culture of Northeast Asia, and the bare hands culture of West Asia. The spoon and fork culture of Southeast Asia developed in between these two major regions.

When considering this, it can be said that the culinary traditions of Asia are remarkably dynamic and diverse. These characteristics are what define Asia and its cuisines.

When Different Cultures Meet, New Cuisine is Invented

The hawker centers of Singapore are where the masses fill their stomachs.

Chinese food, Korean food, Thai food, Vietnamese food, Indian food, Turkish food—there is a tendency to call cuisines using the name of the countries in which they originated, which can often be misleading. This is because, for instance, the differences between Turkish food and Greek food are not clear-cut and curry, which is often thought of as Indian food, is actually categorized by region and not as cuisine representative of the entire country. On top of that, what we call "curry" today is actually a concept invented by the British, who were the colonial rulers of India. Considering this, various cuisines attributed to countries are not actually traditional and unique cuisines that originated in the countries for which they are named, but rather inventions that were created as national unifiers or symbols.

This is clear from observing modern Japanese food and the Japanese diet. For instance, Japanese food from a foreign perspective includes sushi, tonkatsu (pork cutlet), ramen, yakiniku, sukiyaki, and curry rice. Having lived in Japan for about 30 years myself, these are dishes that I miss every time I go overseas. Luckily, these are standard menu items in almost every Japanese restaurant in other countries. Most people would probably not disagree with you if you call these dishes "Japanese food." However, how many of the examples I listed are traditionally and uniquely Japanese? Even sushi originated from a Northeast Asian and Southeast Asian tradition of eating fermented or seasoned raw fish. It is well-known that the Japanese sushi culture, known as Edomae sushi, emerged during the birth of modern Japan.

The point I am trying to make with this example is that many cultural aspects, including cuisine, evolves constantly as societies and people's lifestyles evolve. Other examples of culinary evolution, such as California rolls or mentaiko pasta, as well as Japanese ramen and curry rice, are not things that should be stopped, nor can be stopped. In fact, these trends should be actively pursued.

As they evolve, these transformative cuisines are tried and tested by citizens of global cities, and then they spread around the world. In global Asian cities, from Tokyo and Osaka to Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing, Bangkok and Seoul, new Asian cuisines are being developed by immigrant populations.

New Asian Cuisines Transforming in Global Urban Atmospheres

Two Japanese women enjoy Jajangmyeon in a Korean-style Chinese restaurant in Shin-Okubo. The woman on the left learned about Jajangmyeon from a Korean TV drama, and this is her third time eating at this restaurant. The woman on the right is trying Jajangmyeon for the first time.

I may be accused of going too far when I say that Tokyo, even as the capital of Japan, could hardly be considered a Japanese city. The official numbers announced by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government of the non-Japanese population living in the city is over 500,000 (as of July 1, 2017). In urban centers where convenient public transportation is available, ethnic neighborhoods naturally develop near train stations. This is because these areas attract many Japanese language schools, religious buildings and ethnic food restaurants. Neighborhoods such as Shin-Okubo, Ikebukuro and Takadanobaba, which were often called Korea Town, New Chinatown and Little Yangon are now multicultural "Asiatowns" where people of various cultures and ethnicities cohabit.

For example, there is a dish in Korea called Jajangmyeon, which was originally a dish created by Chinese people in Korea. The dish is considered soul food for many Koreans, and it has become widely known in Japan through Korean TV dramas. The dish is slightly different from the original Chinese Zhajiangmian in the way it looks and tastes. Today, this dish can be easily found in Tokyo neighborhoods like Shinjuku and Shin-Okubo. However, in the kitchens of these Korean-style Jajangmyeon restaurants, the people preparing the food are not Japanese, Chinese, or even Korean, but are often people of Southeast Asian origin. This is one of the sights that showcases the results of the "Asiatownification" of Tokyo, where ethnic cuisine restaurants are now a regular feature of the city.

Another dish worth mentioning is tom yum soup, a well-known Thai soup that strikes a perfect balance between sour and spicy. In Takadanobaba, a fusion dish called tom yum ramen, which took the soup and added ramen noodles in it, was born. Made into cup noodle form, this dish was turned into a product and sold by a Japanese food company. It eventually evolved to a point where it went beyond the borders of Japan. What was once usually in the domain of ethnic food restaurants privately owned by migrant populations has now permeated the world of chain restaurants, attracting the investment of major corporations. As the cuisines shifted from being tailored to the tastes of migrant populations of Japan to the Japanese people themselves, flavors and appearances began adjusting to Japanese tastes. Within this process, Asian cuisine is produced and consumed on a regular, daily basis, mainly in global urban environments. The ethnic neighborhoods that have sprung up around train stations now serve as cultural hubs in the city.

The Role of Universities as Cultural Hubs

University towns in the city have large populations of international students from Asia and young people who consume Asian food. At Waseda University where I teach, there are about 5,000 international students. As they mingle with local Japanese students, the sensibilities of both the international students and the Japanese students change. I often hear the 3 Fs (fashion, food and festivals) as the basic elements that are examined when learning about foreign cultures. As the number of international students increases, school cafeterias, lunches sold at shops and the restaurants around the universities begin diversifying their menus. The two-kilometer walk from Waseda University to Takadanobaba Station commonly is referred to as the "Baba-aruki" (Takadanobaba walk), and the food found around the university is called "Wase-meshi" (Waseda food). To spend four years going on "Baba-aruki" and enjoying "Wase-meshi" is to learn the cultures of Asia through its food. The appeal of studying in a university located in a global urban center is certainly not confined to the university campus.

However, we should not be fully content with the present condition. As the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics approaches, various reforms are taking place in the government and private sectors to accommodate overseas tourists. Meanwhile, how many restaurants around universities offer halal menus for Muslims, and how much of the food is properly labeled for products that contain allergens? Universities are places where various cultures interact. They carry the role and responsibility of serving as cultural hubs where new cultures evolve. I look forward to seeing Asian food culture in Japan continue to spread with campus towns and ethnic neighborhoods as its core.

  • Sekai No Tabemono — Shoku No Bunka Chiri by Naomichi Ishige (Kodansha Gakujutsu Bunko, 2013)
  • Taberu by Masayuki Nishie (Seidosha, 2013)
  • Kokusai Bunkaron by Kenichiro Hirano (University of Tokyo Press, 2000)

Kyungmook Kim
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Kyungmook Kim analyzes political, social and cultural issues of modern Asia from a transnational perspective. He is involved in NGOs as well as civil society research and activities. He was born in Tokyo, and is of Korean descent. He grew up in Tokyo and Seoul. He graduated from the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and where he earned his Ph.D. (The University of Tokyo, 2006). Published works include Ekkyo suru NGO Network (Akashishoten, 2008), NGO no Genryu wo Tazunete (Mekong Publishing, 2011), Kyoyo to Shite no Gender to Heiwa (co-authored by Takashi Kazama, Hiromoto Kaji, and Kyungmook Kim) (Horitsu Bunka Sha, 2016) etc.