California rolls drive them to distraction

Times Staff Writers

Ever wonder whether the negi toro you ordered at that sushi place on Wilshire was the real deal?

Well, the Japanese government does. Officials in Tokyo, concerned that diners around the globe are getting a less-than-genuine taste of their nation's cuisine, are devising a sort of bureaucratic Zagat guide that will confer a stamp of authenticity on restaurants that meet the government's standards.

In California, where Asian cuisines are mixed and matched in a blender of ethnicities and subcultures, the plan could be a recipe for contention. Only about 10% of the state's 3,000 Japanese restaurants are Japanese-owned, with many now operated by Koreans, Chinese and Vietnamese.

That has left some local restaurateurs wondering whether nationality could become a litmus test for authenticity.

"How can they tell if this is a real Japanese restaurant or not?" asked Charles Choongnam Ha, a native of Seoul and owner of California Rock & Roll Sushi in Brea. "Will they watch us make sauce? Will they taste the food? I don't know what they're thinking."

Ha's 27-year-old son and sushi chef, Jason, is more direct. "They're jealous because we own so many of the sushi restaurants now. For every five sushi restaurants owned by Koreans, there's one owned by a Japanese. They're trying to say, 'Japanese food is ours.' "

The Japanese government, citing similar programs in France, Italy and Thailand, has named a panel of experts to set up the program and determine grading criteria. (One option: a voluntary system that would include only restaurants that asked to be rated.)

The 11-member group -- mostly representatives of the country's food service, travel and tourism industries -- held its first meeting in Tokyo on Monday and isn't expected to report back until February.

Toshikatsu Matsuoka, Japan's agriculture minister and the driving force behind the grading plan, offered only broad outlines of his goals during the session. The aim is to "offer authentic Japanese cuisine to people," said Matsuoka, a conservative lawmaker known for his nationalist leanings.

"The appearance of some dishes [served in restaurants outside Japan] is Japanese, but actually they aren't," he said. "We want to offer authentic dishes and differentiate them from the rest."

That sounds like a good idea to Fusae Funayama, manager of Oami restaurant in Lake Forest.

"Other restaurants try to do Japanese food, but they don't know how to do it," said Funayama, whose husband, Satoshi, heads a team of Japanese sushi chefs at her restaurant. "They don't know what's good and what's bad."

What qualifies as authentic Japanese food?

Ramen, a noodle and broth concoction so popular in Japan it was the subject of the foodie cult film "Tampopo," is actually Chinese. Curry, another Japanese favorite, is Indian in origin.

"Curry rice has become so integrated into our culture that if you ask a Japanese child what their comfort food is, they'll say, 'Curry,' " said food author and film producer Sonoko Sakai, who grew up in Tokyo. "Now, is that authentically Japanese?"

On this side of the Pacific, meanwhile, it's the rare Japanese restaurant that doesn't offer California rolls or spicy tuna rolls -- both decidedly nontraditional dishes. Korean and Chinese offerings such as barbecue, kimchi and sweet and sour pork are served in many Japanese restaurants in Southern California, even those owned by Japanese.

Sakai acknowledges the difficulty of defining what is "purely Japanese" in a world of fusion cuisines.

"But you need to have a culture of respect" for the food, she said. "When I go into some of these fast-foody Japanese restaurants, you know they're just doing it because sushi sells."

In theory, a restaurant owner or chef won't have to be Japanese to receive the government's blessing. But in published comments, Matsuoka complained about finding Korean barbecued ribs on the menu of a sushi restaurant in Colorado.

Such comments make restaurateurs like Ha nervous.

"I don't know why they think like that," he said. "The American government doesn't judge the American restaurants in Africa or Hong Kong or Korea."

It's also not clear who the target audience is. Japanese tourists searching for a taste of home? Clueless Americans who don't realize that crunchy rolls are as Japanese as Big Macs?

"The perception of Japanese cuisine is different for native Japanese and locals," said Jeanie Fuji, the only non-Japanese member of the panel.

"I thought California rolls were Japanese food before I came to Japan, and I don't think Americans would appreciate Japanese traditional sweets if restaurants serve them," added Fuji, whose husband has an onsen, or hot-spring inn, in Yamagata prefecture in northern Japan.

"So for whom are we making this system?"

Tourists and business travelers from Japan would probably appreciate knowing where to find restaurants that meet their exacting standards, said Carol Martinez of LA Inc., the city's convention and visitors bureau.

"Japanese like to go to a restaurant where the chef was trained in Japan. They can tell the difference," Martinez said. "One of the selling points for Los Angeles is that they can get the genuine article here."

Discerning locals also might find such a list useful, although Sakai, who lives in Santa Monica and eats at Japanese restaurants once or twice a week when she's not traveling, said the value of the government's ranking "will depend on their standards."

Panel member Rikifusa Satake, an official with a chef's association in Kyoto, a city known for its sophisticated cuisine, is pushing for a hard-line approach. The system, he said, "should be tough, checking the quality of skills, ingredients and taste."

The question of how tough the standards will be has even sticklers for authenticity wondering whether they'd get a passing grade from Tokyo. Among them is the owner of R-23 in the downtown Los Angeles arts district.

"I think it could help us," said the restaurateur, who goes by the name Jake S. "We want to keep the authentic way to cook, so if we get certified, it would be good for us."

But even Jake, who hires only Japanese-trained sushi chefs and refuses to serve nontraditional dishes such as rainbow rolls, isn't sure he'd meet whatever grading criteria officials in his native land devise. In the meantime, he fields complaints from customers who can't understand why there's no rainbow roll on the menu.

In Brea, Jason Ha can relate. He notes that diners in America -- even Japanese -- often prefer spicier food than what is normally found in Japanese cooking. As an example, he displays a bottle of American-made Vietnamese chile sauce that he uses in several dishes.

Still, he said, government ratings "will affect where people eat. If the Japanese decide that this is not traditional Japanese food, American people are going to think it tastes bad."

Neo Park, the manager of Furusato, a Korean-owned sushi restaurant in Koreatown, shrugs off such concerns. He said his restaurant does just fine with a clientele composed mainly of Koreans, whites and Latinos.

"Our customers are looking for taste," Park said, "not certification."

martin.zimmerman@latimes.com

hisako.ueno@latimes.com

Zimmerman reported from Los Angeles, Ueno from Tokyo. Times staff writer Bruce Wallace in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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