Saturday, June 8, 2013

Have it Your Way...Back Home.

This may not come as a surprise, but Japan is not keen on special orders. You might think that you'd check the menu and order something that you can eat, instead. Well, that brings about another set of problems; menus here in Japan typically have the name of the item, not the ingredients. While I never ate out much when I was in the US, I remember that a menu would look something like this:

Chicken Salad
Lightly breaded chicken breast sitting atop a bed of fresh lettuce, peanuts, carrots, spinach and sliced onions. Ranch, French, and Shio dressings to compliment.

In Japan, they look something like this:

Chicken Salad

Tofu Salad


Japanese restaurants assume a number of things about customers:

1. Customers are familiar with the items on the menu and don't need a description. This is especially true of Japanese staples like Tonkatsu, Udon and Curry

2. Even if a customer is familiar with the basic ingredients of a particular dish, they won't mind the chef changing it up by adding new ingredients.

3. The restaurant assumes this because Japanese people are not supposed to have "suki-kirai" (strong food preferences that exclude various foods).

4. And it's assumed that Japanese people don't have suki-kirai because, despite the rise in people with food allergies, Japanese people obviously don't have allergies

I remember being constantly frustrated by eating out here. I was playing a guessing game every time. If I asked the waitstaff what a certain dish was made of, they'd offer to run to the back to ask the chef. If I asked if they could leave out certain ingredients, they'd run to the back to ask or say that it was "not possible." 

Even at places like McDonalds, if I asked them to leave off the mayo from a sandwich, the staff had looks of panic cross their faces. I don't know if it's typical for waitstaff in the US to have no idea of how the food is prepared, but it's quite common in Japan. The staff is trained to remember how to take orders and bring it out quickly. 

After visiting schools here and eating lunch with elementary school students, I've come to understand how strongly the "eat what's before you" culture is here in Japan. Students have no school lunch choices. Each day the menu changes, and lunch is either a "rice" day or a "bread" day. Whole milk is served everyday regardless of the meal.

Children are told that they shouldn't have suki-kirai. They should eat everything on their plates. No one says that they "don't like" something like mushrooms or spinach, they say they are "nigate", which means "not good at." As if you try harder, you'd be able to overcome your handicap of not being able to eat a certain food.

And this of course translates to the present way of dealing with food in restaurants. The owner gives you the name, you infer the ingredients from that, you order and you clean your plate. Now you know, if you order out, be prepared to clean your plate, or at least most of it. And don't be surprised if the staff has no idea how to answer your questions about the food ingredients.

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