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Nikkei View

Rock and Roll and Ramen: Lessons in Appropriation vs Appreciation

Asahi ramen in Kyoto

My friends (and anyone who follows my social media “food porn” photos) know that I’m a snob about Japanese food. I have strong opinions on the best tonkatsu fried pork cutlets, real vs. fake sushi and Japanese restaurants staffed by non-Japanese who can’t pronounce menu items correctly. And, because I love ramen, I hate bad ramen—and in Denver bad ramen is much more common than the good stuff.

That doesn’t mean I won’t pick up a tray of sushi at a supermarket, or dine at Japanese restaurants that aren’t owned or run by Japanese. I still enjoy the occasional family meal at Benihana, even though the steakhouse chain seems to be staffed mostly by Latino chefs entertaining diners at their teppanyaki grills. I’m not offended by fusion dishes like sushirritos, large sushi presented burrito-style with nori instead of tortillas.

But I am offended by lousy Japanese cuisine presented as authentic, whether by Japanese or non-Japanese restaurateurs, that seems like a calculated marketing move to jump on a popular bandwagon. Tokyo Joe’s is one Colorado-based chain that was calculatingly designed to fill a culinary niche: fast-casual Japanese-inspired food that was healthier than a Panda Express Orange Chicken. People who eat at Tokyo Joe’s may think that’s “real” Japanese food, which drives me crazy.

I’ve railed about authenticity and appropriation in Japanese food and culture, from whitewashing Japanese characters with white actors and inaccurate portrayals of Japan in Hollywood and using that old-school offensive typeface “wonton,” to disrespecting Japanese culture with poor imitations of its cuisine.

But my college roommate Joe, who has for decades served to keep my head from blowing up too big, pointed out after one of my Facebook rants about authenticity, that rock and roll has its roots in cultural appropriation.

That made me think. And he’s right. Rock and roll music evolved out of a fusion of African American music (gospel, blues, and jazz) with white southern country and folk strains. Joe and I were huge music fans during school and both worked at the campus radio station, and in large part because of our diverse musical immersion I was a music critic for many years after college.

The primordial musical stew that cooked up Elvis Presley and other early rock pioneers was spiced with black artists who voiced the experience of the church and plantation, urban migration, racism, and heartbreak. Some of the major labels’ early attempts to cash in on the rising popularity of black music with the young post-war generation (soon to be called baby boomers) were tepid whitewashed versions of black music, re-recorded by creepy white crooners like Pat Boone. But young people preferred the real deal, embodied in exciting performers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard.

White performers that caught the fans’ attention had the same musical passion, like Bill Haley and the Comets, Buddy Holly (who also wrote his own songs, which was revolutionary in itself), and of course King Elvis, who was mistaken for black when his first single went out over the radio waves.

But the competing processes of appreciation and appropriation—the real and the commercially invented (like Tokyo Joe’s in our Japanese food example)—eventually converged into assimilation. Black music became commercially popular in the form of Motown, soul music, and the R&B of the 1960s and ‘70s, and white rock and roll absorbed its original influences and then invented its own distinct styles, with the Beatles as the most obvious example.

So is Japanese food undergoing of period of assimilation after appreciation and appropriation?

I’m still in the appreciation camp. I look for the authentic experience and try to educate people about why I love the real thing. But I see that change is inevitable, and that food culture by its nature absorbs, assimilates, and evolves all the time. So maybe out of the fakery will come new forms of Japanese-inspired cuisine. And maybe I’ll like it.

For now, though, instead of the aforementioned Tokyo Joe’s (the name even bugs me), if you’re in Denver and you want to try better fast-Casual Japanese, visit Kokoro, a restaurant with two locations that serves beef and chicken bowls and other dishes. Kokoro is owned by a man who came to the area to manage US locations for the Japanese chain Yoshinoya Beef Bowl in the 1970s, and took over his restaurant when the chain pulled out of the state.

Lousy sushi is rampant in area restaurants. Some Chinese and Korean restaurants have added sushi to their menu (and some have just decided to call themselves “Asian Fusion” and sell everything from Chinese and Thai to sushi and teriyaki), and unskilled “chefs” sloppily roll up rice and ingredients without regard for the correct texture or slight vinegary flavor of the rice.

I’ve long since accepted the idea of huge “handrolls” at non-traditional sushi bars with stuff thrown into a cone of nori seaweed. And I’ve gotten used to the idea of a California Roll with rice on the outside, which can now be found even in Japan (as “American sushi”). As a side note, my mom looked aghast the first time she saw a California Roll, and said, incredulously, that it was “inchiki sushi,” or fake sushi, because putting rice on the outside of a roll seemed like such a stupid idea.

Here’s what I hate about lousy sushi: Fishy ingredients (fresh sashimi isn’t fishy), overcooked or undercooked rice and sloppy, loosely rolled pieces. I don’t expect the top level of artistry that’s documented in the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about the Tokyo restaurant where a lunch costs $300 and seats need to be reserved months in advance.

Sushi from a trip to Japan.

But I do know the basics of what makes good sushi. I can even put up with cheap supermarket sushi when I have a comfort food craving for, say, an inari sushi. When a restaurant serves bad sushi for good money and tricks diners into thinking they’re serving the real stuff, that’s when I get mad.

Ramen is a passion of mine, so I welcomed the slow arrival of ramen to the Denver area, years after the noodle invasion had taken hold in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. I grew up with ramen in Tokyo where Shoyu Ramen reigns, and have had amazing Miso Ramen in Sapporo, and even more amazing Tonkotsu Ramen in Kumamoto (Kyushu is the home of tonkotsu ramen). I also slurped the best of the country at the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum, a totally cool place dedicated to ramen culture, where the top shops in the country serve half-bowl samplers for cheap.

Sakura House ramen

So I’ve been excited that ramen is catching on in the Denver area.

But out of the 30 or so places that now claim to serve ramen, more than 20 serve some combination of ramen noodles in a soup with haphazard toppings that may or may not be authentic. A few Japanese restaurants serve the real thing in OK quality (the aforementioned Kokoro serves a ramen that’ll do in a pinch, and Sakura House in Sakura Square has a bunch of ramen styles on its menu that are OK). Some serve pretty decent quality: Sushi Den and Ototo, its brother restaurant, serve a decent bowl; Osaka Ramen is pretty good – better when owner Jeff Osaka is in the house; I’ve had good and bad at Katsu Ramen. Some are over-rated hipster joints like Daikokuya, a mysteriously popular place in LA’s Little Tokyo that always has people waiting in line for no good reason: Uncle in the hipster haven of Denver’s Highlands neighborhood is a similar such pretender. Don’t get fooled by the people who are willing to wait an hour to get in. They just don’t know better.

The two best ramen shops in the Denver area are Tokio and Rocky Mountain Ramen.

At Tokio in the shadow of Coors Field, where you can get ramen in a list of interesting variations (speaking of fusion, including a Cremoso Diablo, a spicy cheesy soup) including of course, a very good tonkotsu, and the best noodles in the area. Owner Miki Hashimoto, who sold his popular Denver sushi restaurant to study ramen craft in Japan, fine-tunes his noodles from the nationally renowned supplier Sun Noodles to his precise requirements and they’re a pleasure to slurp and bite into. Tokio also has a fine sushi bar and a unique Bincyotan Grill, which uses special Japanese charcoal to cook skewered meats and vegetables.

Rocky Mountain Ramen is north of Denver and east of Boulder—a drive for hipsters but not bad for northwest suburbanites like me—in an unassuming strips mall in Erie. Its owner Mitsu Wada, who’s from Yokohama, and his chef Masa Nozaki from Okayama, are perfectionists and their attention to detail pays off. Their tonkotsu soup is the best in the area, a pleasure to drink up every drop in the bowl. They simmer hand-selected pork bones for up to 20 hours to get it right. Many places that serve “tonkotsu” ramen just use soup mixes that approximate the taste but you can tell from the lack of depth, umami and collagen. Even their teriyaki chicken is made with house-made sauce, no gloppy fake teriyaki sauce here.

Rocky Mountain ramen

One thing I’ve learned from my love for ramen: The dish itself is a prime example of appreciation and appropriation and ultimately, assimilation. Ramen began in Japan as “Shina Soba” or Chinese noodles, a low-class street food sold by Chinese vendors for Chinese laborers in Yokohama in the late 1800s. But Japanese caught on that it was hearty, cheap comfort food. After WWII, ramen became a staple, especially after instant ramen was invented in the 1950s, and Cup Noodles was invented (by the same company in the 1970s). Ramen served in restaurants continued to evolve and various regions as mentioned before, created their own signature ramen styles. Some added different ingredients, or used different soup bases, like miso, salt, or even created a style that noodles and toppings served separate from the concentrated soup for diners to dip.

So in Japan, ramen variants are always being invented and new twists are always bring tried. I shouldn’t cringe when someone tries something different with ramen here (like the broccoli that showed up in a bowl in one place – I never went back). But it’s the fake stuff, with packaged soup and packaged noodles sold as authentic, that makes me mad. In the end, I don’t mind the fusion or even the phony stuff from time to time.

But when I’m hankering for the real deal, it’s worth the extra step—and miles—to the authentic Japanese food. Crank up Little Richard over Pat Boone, anytime!


© 2018 Gil Asakawa

appreciation appropriation Colorado denver food music ramen restaurants

About this series

This series presents selections from Gil Asakawa’s “Nikkei View: The Asian American Blog,” which presents a Japanese American perspective on pop culture, media, and politics.

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