Author shares his passion for the history of Japanese food in the U.S.

FROM HIPSTER FOOD TO DIETARY MAINSTAYS ­— Sushi is among the Japanese dishes that are now commonly found in various parts of the U.S. photo courtesy of Gil Asakawa

Gil Asakawa grew up eating Japanese food in both Tokyo and the United States. The journalist and author of the forthcoming book, “Tadaima: Let’s Eat!” set to release in 2021, spoke about the history of Japanese food in the United States July 19 during a virtual event hosted by the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California.

Asakawa and his family moved to the United States when he was 8.

“Once we got to the U.S., my mom kept cooking Japanese food and so I have a very specific knowledge of Japanese food,” Asakawa said.

The Denver resident’s PowerPoint presentation started with the origins of Japanese food in America. Asakawa said in the late 1800s westerners considered Asian food “exotic.” Meanwhile, Japanese Americans adopted chop suey, a popular Chinese American dish.

Asakawa also discussed the meals inmates were served in the concentration camps during World War II. He cited Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, who writes in “Farewell to Manzanar,” that her first meal in camp was “canned Vienna sausage, canned string beans, steamed rice that had been cooked too long and on top of the rice a serving of canned apricots.”

Asakawa noted that while Japanese Americans were forced to adapt what they ate while incarcerated, some prisoners went so far as to make their own shoyu and tofu. A source for his forthcoming book told Asakawa that inmates made tofu at eight U.S. concentration camps, including Poston, Ariz. Prisoners made miso at three incarceration camps, including Jerome, Ark., shoyu at Manzanar, Calif. and soy milk at Poston.

Recipes that Japanese Americans have made since World War II are in Chinese American, Mexican and Italian cookbooks, Asakawa said. He has collected cookbooks from churches and other organizations from California to Colorado that have a host of recipes, ranging from Chinese dishes to spaghetti. Similarly, Japanese American food incorporates influences from various cultures.

“It’s a mashup of ethnic cultures that are relevant within our community,” Asakawa said. “The Japanese American community, I think, has always been very open to lots of influences and to adapting to things.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, sushi had become a hipster food symbol, Asakawa said, citing a scene from “The Breakfast Club” when Molly Ringwald’s character brings sushi for lunch during detention as an example. Today, people can commonly find the dish in many supermarkets, the author of “Being Japanese American: A JA Sourcebook for Nikkei, Hapa . . . & Their Friends,” said. Asakawa went on to discuss how the California roll became a “gateway food” to other sushi.

FROM HIPSTER FOOD TO DIETARY MAINSTAYS ­— Ramen is among the Japanese dishes that are now commonly found in various parts of the U.S. photos courtesy of Gil Asakawa

While ramen continues to be popular in various parts of the United States, the Japanese dish was actually based on a Chinese noodle dish, la mien, Asakawa said. Japanese cooks adapted the dish to make it more suitable to Japanese tastebuds, by adding dashi and shoyu to the broth, Asakawa noted.

Ramen became a mainstream food item in Japan after World War II, with the Japanese using wheat from the U.S. they got to help pay American farmers, Asakawa said.

At the end of the presentation, Asakawa answered questions from the virtual audience.

He said he wants to research when people first started cultivating Japanese rice in America for his upcoming book and suggested the documentary “Seeds” about Koda Farms, which produces the Japanese rice brand Kokuho Rose for those who are interested.

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