The Story of Japanese American Food: Evolution by adaptation


NEW YEAR’S FEAST ­— Japanese American New Year celebrations often include traditional Oshogatsu staples including ozoni, as well as everyday dishes like Spam musubi and sushi. photo by Gil Asakawa

NEW YEAR’S FEAST ­— Japanese American New Year celebrations often include traditional
Oshogatsu staples including ozoni, as well as everyday dishes like Spam musubi and sushi.
photo by
Gil Asakawa

The Japanese American National Museum wants to make you hungry. JANM held the first of three virtual programs on Japanese American food, “A Taste of Home: Building the Flavors of Japanese America,” on Nov. 15. The event detailed the history of how Japanese food culture has evolved into Japanese American cuisine.

Joy Yamaguchi, the museum’s public programs coordinator, who hosted the event, told the Nichi Bei Weekly that about 160 people attended the event. “It’s going to be a three-part series about food as well as one other program that we’re still developing,” she said. The first three “are looking to highlight Japanese American food, and the connections between Japan and the U.S. and what a distinctively Japanese American food identity looks like.”

For the first program, Yamaguchi introduced Valerie Matsumoto, a professor of history and Asian American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Matsumoto explained the timeline of Japanese immigrants learning new cuisines and cooking techniques as they found work in the United States, especially as household servants for wealthy white families. By cooking for their employers, Japanese began incorporating American food into their dining fare. They also learned other ethnic fare from neighbors, including African Americans and Latinos.

“For example, (one Japanese American woman) recalled that her mother learned from an African American neighbor how to bake deep dish apple pie,” Matsumoto explained. Baking wasn’t a tradition in Japan, but Japanese Americans learned to bake cookies, cakes and to serve Thanksgiving dinners with turkey and all the trimmings. To this day, some Japanese American families include tamales with their holiday feasts.

Other influences came from Japanese American communities’ ability to adapt their families’ regional dishes from Japan to ingredients available here.

One example is Colorado-made Karami, a salsa originally made by farmers using green chile instead of seaweed for a savory okazu, or side dish.

Matsumoto also showed a variety of Japanese American cookbooks, noting that all immigrant communities passed along their recipes in cookbooks, but Japanese Americans were downright industrious in their number and variety, published by churches, temples, and community organizations.

She pointed out that by the 1960s, the need to help Sansei who may have lost some of their roots was reflected in diagrams (how to make a sushi roll) and explanations of some cultural traditions.

Ozoni (mochi soup). photo by Gil Asakawa

Following Matsumoto’s talk, JANM Director of Collections Management and Access and Curator Kristen Hayashi shared some of the museum’s collection of pre-war era photographs and artifacts, including a sushi mold, daikon oroshi grater and mochitsuki kine (mallet for pounding mochi).

JANM’s photographic archives include images of immigrants eating at picnics and family celebrations, as well as early restaurants that served both Japanese and American dishes (and chop suey). She noted that one book of recipes from the JANM collection made some traditional dishes with new world touches. “The ingredients, you know, aren’t necessarily Japanese — they included Worcestershire sauce,” she said.

Sometimes, the diversity was forced by improvisation. Hayashi said that when she tried to replicate some of her grandmother’s recipes from a Wesley United Methodist Church cookbook in San Jose’s Japantown, she was confounded by the fact that the ingredients were listed but without measurements.

“And so it was really interesting to hear family members chime in on their memories of my grandma making these different recipes.”

Ultimately, the takeaway from this event was that Japanese American food, whether by design or accident, has always been a work in progress. As Matsumoto put it, “Japanese American food is much more diverse than we often think.”

The next event in the “A Taste of Home” series, focusing on celebration food including Oshogatsu, will be Dec. 13 at 2 p.m. PST. Registration is free:

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