What is Nikkei food?
That was the question the Japanese American National Museum’s Discover Nikkei Website posed to more than 180 Nikkei from 13 countries during an online, multilingual event held Feb. 26.
After a presentation by Shigeru Kojima of the Japanese Overseas Migration Museum in Yokohama, Japan and a discussion facilitated by Denver-based journalist and foodie Gil Asakawa, the group discovered that there’s no one definitive answer to the question, “What is Nikkei food?”
In fact, there’s several answers depending on your country and the food you grew up eating.
“I was impressed at the ways that Nikkei everywhere adapted recipes they knew from their immigrant roots to the place where they live,” Asakawa said.
Event participants, who represented Nikkei (Japanese emigrants and their descendants) communities from the United States, Japan, Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Mexico, Philippines, Australia, Canada, Bolivia, United Kingdom, Bahrain and Chile, talked about the different ways they have adapted traditional Japanese foods like gohan (rice), miso shiru (miso soup) and tsukemono (pickles) into something of their own, based on available ingredients and local tastes.
For example, discussion facilitator Shari Y. Tamashiro, an Okinawan American from Hawai‘i, reported that Canadian Nikkei in her group make kamaboko (fishcake) and satsuma age (fried fish cake) with salmon instead of white fish.
In the U.S., a “Nisei Sukiyaki” recipe calls for double the shoyu, sake and sugar, and includes green pepper, bamboo shoots and onions not used in Japan.
Laura, a Japanese British hafu, said she makes vegetarian sushi with peppers and sun dried tomatoes, based on ingredients she finds at local markets.
Ken, a Sansei from Ottawa, said since they don’t have mochigome (mochi rice) in Canada, he uses Thai sticky rice. He also makes norimaki (sushi wrapped in seaweed) using Chinese sausage.
In Brazil and the Philippines, local Nikkei make tsukemono out of papaya.
Harry from Japan said that when he lived in Hawai‘i he ate furikake (Japanese rice seasoning) popcorn and Spam musubi, two items not found in Japan.
And in Brazil, Shigeru Kojima discovered “Chocolate Norimaki.”
“Many Japanese would think this would be awful,” said Kojima. “But I tried it. It wasn’t as bad as I expected. We need to try it.”
When it comes to Nikkei food, adapting, adjusting and improvising are common themes among Nikkei from around the world.
“Thai sticky rice mochi doesn’t taste like mochi from Japan,” said Ken from Canada. “But you got to make do with what you have.”
This spirit of “making do” also applies to annual Oshogatsu celebrations as Nikkei around the world come together as a family and share a bowl of ozoni on New Year’s day. But just like different regions of Japan, ozoni ingredients vary from country to country, as families make-do with what they have.
Nikkei food can also teach history, group discussions revealed. Dishes such as shoyu weenies served to U.S. Nikkei and chow mein sandwiches eaten by Canadian Nikkei in World War II concentration camps can open the door to discussions about painful truths that have been kept quiet for all these years.
A wider variety of Nikkei food can be found in community cookbooks, old menus from local Japanese restaurants and at annual Bon Odori, Japanese festivals and church bazaars.
It’s at these events where Nikkei around the world stand in long lines for nostalgic Nikkei foods of yesteryear, enjoying dishes no longer made at home, and cannot be found in restaurants.
“Over two days, 130,000 andagi are sold at Hawai‘i’s Okinawan festival,” said Shari Tamashiro. “People are so excited to have Okinawan andagi.”
In order to keep Nikkei food traditions alive, Shigeru Kojima said you need three elements: 1. Those who eat. 2. Those who cook. 3. Those who produce the ingredients.
At this point in time, however, with older generations either gone or passing every day, there seems to be a gap between those who eat and those who can cook Nikkei food for them. To keep it going, said Kojima, it’s up to us to learn.
“Keep a record,” he said “Not only recipes but the personal and community histories of the dishes. With food we have a chance for better understanding about Japanese and Nikkei cultures. We have to use it.”
Nikkei around the world agreed and are showing interest. “It was very nice to meet Nikkei people from different parts of the world,” said an Australian Nikkei after the event. “We have so many stories, and different insights. There’s so much to learn.”
Due to the event’s popularity, plans are forthcoming for another online international Nikkei food event. “Food is universal and shares so many commonalities as well as difficulties,” said Yoko Nishimura, project manager of JANM’s Discover Nikkei Website. “I believe this is a great way to explore the Nikkei experience and connect people around the world.”