A feast for JA foodies

TABEMASHO! LET’S EAT!

By Gil Asakawa (Albany, Calif.: Stone Bridge Press, 2022, 216 pp., $18.95, hardcover)

On the surface, “Tabemasho! Let’s Eat!” is a book on the history of Japanese food in America. But really, Gil Asakawa has written a book that is part history book, memoir and column all rolled in one. Full of history, food facts, anecdotes and businesses he recommends throughout multiple Japantowns in the country, even a well-informed foodie will learn something new about Japanese and Japanese American food, and be surprised at what they didn’t know.

While the book begins conventionally, with a brief introduction to the Japanese pantry, Asakawa really gets going when he goes into what he calls the “Big 3” of Japanese foods that Americans were familiar with: Sukiyaki, teriyaki and tenpura. While of course giving detail and history to each food and its place in Japanese American cuisine, Asakawa uses this moment to talk about the Kyu Sakamoto hit, “Ue O Muite Arukou,” known in the U.S. by its British name, “Sukiyaki.” If you don’t know the backstory, it will both enlighten and infuriate you.

Asakawa offers chapters on key foods you’re familiar with such as ramen and sushi, as well as dives into beverages and sweets (such as Yakult and Ramune). He delves into foods that are huge staples, such as shokupan, and mentions others that are considered classic favorites, such as Milky or Calpico, whose names will hit most Japanese people with a wave of nostalgia.

Japanese Americans who read this will be proud of the ingenuity and ability to adapt that shines through the many food examples he writes about. Some of these foods are more well known, such as the much beloved Spam musubi, but Karami, a salsa made from green chilies inspired originally by konbu and wakame dishes, is a regionally specific Japanese American food created in Colorado that will intrigue you.

“Tabemasho!” reads like a column at times, particularly in parts that addresses the differences between cultural appreciation versus appropriation when it comes to Japanese cuisine. Asakawa approaches this in his own way, both giving his viewpoint and clear examples for what is often a sensitive and dividing topic.

Asakawa’s writing style is lively and fast-paced, personable, and sprinkled with plenty of humor and references to past and current pop-culture, not what you might assume of a book on food history. He frequently references his own past, drawing on personal experiences, and also includes quotes and anecdotes from others that help add color while illustrating his point. There is also a selection of captioned grayscale photos in his book that do this as well.

Whether it’s for the food, history, or perhaps just a desire to understand Japanese American culture a little better, this book will inform you while also entertaining you along the way.

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