Based in Toronto and New York City

, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Archival posts from my former blog, Walking and Talking

Juri Dreams of Bringing Japanese Deliciousness to America

When you travel in Japan, one of the things you notice is how much extraordinary food there is, and how so much of it never makes it across the Pacific to our market shelves.

I realized this anew while researching this article about the wonderful products of Saga City, Japan. Yuzu kosho, a beautifully aromatic form of preserved citron chili pepper, is one of Japan's most distinctive condiments, and I tasted the best I'd ever sampled in Saga. There were fantastic sesame seeds, oils and biscuits, delicious green tea, nori, and kasuzuke: clams, squid and udo (a root cousin of ginseng) that had been marinated and pickled in a sweet, pungent and addictive paste made of sake lees.

Although the makers of these products have traveled to New York several times to showcase their goods at food shows, none have yet to appear in stores here, or are even available online to international customers. The versions of them that do exist tend to be wan substitutes made by large food corporations.

This is where an intrepid young woman named Juri Kumagai comes in. She's working toward her masters in the NYU Food Studies Program, and one of her goals is to promote Japanese foods in America through market research and branding expertise.

One of the barriers to the import of Japanese artisanal foods, says Juri, is that often Japanese producers don't understand food trends in the U.S. and so are unable to adapt their products sufficiently. For example, the demand for gluten-free products in America has reached the point where, according to one survey, as many as a third of Americans are trying to avoid gluten. Juri points out that there are many Japanese products, such seaweed (nori, hijiki, wakame and kombu) or rice crackers, whose makers could brand them as gluten free to attract some of that large market.

Another example of the potential benefits of branding expertise for artisanal Japanese food producers came up recently when I spoke to sake sommelier Chris Johnson. He pointed out that sake is free of gluten, sulfites, histamines and congeners (byproducts of fermentation that can cause hangovers). For certain customers, many who might otherwise have no interest in sake, knowing this is what will make them try sake.

Juri's interest in promoting Japanese foods began when she became aware of the power of Japanese food to serve as a cultural bridge. As exchange student at the University of British Columbia she discovered that all her friends loved Japanese food. She became the go-to person for supplying sushi rolls for parties. Back at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, she wrote her graduate thesis on cultural interactivity and the sushi boom. She returned to the States and took a job at the Japanese consulate handling scheduling for visiting ministers and Diet members. Here, she saw Americans' interest in the foods of Japan expand to include expensive ramen (an oxymoron in Japan) soba and even vegetarian kaiseki cuisine.

As an aside, while she loves that ramen has become another cultural bridge between the two countries, Juri shares her compatriots' surprise that Americans will happily fork over $15 plus tax and tip for a bowl of would typically cost 700 to 800 yen ($6-7) in Japan.

For an NYU course on food and culture, Juri wrote a paper on the Japanese school lunch program, and how it is an important tool in teaching young children Japanese values and social skills, from group harmony and loyalty to how to serve food to others. Kids learn about table manners and expressions of gratitude, and traditional seasonal foods are incorporated both into school lunch menus and class lessons.

Today, fewer and fewer Japanese school children are learning about such traditions at home, Juri says, and in fact "school may be the only place they learn about it." Parents are busy working, and perhaps not interested in the ways of older generations. The tradition of multigenerational extended families is also breaking down, so there are fewer families in which grandparents might pass cultural traditions down to the children of the family.

This is true of other traditional skills, too, such as brewing green tea or washing and cooking rice. Many young Japanese children have never even seen a teapot in the home, since canned and bottled teas are sold everywhere, and so much more convenient.

When I asked Juri if she was worried that, in order to cater to perceived American tastes, Japanese artisanal producers might end up turning their products from superior to average or mediocre goods,  she responded, "I think Japanese producers need to make their products somewhat palatable for the U.S. market if they want to make a profit. But I do not think they have to make their products fully 'Americanized'" in order to be successful here.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with chef Yuhi Fujinaga about his former restaurant on Sixth Avenue, Bar Basque. When he made his plancha-grilled Chatham cod with pil pil the way he loved having it in Spain, his Spanish customer were thrilled, but his American guests less so. You can guess which version won out.

Though I hate the idea of any great dish having to be watered down to suit the masses, if much wiser and more practical marketing minds than mine (that's you Juri!) can help small Japanese producers find a market here, I'm all for it. Many of them see expansion overseas as a dire imperative, and we need to do what we can to help.

I hope that Juri is successful in her endeavors and that one day we will see more of the thrilling variety of regional, artisanal and unusual food products of Japan in our favorite markets in New York and across America.

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