Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Slate: Wheat vs. Rice in the Japanese Diet

A country's food always looks a bit different to outsiders. For example, Westerners usually think of Japan as a nation of tea drinkers, though in reality coffee is the stimulant of choice. Ditto with rice: while the Japanese agriculture sector is devote almost entirely to producing rice, and while rice is still a staple of much traditional Japanese cuisine, the Japanese actually consume far more wheat, almost all of which is grown in the United States.

In an article on Slate.com today, Nadia Arumugam looks at the interesting history of how wheat has superseded rice in the Japanese diet - and how the Japanese government is currently looking for ways to increase consumption of domestic rice crops. Arumugam's article focuses on the complex cultural politics surrounding wheat in Japan, driven in part by generational shifts in taste following the American occupation. But I was most interested in how obvious the wheatiness of the Japanese diet to someone living in Japan - so obvious, in fact, that I never really stopped to think about it.

The culprit? Noodles. Though Arumugam's article makes much of imported Western baking techniques, Nana and I both agreed that the explosion of the noodle in postwar Japanese cooking has probably been the main driver in Japan's growing appetite for wheat. (Note: Arumugam does give noodles a fair shake, but in my humble opinion she slightly over-emphasizes the impact of Western bread.) 

Simply put, any modern Japanese noodle dish, soba excepted, is based on wheat noodles. Udon, ramen, the misleading-named yakisoba - all wheat. And all, in fact, among the most popular items for a quick Japanese meal.

Bonus cool point connected to the article: a lot of modern Japanese dishes actually come from WWII and the ensuing American occupation. Ramen? Took off thanks to soldiers returning from China, where the dish originates. Gyoza (Japanese dumplings)? Same deal. Japanese curry became popular because of its widespread use in rations by the Imperial Navy. Even modern preparations of udon, which was traditionally a savoury snack in Japan, owe something to the Chinese concept of using soup as a meal.

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