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Sushi in Berlin – Pretzels in Tokyo

Japanese studies professor Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit traces the path of globalized cuisine.

Mar 11, 2019

Currywurst, German bread rolls, and a beer stein hit the road: These days, German specialties like those shown in our photo are offered just as readily at restaurants in Tokyo as Asian dishes are in Germany.

Currywurst, German bread rolls, and a beer stein hit the road: These days, German specialties like those shown in our photo are offered just as readily at restaurants in Tokyo as Asian dishes are in Germany.
Image Credit: picture alliance/imageBROKER/Jochen Tack

Just imagine being in Japan and being able to buy earrings shaped like Currywurst, socks with a Spätzle pattern, or chairs reminiscent of Baumkuchen. Sound funny? In the case of sushi, that’s reality. The traditional Japanese dish has become a popular image for advertising and design – and thus an object of research for Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit, a professor of Japanese studies at Freie Universität.

To her, sushi is a prime example of the increasing globalization of the world. “Wherever you are, you can find a nice bento somewhere these days. East Asian cuisine is growing more and more popular, and it is viewed more and more as a matter of course.”

Hijiya-Kirschnereit studies forms beyond practical food service in which Japanese cuisine has made inroads into everyday German culture. For example, when a logistics company in Germany uses sushi in its advertising, playing on the cliché of efficient Japanese working culture. Hijiya-Kirschnereit calls this the “sushi imagination,” by which she means notions or a lifestyle that we associate with the Japanese food, beyond the foodstuff itself.

She points to sushi as an example of the “globalized palate” – which is also the title used for the articles on the topic of focus in the Jahrbuch für Kulinaristik – The German Journal of Food Studies and Hospitality, which Hijiya-Kirschnereit recently published. The articles collected there are the product of the lecture series of the same name held at Freie Universität during the 2017/2018 winter semester.

The scholars study the spread of East Asian cuisine in Europe and other regions from the perspective of cultural studies and social sciences. Is it, for example, a sign of a globalized dining trend if some airlines now offer “pan-Asian style” menus as a fixture of their dining options, regardless of the destination? Is it possible to speak of a “McDonald’s-ization” of Korean cuisine? And since when, and why, has Korean cuisine spread in Germany? These are the kinds of questions the researchers take up in the book.

It is no coincidence that Japanese cuisine is more and more common in Europe, says Hijiya-Kirschnereit. This is due in part to a strategic decision by the Japanese ministry of foreign affairs in the early 2000s. The idea was to promote food exports, with the positive image of Japanese cuisine helping to boost demand for Japanese foods. Green tea, sake (rice wine), miso paste, and sushi were all advertised at trade fairs and promotional events – with success: magazines and Hollywood movies picked up on the trend. It didn’t take long for Japanese food to catch on.

Another push came in 2013, when Japanese cuisine was added to the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list. The successful campaign was also aimed at the Japanese people themselves, with the goal of conveying a more positive image of their own country. “The idea was to spread the same message to internal audiences as well: We have a national cuisine that is worthy of appreciation and promotion, internationally and at home,” explains Hijiya-Kirschnereit.

In the 1990s, the spread of sushi was still viewed as a violation of national dignity, as “sushi sacrilege,” she says. The nationalist sentiment has died down by now, though, and people tend instead to be proud that sushi carries positive associations with Japan.

It is a sign of globalization that Japanese cuisine has become a matter of course in other countries over time. There are now whole new versions of sushi: It started with California roll, a sushi roll with an avocado filling, and there are now other varieties, including asparagus sushi and nigiri with smoked salmon, capers, and onions.

Some of these new developments are reimported to Japan, and some first became popular in other countries. “Many new kinds of sushi that were developed abroad have taken on a new appeal for Japanese people, too, as a result.”

These days, there is a Japanese restaurant in practically every small German city. But what about globalization in East Asia? Is the cuisine there also influenced by other regions of the world? “Yes, absolutely,” Hijiya-Kirschnereit says. “The desire to assimilate and curiosity are just as strong in East Asia as they are here. There is no other city in the world with as many Michelin stars as Tokyo – but most of them are for restaurants that serve cuisine from other regions, such as France.”

If people in Berlin can eat sushi and the Korean rice dish bibimbap and people in Tokyo can eat pizza and burgers, is there such a thing as authentic food anymore? “The question is what we mean when we say ‘Japanese cuisine,’” Hijiya-Kirschnereit says in response. After all, there are many different regional varieties. “‘Japanese food’ is more of a construct for national self-reassurance, a construct that was propagated in other countries.”

The Myth of Authenticity

The myth of authenticity is easy to demystify; in Hijiya-Kirschnereit’s view, the desire for something “authentic” is the wrong approach. “If you look closely, authenticity isn’t easy to get. I should actually be happy to go to a Thai restaurant and enjoy the food. How authentic it is shouldn’t be my concern.” “Authentic” food is more of a marketing strategy, in most cases relating less to the food itself than to the atmosphere. The ambiance of a Chinese restaurant gives immediate clues to the authenticity and quality of the food: A trip to a restaurant is supposed to be an overall experience, so it is staged much like a trip.

Hijiya-Kirschnereit’s field of study is part of the relatively new research field of culinary studies. This interdisciplinary area became established around the turn of the millennium. Since then, it has garnered increasing attention with conferences and journals. Scholars of culinary studies study food not just from the standpoint of nutrition and physiology, but also from the perspectives of the sciences, cultural studies, and business and economics.

Hijiya-Kirschnereit has run into a few eye-openers during her work on this subject, she explains: “People had always assumed wine had reached China from Europe. But no – there’s a wine culture stretching back 5,000 years in China. So globalization isn’t limited to the modern era. Migrations, including of culinary traditions, have existed in both directions for a thousand years.”

As people move, so does food, as it always has. Maybe it’s only a matter of time and export strategy before currywurst earrings catch on in Japan after all.

This text originally appeared in German on February 23, 2019, in the Tagesspiegel newspaper supplement published by Freie Universität.