Dining Beyond Food

Food for Thought

When I’m in Japan, I seek Japanese experiences not available in New York. There are countless high-end Japanese restaurants in New York because the high rent precludes cuisines designed for the masses. These establishments, catering to a wealthy clientele, often adapt their offerings to suit Western standards of comfort. This adaptation, much like Esperanto, strips the culinary experience of its deep cultural roots.

Art challenges us by questioning the status quo, making us uncomfortable, whereas entertainment panders to our weaknesses for comfort. Affluent customers tend to demand their standards of comfort, unlikely to, for instance, sit on the floor while dining—a practice that could provoke thoughtful introspection about something as mundane as sitting. For this reason, once the initial amusement of glitz and glamor wears thin, all fine dining restaurants feel the same.

New Yorkers are lucky in that many restaurants are serving immigrant communities. They can be transported to a distant culture via a single ride on the subway. However, the Japanese immigrant community in New York is not sizable enough to sustain an authentic cultural experience similar to what one might find in Japan.

Even in Tokyo, Michelin-conscious restaurants will likely feel similar to the ones in New York. So, if you are in it for the whole cultural package, I recommend restaurants patronized by ordinary people. You may have to navigate unfamiliar challenges, like dissecting a fish collar like a surgeon, puzzling over unknown condiments, figuring out ticket vending machines, and understanding payment processes.

These experiences are akin to adapting to a new operating system, one with a unique history of user experience and assumptions. There are prerequisites for interacting with a culture, like knowing how to use chopsticks and familiarity with fish’s anatomy. Because food goes into our bodies, it expresses deeply personal and intimate aspects of a culture. If you are unwilling to be vulnerable, they go into hiding like a turtle. Hold your judgment and demand nothing. Food is merely a tool, or rather, a pretext for learning something much deeper.