Do We Benefit from Our Rice-Eating Tradition In These Difficult Times of Rising Food Costs?
The rising cost of food is a source of mounting concern for households on both sides of the Pacific and elsewhere. How are we coping in these difficult times? Do we—both as Canadians vis-a-vis other nationalities and as Japanese-Canadians vis-a-vis other Canadian minorities —benefit from the lingering influence of traditional recipes?
Not long after we saw reports of rice-hoarding in some Asian cities a few months ago, we went to a Richmond supermarket to buy rice and found customers were restricted to two 20lb bags each. In this global economy, the scare about the staple running short is contagious, spreading quickly from China to Japan to Canada.
In Vancouver, the cost of eating out too is steadily rising. The price of a typical combo plate plus a drink at our favourite food courts are inching perilously toward the $10 mark. What might have cost $7 ten years ago would cost $8.50. A plate of noodles that cost $5 three years ago at a Richmond food court now costs $6.50.
In Japan’s cities, the big trend today is “from eating out back to eating at home,” according to retail market analysts. For more and more families, that’s the only way to keep food costs down. Back in the consumer-spending heydays of the 80s and 90s, a common sight along major suburban auto routes at lunch- and dinner-time were clusters of “family restaurant” chains offering everything from Japanese, Chinese, Italian, American and other cuisines, plus “combos” thereof, filled with young parents with smiling kids and young couples. Now “Skylark” and other outlets are going out of business. Denny’s recently decided to shut down 140 outlets across Japan (Shukan Bunshun 27/4/08).
In supermarkets, people are starting to shun ready-made meal packs in favour of items like simple salted salmon or cooked beans to go with home-cooked rice. Unlike North America, where wheat is still relatively plentiful, Japan relies on imported wheat for staples like bread and noodles. So rising price of wheat products is also driving Japanese consumers toward rice.
In Singapore, where eating out in one of the many hawker centres dotting public housing estates and transport hubs has long been a custom of working families, the bottom line in hawker stall fare have always been items like noodles that used to cost $2 and chicken rice $2.50. These price levels vital to low-income families were maintained for decades, but in recent years the same are going $3 and $3.50 in upgraded air-conditioned hawker centres that are taking over old established centres. Young couples with kids are visiting their parents more often to enjoy home-cooked food and save money. The ageing parents, while insisting home-cooked food is healthier than take-out food, are often just happy to see their loved ones more often.
These days, our food supply is also seen within the bigger picture of global energy conservation with alternate fuel technology and food supply needs, for example, competing for the same grain crops. Traditional Western dishes using the meat of cattle and poultry fed on grains, vegetarian advocates like to point out, are less energy-efficient than, say, traditional Japanese or Indian dishes based on grains and vegetables. Whereas meatless recipes might still be noted as “vegetarian” by conservative Caucasian eaters, meatless recipes are just ordinary dishes for many Asian eaters, especially the older generations. Could this be an advantage amid todays’ economic conditions?
Having sweepingly conjured up “conservative Caucasian eaters,” I realize I’m imagining more of a barbecue-at-the-ranch Texan type than our Caucasian friends and family in this corner of North America, where sushi for lunch or dinner is typical. One way to separate the generations of Nikkei and overseas resident Japanese is between those who remember the days when most Caucasian folks reacted as though eating raw fish was sickening or barbaric, and those who don’t.
If vegetable- and rice-based meals should increasingly become an economic necessity (and I hope not), those who favour Japanese cuisine would at least have a whole range of traditional recipes to fall back on.
It is quite amazing how true one old cliché turns out to be as one ages —the one about how we all start favouring the simpler items among familiar dishes we recall from way back. Having fortunately had opportunities to enjoy many great English, Italian, French, Chinese, Malay, Indian, Mexican/Caribbean, Russian and Scandinavian dishes (in average restaurants and sometimes in homes), I find today that meals like the following would be quite adequate and maybe even sumptuous.
For example: cucumber sticks with miso for appetizer; followed by cooked satoimo (taro), fried egg plant slices seasoned with sweet miso, daikon and tofu miso soup, some rice and maybe pickles. I might also have a drink or two. Lunch? Soba in cold sauce with some chopped spring onions and nori flakes would be great. Alas, they are for a typical old Japanese man’s palate, amazing even to myself, but it wouldn’t occur to me that these things are “vegetarian.”
So the rice and vegetable-based (and OK, throw in some seafood too) delicacies that Nikkei, ijusha folks, their family and friends have been enjoyed for close to a century in these parts—and will enjoy again at this year’s Powell Street Festival—might become a trend in more parts of North America.
Finally thank you again to all the okasan and obasan who continue to turn out delicious meals for us day after day.