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Saturday, March 29, 2003

JAPAN LITE

Food displays and questions best unasked


Japan is very creative when it comes to the presentation of food. Indeed, much time and effort goes into making food look so good, you'll pay big bucks for it. Here are just some of the ways food is displayed in Japanese restaurants.

Stuff in the window: It starts with the plastic models of food in the front windows of restaurants so you can pick and choose your entree before you enter. (Reportedly, these fake food replicas started appearing just after World War II to help foreigners order food in Japanese restaurants). I often marvel at the groups of Japanese people crowded in front of restaurant windows pointing to plastic saying, "Oishiso!" ("That looks delicious!") Unfortunately, employees often neglect to dust off the plastic models, so the food doesn't always look so "oishii." When I first came to Japan, I dragged the waitress outside and pointed to the plastic tempura and ordered, "Tempura, no dust please."

Stuff in the tank: Some restaurants will offer a presentation of their food still in the aquarium. Nothing like bringing the sea inside the restaurant. I'm glad they don't do that with beef. Can you imagine a small corral with some cows grazing in it in the middle of the restaurant?

But many people enjoy the aquarium as a visual appetizer. They also enjoy picking out their food while it's still alive. Many people like their fish so fresh it's still twitching. I've often wondered what exactly people are doing when they survey those fish in the tank. Asking if it has any last words? Getting some quotes? A restaurant near my house has an entire aquarium of sea slugs. How do you choose among sea slugs that all look exactly the same -- like oversize pieces of lint from Godzilla's washing machine? The real test is knowing which sea slugs have a pulse. I mean, for the layman, it's very hard to tell if that sea slug is alive or whether it died two years ago. The taste gives no indication either.

Stuff under glass: If you're at a sushi bar, you'll see the raw filleted fish sitting on ice under the glass. At this point, you'll have to distinguish the fish by the color of their flesh. The types of fish will vary from the pedestrian red-colored tuna and the mildly threatening orange salmon roe to things you might have previously considered nonfood items, since you've only seen them on Jacques Cousteau films. This would include the potentially poisonous blowfish with its translucent flesh.

As a general rule, I advise you to not ask what things are before you eat them. Especially food suspiciously wrapped in seaweed and tied with an edible string. I suspect inside is some of that furniture from the fish tank. If you know this, you surely won't eat it. But then you'll miss out on the satisfaction of telling your friends later that you not only ate Charlie the Tuna but also his sofa.

If you don't want to worry about pulses, blood types or surprise muscle twitches, I suggest ordering "tempura, no dust." These fried vegetables are the Westerner's "comfort food," named so because it is a comfort to see a familiar vegetable on the plate rather than an exotic "nice to meet you" fish with baked white eyes. Most vegetables in tempura you'll recognize, and even those you don't you'll at least have seen previously in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

If you're still not so sure about Japanese food, you can become more familiar with it by simply watching the numerous cooking shows aired on TV every day in Japan. I assure you that there is not one food prepared on TV that is not met with multiple squeals of delight and gasps of "Oishii!"

Check out Amy Chavez's new column, "Parents Do the Strangest Things," at www.amychavez.com.


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