Film

Tasty Doc Wa-shoku Examines Japanese Food in America

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A catchall term for Japanese cuisine, washoku is omnipresent in these blessed United States thanks largely to one man: Noritoshi Kanai.

The pioneer’s legacy has expanded beyond sushi — which he introduced stateside in the 1960s — into other aspects of his native cuisine in the ensuing half-century, which Junichi Suzuki’s documentary is careful to enumerate. Still, the transition hasn’t been smooth for everyone: “They wanted me to perfect what is common,” one chef at a Japanese restaurant here in America says with a hint of resignation about this country’s customer-is-always-right philosophy.

The tension between satisfying one’s own creative inclinations and the less sophisticated palates of one’s consumers is common among Wa-shoku‘s many interviewees; much was apparently lost in translation as food migrated from one end of the Pacific to the other. The chefs and restaurateurs featured here demonstrate varying levels of concern about the challenge of expanding the cuisine’s reach while maintaining its integrity and its practitioners’ sensibilities rather than simply pandering.

For some this is of the utmost importance, while for others it’s an afterthought. Suzuki, for his part, falls somewhere between these extremes. His film has the feel of a State of the Union for devotees, while also serving as an introduction to washoku culture for outsiders. Wa-shoku isn’t as contemplative as Kanai and his acolytes, though it might still make you feel like a dilettante if your Japanese palate begins and ends with California rolls.