I’m going back to the UK for the Summer Holidays. So when I recently called home, my mother asked what I wanted to eat when I arrived. I instantaneously answered with “Fish and Chips”. Whether it be sitting in the garden of our family house back when I was a kid, or in the pub before an away football game, I have fond and delicious memories of eating them. In Japan, it’s not uncommon to find a rather underwhelming offering in Irish Pubs. But for a nation that slaps tempura batter on everything from prawns to asparagus, it’s strange that they’ve yet to understand the beautiful romance between the potato and white fish. That’s not to say the Japanese have no idea about the dish. On the contrary, if there’s one thing that Japanese people know about the UK aside from the Queen, Peter Rabbit and David Beckham, it’s “Fish and Chips”.
Easter has long passed, and I managed to avoid the overly abundant marketing and consumerism found back home. Japan has failed to join the Easter train. And for a nation that loves it’s gimmicks, sweet treats and cute imagery, it’s surprising that the material side of the festival hasn’t become a hit over here. This year saw Japanese pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu release her single entitled “Easter”. This bizarre acid trip of a music video, complete with dancing eggs and UFO’s doesn’t really clarify the religious holiday, instead opting to further confuse the Japanese masses and everyone else for that matter.
As a kid, I fondly remember gathering a substantial collection of chocolate eggs from relatives and friends. But the one thing I really crave around Easter are hot cross buns. The sweet smell of cinnamon and orange zest, the butter slowly melting and the iconic cross decoration are a quintessential part of England’s baking heritage. That being said, the exact origins of the hot cross bun aren’t well defined. Some have linked it back to the Roman period, others to the Saxons, with many connecting them with 14th Century monks of St Albans Abbey. In fact, Elizabeth I is believed to have banned the sale of hot cross buns and spiced breads during Good Friday and Christmas due to its Catholic connotations. But the first real, documented record of the baked good can be found in the Poor Robin’s Almanak back in 1733.
Similarly, the hot cross buns connection to Easter, both in terms of its recipe and general existence are shrouded in historiographical and religious mystery. With the Church of England’s incessant need to relate every baked good to a Christian context, the bread seems to represent communion, the spice related to those used to wrap Jesus’ body, and the cross obvious represents his crucifixion. But the atheist in me simply sees them as a seasonal treat with a cute design. Though I’ll admit that I rarely ponder the significance of my afternoon treat.
Unlike baking pies or cakes, I lack the patience, methodical thinking and precision that’s required in crafting a beautiful sourdough or crusty whole-wheat loaf. So I usually buy hot cross buns from the supermarket. My particular favourite have been Marks and Spencer’s Apple-Cinnamon variety. They might be more expensive than those from Tesco or Sainsbury, but they’re worth it.
God damn it, I wish I had some now.
The Christmas banners are already up in shop windows and in department stores, much to my frustration. Meanwhile the smell of artificial pumpkin spice and over-sweetened cream hangs in the air of shopping arcades and offices. I have to say, Japan really goes full-on with the decorations for every festival and season. Pumpkins in October, Cherry Blossom in Spring and Santa in December. Yet many don’t understand or know the “Nativity Story” behind it all. And if they do, they ask me how Santa Claus fits into the birth of Jesus. Anyway I digress, back home in England the smell of brandy, dry fruits and baked pasty is a delightful one that conjures up one image; the humble mince pie.
Mince Pies are a staple of Christmas in Great Britain, and have been since its origins in the European Crusades during the thirteenth century. The trading/ pillaging of exotic spices, fruits and foreign cooking were brought back home. To which, in true British culinary style, we baked them into pies. Originally, mince pies actually had meat in them. Whether it was a leg of lamb, or a cow tongue, the combinations of spices and fruit have remained the same. Interestingly, during the English Civil War and the rise of the Puritans, they were banned along with the celebration of Christmas for being too Catholic and fun.
Nowadays the meat has been dropped and mince pies have firmly become sweet, baked goods. The filling of “mincemeat” is a combination of dry fruits, brandy, sugar and spices (cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg). During my second year of secondary school (junior high), we made our own in Design Technology/ Home Economics class. Unfortunately some students hadn’t understood the difference between minced meat (ground beef) and mincemeat, which caused some problems during the lesson. Meanwhile the pastry is a basic shortcrust variety using flour, plenty of butter, sugar and eggs. It’s all rather simple, which perfectly highlights British baking in general. Brandy Cream (brandy, cream and sugar) is the traditional condiment to a mince pie, but I’ve never been a big fan of the combination. Instead a cup of hot tea will suffice.
Finding mince pies in Japan has been an impossible feat. I’ve checked import stores, foreign-run bakeries, and “English cafes” with little success. It seems that Japan has adopted Christmas Stollen (from Germany) as the foreign, seasonal sweet of choice during Christmas. Therefore, I’ve been reduced to asking my mum to send a box of them from home. They’ll usually tide me over for a week. Then the cravings kick in. However my girlfriend and I are going to attempt to make them this Christmas. It’ll be interesting to see how they turn out. Fingers crossed.
During my first year in Japan, it became clear that I really missed the “pub culture” of home. That’s not to suggest that I’m a heavy drinker. On the contrary, since graduating from university my alcohol intake has drastically decreased. Even more so since I moved to Japan. Instead, I miss pubs as a place to meet friends, play darts, watch sports, and drink a couple of pints. Pubs are one of the most historically important, and iconic institutions of British culture, history and way of life. Famous writers, events, and figures have emerged from their walls. They’re such a quintessentially and intrinsically British thing that whenever I mention my nationality, most Japanese people understand the concept of one.
During my three years at university, my friends and I would go to our “local” three or four times a week, drink beer, chat about random things and watch the football. My clubbing days lasted a year and a half at most. After that I just couldn’t stand the atmosphere, music and the clientele. I just didn’t see the point. To dance? To shag girls? To drink? Yeah, while other students chugged cheap vodka from bottles and lay comatose on the dance-floor, we’d move from one pub to the next, “sampling” ales, talking about nonsense and going to our local Turkish eatery at the end of a night. That was always a solid night out. After finishing university, I used to go drinking with my dad and his friends. And after a Sunday shift at work, I’d go to the pub with my workmates to watch the football and attempt to throw darts. In fact, some of my fondest memories have occurred in pubs, which may seem rather underwhelming.
Sure Japan has “Pubs”; Irish/ English versions with flags, pictures of the queen and leprechauns, and serving Guinness and Bass (the first foreign beer to be sold in Japan). Like any cheap imitation, they lack the certain atmosphere and charm that those back home have. Everything feels fake, they’re always playing crappy music too loud, and a pint of anything costs the equivalent of seven British pounds (so….London prices). The Japanese equivalent would probably be an izakaya. Essentially an establishment where office workers and businessmen drink, smoke and chat about their wives, while indulging in Asahi SuperDry and a variety of fried goods. After which, said wives complain about their lateness and them wasting money. I can definitely see the comparison, but it’s a different style of culture.
I guess I’ve grown into a bit of a snob when it comes to pubs. I probably take after my father in that regard. He avoids chains such as Wetherspoons, preferring more local establishments where the choice of drink isn’t reduced to Fosters and Strongbow. He’s fortunate to now live in York, where there’s a decent pub on nearly every street. Lucky him. But this genetic “pub snobbery” has definitely influenced my reaction to Japan’s attempts at “British Pub Culture”. Maybe I should but my criticisms and cynicism behind, and give them another go.
They say that “Culture Shock” is a big problem when staying in a foreign country for an extended time. While it hasn’t affected me to the same degree as others, there are some small things I miss from home aside from family and friends. And Roast Dinner is one of those.
I love food, my wide frame is a good indication of this, and it’s undoubtably clear that the Japanese do too. Food is an essential part of any culture, but here in Japan it’s quite simply ridiculous. In fact when I competed in a Japanese Speech Contest back in 2015, I spoke about my bafflement towards it’s prominence in all facets of Japanese life. My speech got some laughs, hopefully not from the sight of a large British man in yukata and small geta sandals. And I actually came third place which wasn’t too bad.
After retreating to the glorious buffet at the back of the room, various people came to discuss my talk, most sharing similar thoughts to my “critique”. Others ironically suggested that I should write a guidebook or blog about Miyoshi, and it’s local wine, food and eateries. I actually spoke jokingly about how Japanese guidebooks or tour magazines offer page after page of local delicacies and key places to eat rather than sightseeing locations. Meanwhile Japanese TV constantly barrages the population with variety shows showcasing endless segments from kitchens and restaurants, all with endless, orgasmic cries and screams from it’s guest “stars” and “live studio audience”. Half the time I feel I’m being duped into watching subtly and ingeniously devised food pornography rather than the baseball highlights. Food is everywhere in Japan, and there’s no escape from its tempting allure.
From Ramen to Tonkatsu (breaded deep-fried pork cutlet), my students and Japanese friends always ask me about my favourite Japanese food. I often retort the question by asking “What British Food do you like?”, to which I’m met with hesitance and bewilderment. It’s clear that Japan’s concept of “British Food” largely surrounds our love for Fish and Chips, and our “Tea and Cake” culture. Ironically, I was talking to one of my fellow teachers who had watched a programme about Great Britain. He explained that the show had rated British food as some of the worst on the planet. Additionally it concluded that our roads are full of pot-holes, but there’s some truth to that. Apart from those two topics of sheer importance, apparently the rest of Britain’s culture was deemed too irrelevant to comment on by the presenters. Fucking Japanese TV.
Sunday Roast Dinner has a cultural significancy in Britain that is hardly addressed outside the country. But while it’s origins surround Christian traditions and the customs of Sunday Church, my atheist family never gave a crap about the religious relevance. We all just sat down at the table and stuffed our faces with Roast Beef, Roast Potatoes, Yorkshire Puddings, Vegetables and Gravy. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t Sunday, we’d have Roast Dinner on Monday, Tuesday, even Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, we didn’t give a flying toss.
Roast Beef was always my favourite, whilst Pork and Chicken made their regular appearances at the dinner table. We never had Roast Lamb though. My mother and my brother weren’t keen on the strong flavour. Meanwhile Yorkshire Puddings were only served with Roast Beef, and occasionally sausages. No mash potato was allowed and “Veg” only included Potatoes, Broccoli, Carrots, Peas, and occasionally Cauliflower, in cheese form. And there was always plenty of Gravy. Being a middle-class family we had two types of the “good stuff”. One was the expensive Marks and Spencer‘s vacuum-sealed variety, and the other was the legendary Bisto brand, my personal choice.
Sure it’s not as delicate as sashimi, or as refined as tofu, but I really miss sitting around the kitchen table, the smell of slow-cooked meat and the indulgent taste. So what’s stopping me from making it over here in Japan? Well, the lack of a decently-sized oven and the uncommonness of large joints of meat doesn’t help. I’ve actually found two spots in the Hiroshima area that offer “Sunday Roast Dinner”; the Irish Pub Molly Malone’s and Cafe Mike and Shirley. The latter is a personal favourite, definitely worth the hour and a half train ride to cure my longing for proper, British home-cooking.