Theory Teacher's Blog

Finfinne Diaries 4: Khat… Somebody Should Write a Book…

As I mentioned in my first Finfinne Diary about my trip to Ethiopia, I was quite surprised by the size of the khat trade (a.k.a., qat or chat), but as someone commented there, I probably should not have been since American newspapers and magazines have been blabbering about it for years. For instance, I could have read about the popularity of this narcotic plant in EsquireThe Christian Science Monitor, Time Magazine, and The Village Voice. When I travelled to Harar, I was expecting khat to be around, but dang! — I soon discovered that it was not simply around… it was everywhere;  men and women carried bunches of it to and fro in their arms the way a young lover might carry a dozen long-stem roses to his date on Valentines Day, and huge piles of it were on the side of the road. 

preparing khat (also spelled chat or qat)

After walking around the fascinating, historic “old town” of Harar all morning, learning as much as I could about the “living museum” (as the town calls itself), I randomly met a couple guys (one American, one Ethiopian) who worked for the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Command while eating lunch in a restaurant, and they explained to me that the cities of Harar, Dire Dawa, and Jijiga export not just truck-loads but even plane-loads of khat daily to Djibouti, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. To get yourself a mental picture, think about how many trucks deliver cases of beer to stores and restaurants in the United States, and you’ve got an idea of the khat market.

My observations got me to thinking that somebody really ought to write a book about the culture and economy of this mild narcotic, since books about the cultural histories of sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco, etc., have had so much success. I first got interested in such cultural histories of cash crops when I was a graduate student and have since published articles on eighteenth-century poetry about sugar and tobacco; in my view, the  groundbreaking Sweetness and Power by Sidney Mintz is certainly the standard by which all books about commodities should be judged. Anyway, after I returned to the United States, I went on to see what I could see, thinking all the while to myself that somebody (not me) really ought to write a book about khat. And lo and behold, I discovered several such books have already been written, so I ordered Khat in Ethiopia by Ezekial Gebissa published just a few months ago. I don’t know when I’ll actually get around to reading this book, but in the meantime, I’m going to entertain a few speculative theoretical answers to the question I asked the two guys in that restaurant in Harar.

My question was this: why has the khat market and use of khat has grown so quickly and so intensely in the past twenty years? And the three different answers I discussed with the two guys in the restaurant reflects — I will suggest — three different theoretical biases.

khat cultivation

But before I get to these theoretical speculations, I think I should first explain what khat is in case you don’t already know. If you want the lengthy chemical and medical explanation, check out the World Health Organization’s analysis, but if you want the simple summary, it’s basically a green leaf that grows prolifically in the same climate where coffee grows (i.e., high altitudes of subtropical regions). When chewed, it produces a euphoric effect that is both stimulating and calming, and the result is often a bunch of people spending a whole afternoon together either chatting or in quiet introspection, feeling good. The next morning, users typically feel tired, depressed, and even disoriented, so they want to chew more khat, and hence one can become psychologically dependent, but there is no evidence yet of chemical addiction. It is legal in Ethiopia and most countries around the Red Sea, where it is consumed daily by much of the population, but is illegal in the U.S. and Europe. According to a BBC article from 2002, the Ethiopian government makes millions of dollars off the export duties, even though their official policy is to do nothing about it — that is, nothing to promote it, and nothing to deter it… just sit back and collect the tax revenue. 

I learned a lot of this information from the two guys during lunch, and you may be wondering why these two — who work for the U.S. Army — know so much, but both of them had college degrees in economics. The American used to be a Wall Street stock broker until 9/11/2001 changed the way he felt about the world. Now, he works for the army reserves in a section that promote economic development (more about this to come in a later blog post), and the Ethiopian fellow with him worked full time for the U.S. Army as a translator/advisor/go-between.

Anyway, the three of us debated the cause of the khat market’s rapid growth. The American believed it was natural market forces; khat grows easily and can be harvested every month in contrast to coffee which is more labor intensive and is only harvested once per year. As a result, the cultivation and trade of khat was displacing the cultivation and trade of coffee. His argument made sense to me on one level, but his naturalistic view didn’t explain the historical change that occurred in the 1990s. It seemed to assume that supply and demand were simply universal factors.

In response, I proposed my own crackpot theory that the growth of the khat market was actually an effect of the growth of the coffee market because farmers could make use of the same economic networks. As the coffee trade intensified, so too could the khat trade alongside it, especially since farmers could grow both in the same place. My theory was the opposite of the American Army guy’s because I suggested that khat did not displace coffee; rather, the intensification and expansion of the trading network would lead to the intensification and expansion of both. More begets more.

We were at an impasse, and since neither of us really knew what we were talking about, we called over his Ethiopian friend to settle our dispute. He disagreed with me and pointed out that the khat trading networks were different from the coffee networks. He had good evidence to support his view, considering that the two commodities were not exported to the same places. He told me that there was even a specific Ethiopian airline that specialized in exporting khat. In answer to my question as to what changed in the 1990s, it was the liberalization of capital after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990, the end of the Cold War, and the subsequent overthrow of Ethiopia’s Derg regime in 1991. (The early 1990s is often considered by globalization theorists as the moment when “globalization” became the hegemonic socio-economic form leading to the establishment of the World Trade Organization in  1995.) Hence, it suddenly became much easier for an entrepreneur to find investors and amass enough capital to buy trucks and airplanes for the khat trade. In other words, one might sarcastically remark, thanks to the free market we have a lot more old men getting stoned all afternoon. But what the heck? The Ethiopian government gets millions of dollars in tax revenue from all the exported khat, which it is (theoretically) able to invest in stuff such as roads, schools, and other nifty development projects, so shouldn’t we all be happy? (Obviously, this is a rhetorical question; see my Finfinne Diaries 3 about development.)

The Ethiopian guy’s explanation of the cause of market growth made a lot of sense to me, but still I wasn’t completely satisfied. I would also speculate that the deregulation of the coffee market in 1992 had an effect because it led not only to a growth in Ethiopia’s global market in general but also specifically to decreased coffee prices. As Oxfam has argued [here] and as the documentary movie Black Gold has shown, this deregulation was wonderful for the multinational coffee corporations,  but was devastating to the poor coffee farmer. It’s no wonder they began to turn to khat to supplement their income. In addition, although I had to concede to my lunch-time interlocutors that the export network for khat was different from coffee’s, it is also clear that the same farmers were growing both, and those farmers’s access to the global market began with coffee. The khat trade was using the same roads, airports, vehicles, systems of patronage and security, and knowledge technologies that were developed by the government to facilitate the trade in other commodities. 

So, what this conversation illustrates is three theoretical perspectives: my network theory which assumes that markets are socially constructed, the American’s supply and demand theory which assumes that markets are natural, and the Ethiopian’s theory that agrees with the IMF’s efforts to liberalize of capital markets. I suspect that all three of us are each partially right.

Meanwhile, what might be an unfortunate side-effect of the growth of the lucrative khat market is not a decrease in the coffee market as the American suggested, but a decrease in the supply of basic food. While the prices of coffee and khat have decreased as their distribution and consumption have increased, the price of food has increased, suggesting to me that either there isn’t enough production to meet demand or that overall inflation due to economic growth is affecting food prices. I find it a curious coincidence that khat is popular as an appetite suppressant at the same time that food prices are going up.

And while all this is happening in the many town markets that I travelled through, writers and scholars are publishing books, magazine articles, short stories, and songs about the immorality of khat and its terrible effect on the minds and souls of African men and women. The conversation about khat today, by the way, is very similar to the conversation about tobacco in the 17th and early 18th centuries which debated whether tobacco was a corrupting vice and bad for the integrity of the nation or a social lubricant that encouraged economic growth. Last week, a Ugandan friend of mine who was doing some research in Somalia forwarded me a funny short story (not yet published) that a young Somali had written about khat hallucinations. So, in a few years, maybe I’ll be able to do some literary criticism about khat just like I did about tobacco and sugar.


July 8, 2010 Posted by | food, global, Oromia | 4 Comments

“African” Food in the American Cultural Imagination

In my postcolonial literature course, we are reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun. Published in 2006, it’s about the Nigerian-Biafran civil war that took place from 1967 to 1970 shortly after Nigeria’s independence from colonial rule. Repeatedly in the first half of the novel, one of the main characters named Ugwu talks about Igbo food — food from his village, food he prepares for his “master” and his wife, food that his master’s mother makes. This includes jollof rice, ewa beans, pepper fish soup, chicken soup with bitter herbs, and of course the classic Nigerian food that another Nigerian author Chinua Achebe famously talks about so much in Things Fall Apart, yams and yam fufu. I suspect Adichie talks about food this much in the first half of the novel because in the second half many of the characters are close to starving to death in the midst of a brutal civil war. They are lucky when they can get a few mouthfuls of simple gari (a flour made from cassava) and dried milk. The contrast between the first and second halves of the novel is striking and powerful.

While I was reading the first half of the novel, my stomach would growl. I began to desire the food I was reading about, and my students told me they had the same feeling. A couple of them are even planning to try to make some of the dishes themselves. So while I was visiting Washington D.C. during my spring break, I looked up some West-African restaurants. There was one Nigerian place called Wazobia Restaurant and Bar. The name is significant in the context of the novel I was teaching about the civil war because “wazobia” is a made-up word derived from the three major languages in Nigeria: “wa” is Yoruba, “zo” is Hausa, and “bia” is Igbo. All three words mean “come” so the name of the restaurant literally translates as “come, come, come” and figuratively suggests Nigerian unity. In the context of the novel and postcolonial theory that I’m teaching, the name of the restaurant signifies a multiethnic Nigerian nationalism (in contrast to an ethnic Igbo or Hausa nationalism.) Unfortunately, the evening when I planned to go turned out to be the date of a special event at the restaurant, so I couldn’t eat there during my brief visit to D.C. I figured my slight misfortune was no big deal because when I was searching the internet I had seen a couple Nigerian places in Minnesota, including a Wazobia and also another place named Three Crowns (a name that seems to carry the same nationalist significance as Wazobia), so I figured I could satisfy my gastronomic craving after I came home.

Here’s the sad part of this story and the discovery that prompted the topic for this blog post. Every single one of the West-African restaurants in Minnesota had closed down within the past three years, so I was completely out of luck. Interestingly, when I e-mailed my native-Minnesotan friends to see if they knew of any places still open, they all replied with suggestions for a few Ethiopian and Somali restaurants. This is interesting to me because Ethiopia and Somalia have about as much in common with Nigeria as Norway has with Italy. I couldn’t imagine someone recommending to me a German restaurant if I had asked about Greek food. And so I wondered, what is it in the American imagination that acknowledges the national differences among European countries but so thoroughly conflates the wide array of nations and cultures in Africa under one category? Why do national differences in Europe seem to matter more than national differences in Africa? Obviously, the American imagination of the world reflects a Eurocentric bias, and one might argue (as some such as the philosopher V. Y. Mudimbe have) that this bias extends beyond food to other things such as culture, philosophy, and science.

But for me, an even more interesting question than Eurocentrism is why there are so many Ethiopian resturants in Minnesota and not a single restaurant with food from West, East, Central, of South Africa. What made Ethiopia so special? I personally have been to six of them in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and there are many more I haven’t been to. I hypothesize three different explanations. First, demographically, perhaps there are simply more Ethiopians in Minnesota. Second, perhaps Ethiopian food is more popular becuase people just really like the way it tastes. But third, perhaps there is a deep bias within American culture. To test my three hypotheses, I went on-line to do some research, and here’s what I found.

With regards to African immigrant populations, I discovered that most demographic studies of Minnesota such as [this one] and [this one] focus on Somalis. This makes some sense; since the Somali Civil War began in 1991, the population in Minnesota grew from almost zero in 1990 to more than 11,000 ten years later according to census data. Ethiopians have been in Minnesota longer, since its civil war and revolution in the early 1970s, but even though Ethiopia had a second revolution in 1990s which prompted another wave of emigration, the 2000 census only puts them at about 6,000 in Minneapolis. This number is problematic, however, since some people from Ethiopia do not identify themselves as Ethiopian but instead identify as Oromo, Tigray, Sidamo, Afar, etc. So, the actual number might be a little bit higher. I know that Minneapolis has the largest population of Oromo outside of the boundaries of Ethiopia, which might explain why it’s easier to book a flight to Ethiopia from Minneapolis than from other American cities (as I recently discovered.) However, since the Somalis are the largest and also the most recent group to come to Minnesota in large numbers, it is perhaps understandable that most of the information I found on-line focuses on them. The most interesting and comprehensive document that I found is this Minnesota Banker’s Association “African Immigrant Resource Guide” published just last month. As every good Marxist scholar knows, often the best data comes from those with a vested economic interest. The Minnesota Banker’s Association notes that the buying power of African-born people in the United States is now about 45 billion dollars, which is bigger than a lot of the GDPs of the countries that they emigrated from. Notably, inside Minnesota, the banker’s guide estimates that the buying power of Somalis is 216 million, of Ethiopians 203 million, Kenyans 167 million, Liberians 157 million, and Nigerians only 71 million. Buying power reflects the size of populations and is perhaps even more important than population data when considering why there are more restaurants. However, while this data helps explain why there are a lot of Somali and Ethiopian resturants in Minnesota, it doesn’t explain why there are so many Ethiopian resturants and zero West-African restaurants. One might expect there to be simply one third as many Nigerian as Ethiopian, but that is not the case. It also doesn’t explain why there are more Ethiopian restaurants than Somali, though this could be explained by the fact that Ethiopians have been in Minnesota for longer.

The other explanation is that Ethiopian food simply tastes better. Indeed, if we make an analogy to European food, most Minnesotans are ethnically German and Scandanavian, but there aren’t so many German restaurants and hardly any Scandanavian ones. Most popular are Italian restaurants even though there aren’t so many Italians, perhaps for the simple reason that Italian food is both really delicious and cheap to prepare. In contrast, Scandanavian food is somewhat unimpressive, I guess. Because of Ethiopia and Somalia’s location by the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, they have historically been located at an important nexus of Muslim trade networks from Arabia and India. This network also has for centuries included Christian traders from Europe. Combine this trade with the indigenous flora and fauna of the Nile River valleys in the Horn of Africa and the result of all this economic and cultural mixing is a lucious variety of flavors and a long culinary tradition. But is this not also the case with West Africa? West Africa is, historically, where Europe got most of its pepper. It was also part of the Muslim trade in the 12th through 17th centuries. In the 18th century, at the height of the transatlantic slave trade but before Europe’s real conquest of African territory, West-African kingdoms were exporting to Europe huge quantities of tasty spices and fashionable textiles. Nevertheless, despite Nigeria’s long culinary history, I might agree that the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia) can rightly boast having the best food. And I say that based on my experience in West and East African restaurants. So, does this explain why there are so many Ethiopian restaurants and no Nigerian ones? It does partly, but I’m not sure Ethiopian cuisine’s appeal to American taste buds is enough of an answer.

Now for my third explanation that Europeans and Americans have a cultural bias towards Ethiopia. Historically, Ethiopia is the only African nation that is mentioned in classical Greek, Latin, and Hebrew literature. In addition, some of the ancient kingdoms there became Christian before most of the kingdoms in Europe. Therefore, it has a long historical presence within European and American literature and culture, and along with this presence comes an exotic appeal and all sorts of positive cultural connotations. Indeed, European and American literature has for centuries given Ethiopia an exceptional status. While the rest of Africa is represented in racist language as culturally backward, Ethiopia is sometimes characterized as more culturally and ethnically white than black. (And many Ethiopians themselves claim they are more Semitic than African.) Because of Ethiopia’s Christian tradition and representation in the Bible, the Europeans never felt quite justified enough to fully colonize it the way they colonized other African nations. From the late 18th centuries to the early 20th centuries, “Ethiopia” gradually became an important symbol for Christianized blacks in North America and the Caribbean for the possibility of liberation from slavery and a free African empire. The Rastafarian religion emerged in Jamaica in the early 20th century as part of a pan-African black nationalist movement that identified the king of Ethiopia (named Ras Tefari at that time) as a potential force of liberation for all black people (both symbolically and politically), especially since Ethiopia had defeated Italy’s army in 1897. Hence, when independent African nations emerged from colonization in the 1960s, the African Union headquarters was located in Ethiopia. Paradoxically, as I’ve argued elsewhere [here], Ethiopia was culturally constructed in the African-American and Afro-Carribean imagination as the most representative African nation precisely because it was the exception to colonialist ideology. Could this bias within American and European culture be one explanation for why Ethiopian restaurants are so much more successful than other African restaurants? The theoretical point that I am implying here is that our enjoyment of exotic food is as much about our imagination and cultural connotations as it is about nourishment and flavor.

Which of the three explanations that I’ve investigated seems to be the most convincing for why there are so many Ethiopian restaurants and no West-African ones? Ultimately, I don’t think any single one of them is enough of an explanation for the reality that we encounter. I suspect all three factors together have played a role.

March 15, 2010 Posted by | food | 1 Comment

Food Innovations 2: Nihon-teki

As I mentioned in my Food Innovations 1 blog post a couple weeks ago, I decided that, from time to time, I should blog about food to show how one can relate literary theory to food and also to offer some practical tips for my busy students for how to make simple but delicious food quickly. So, this blog will be about how I innovated a Japanese style (nihon-teki) for a few dishes.  

But first, some back-story. The funny back-story to this blog is that when I lived in Japan, it didn’t really occur to me to learn how to make Japanese cuisine (yoori). The food was all around me in restaurants, shops, and supermarket, not to mention the school where I taught, so I didn’t have much incentive to make it myself. Most of the time I was too busy working anyway, and those rare moments when I did want to really cook up a storm, I prefered to make Mexican food since back in 1997–99 there weren’t any good Mexican restaurants in Tokyo. Being the Southern California boy that I am, it was the one food that I sometimes missed and desired to share with my Japanese friends. (Luckily, the international grocery store in Tokyo had everything I needed.) But after I returned to the United States, I quickly became nostalgic for Japanese food and sadly discovered that most of the Japanese restaurants in America did not make the things I craved. I wished I had taken the time to learn more, but it was too late.  

So, what did I crave? Takoyaki, okonomiyaki, oden, plain soba noodles, and ordinary boiled vegetables. Plain noodles, boiled vegetables, and grilled fish might sound a little boring and ordinary, which is probably why few Japanese restaurants in American serve them. They are not so exotic or fascinating, but actually those are probably the three most common dishes eaten there, and they are delicious. Sadly, American restaurants tend to all emphasize the exotic, which generally boils down to the same four things — sushi, steak, teppenyaki, and udon noodle soups. If you’re lucky, you might be able to get some good tofu dishes like Agedashidofu. I’ve noticed that a lot of Americans seem to like places that specialize in ridiculous “Hibachi grill” performances of chopping stuff right at your table (called teppenyaki) — something I never once saw in Japan for the obvious reasons that all this flashy performance is really annoying and makes it hard to have a conversation.  How can you socialize with all the knives, food, and noise flying about right in front of your face? In Japan, all the ingredients are carefully prepared in the kitchen (which is where things should be prepared, duh), and then brought out for you and your friends to quickly cook them on the grill that’s in the center of your table. It’s more enjoyable for you and your friends to cook it as you are eating and talking. The essential distinction I’m trying to make here is between food as a spectacle and food as a social activity, and it’s perhaps not surprising — as theorist Guy Debord suggested in his classic book Society of the Spectacle — that the American capitalist-consumer culture would emphasize the spectacle while the more community-oriented Japanese culture would emphasize the social. (Along with this, another difference would be the loud music in American bars compared to the loud conversation — but no music — in Japanese bars.) Anyway, the point of this paragraph is that American Japanese restaurants only serve a very narrow slice of Japanese cuisine and tend to emphasize the most fetishistically exotic or (to use the theory jargon) other. In fact, Japanese cuisine is incredibly varied and diverse, sometimes fabulously ornate but often pretty ordinary, and I often found myself craving the more ordinary, day-to-day kind of food. Theorizing more broadly about culture (and not just about food), my sense is that this is pretty standard for most so-called “intercultural experience” which tends to fetishize the most exotice elements of a foreign culture at the expense of the more ordinary, rational, and typical aspects of daily life.

One might think that to solve this problem of my nostalgia for certain foods, I’d go buy a Japanese cookbook, but I haven’t used a cook book since 1996 when I was 24 years old. I have a lot more fun just figuring things out for myself. Also, I’m way too lazy, and those cookbook recipes are always so pretentious and showy — I just don’t have the time to spend on them. Instead, I innovated a few quick and easy dishes so that I could get my Nihon-teki-na yoori fix without too much headache.

First and easiest, soba is a buckwheat noodle that you can serve three ways — in a soup, stir-fried with vegetables and meat (yakisoba), or just boiled and plain to be served with a simple dipping sauce. I like soba not only because it’s healthy, but because if you’re in a hurry, the noodles only take 4 minutes to cook. The soup is a hearty option for dinner for oneself, though I don’t think its a good choice if you’re trying to host a dinner-party, and therefore I don’t think one needs to get hung up on what’s “authentically” Japanese. Just put whatever vegetables and meat or fish in the pot, boil it up, add some mirin (rice wine for cooking) and some soy sauce, and finally add the noodles. Typically, Japanese people use katsuobushi (or dried bonito fish flakes) for the broth, but it doesn’t really matter what you use. Some pieces of fish, chicken, or beef, or a vegetable bouillon cube all work fine. If you want, you can add spice (red peppar, coriander, whatever.) Similarly, for fried noodles (yakisoba), just stir-fry the vegetables and chicken or whatever in a little oil and add some pepper and/or grated fresh ginger. While that’s going on in your frying pan, boil the noodles in your pot. Then, strain the noodles and throw them into the frying pan along with a bit of mirin. Fry this together for a few minutes on medium heat, then turn down the heat to low, and then add a little soy sauce. The trick here is to not add the soy while the heat is high, because then it burns and doesn’t taste as good. If you’ve ever had Asian food at a school cafeteria and wondered why it tastes so bad, it’s probably because they overcooked everything and burned the soy sauce. I usually add the soy sauce last when the heat is as low as possible.

If one wants to opt for plain boiled soba noodles served with a dipping sauce, this is simple. Just boil the noodles and strain them. Serve with the dipping sauce. It takes no more than ten minutes to make this. Most Asian stores sell bottles of “soba sauce” already prepared, and that’s what Japanese people generally eat. (Only posers make their own dipping sauce, though I guess I’m kind of a poser because I invented my own out of soy sauce, mirin, sesame oil, and grated ginger. But mine tastes totally different from the “authentic” sauce you get in the store, and I innovated it because I love ginger and sesame oil.) If you like the nostril-clensing power of wasabi, it’s common to add the wasabi to the dipping sauce or let your guests do it themselves. You can buy little tubes of wasabi anywhere, even an American supermarket. To be authentic, you should also chop up a green onion and sprinkle that along with some shredded dried nori strips on top of the noodles when you serve it.  

soba noodles with dipping sauce

Before I go on to the other dishes, I should mention that the quality of the soy sauce is important. Soy sauce is brewed, so just like wine and beer the quality can vary quite a bit. For instance, the La Choy brand is really aweful, but most Kikkoman produces are pretty good. If you are uncertain, look at the ingredients on the package. The ingredients should be simply soy beans, roasted wheat, water, and salt. If you see a bunch of other ingredients like caramel color and whatnot, don’t get it. I hate to offend my Chinese and Vietnamese friends, but generally speaking, in American stores, the Japanese-made soy sauce is pretty good, and the Chinese and Vietnamese soy sauces aren’t. (The American-made soy sauce brands, often pretentiously calling themselve tamari, are usually just silly and overpriced. Good soy sauce doesn’t have to be expensive.)  


Oden is basically boiled vegetables and fish sausages that sits in a broth. It was one of my favorite bar foods. Imagine the length of a bar with a trough of broth and delicious food floating in it. I have fond memories of going out with these two elderly Japanese men twice a month to discuss literature and help them with a translation. We’d eat oden, drink sake, and get pretty drunk. In my opinion, nothing tastes better together than oden, sake, and literature.  

packaged oden

And happily, almost every Asian store I’ve ever been to in the United States has frozen oden mix already prepared, so you don’t even really need to work very hard to make it. It comes with the flavor packet for the broth. However, it does taste better if you make the broth yourself and add some vegetables, though preparing oden from scratch is a quite a lot more time consuming. The broth is simply katusobushi, dried kelp (or kombu), mirin, and soy sauce (which are the most essential and basic ingredients for the broth that seasons most Japanese cuisine) all boiled together for a while. After you’ve strained all the detritus out of the broth, put the liquid in another pot, boil it again, and add the daikon (big white radish, which you should chop into somewhat large disks.) I also like to add lotus root (which comes in bags in the frozen food section of most Asian stores) and konyakku (a very healthy, zero-calorie, gelatinous substance made from a special kind of yam). After all the vegetables have been put in the pot, add the pacakge of frozen fish sausage and tofu mentioned above. Boil all this for a while. If you’re cooking from scratch and including the daikon and konyakku, I’d let it simmer for an hour, but if you’re only boiling the stuff from the frozen pacakge, you can prepare it in just a few minutes.  

I hope you’re noticing as you’re reading this blog post that I rarely mention measurements or time. That’s because those things aren’t really important. Recipe books always include very detailed information about quntities of this or that and precise minute-by-minute details, but that’s just there to make you feel like you need the recipe book. Don’t worry about it so much. Following recipe books take a lot of time and energy, and often produces unncessary anxiety. In contrast, just throwing the stuff together is quick, easy, and usually even more tasty since you’re using the intuition of your taste buds.  Don’t believe the hype of the recipe book — that’s my culinary motto. The two most important people to trust when you’re cooking are your mother (or someone else’s mother) and yourself.

Mori-Nu Tofu

Another thing I like to serve is simply raw tofu (hiyayakko) with a sauce made out of soy, rice vinegar, sesame oil, and grated ginger. (I am a ginger freak, as you can tell, but hey — it’s good for you.) This takes all of five minutes to make. A lot of Americans might be grossed out by raw tofu, but that’s probably because they ate crappy tofu. Ideally, you’d be able to get it freshly made, but that’s almost never possible in the United States, so you have to settle for the next best thing. The trick is which tofu to buy. If you get tofu that’s packaged with water, it will taste really awful. That’s because as it sits in the water, it sours a bit and gets a little crust around the edges. That kind of tofu is good for stir-fry and soup, but not for eating raw. The solution some Japanese food companies came up with is to vacuum-pack it. Most supermarkets in the United States sell the Mori-Nu brand, which is pretty good and comes in soft, firm, and extra-firm. For hiyayakko, you want the firm or extra-firm varieties.  


Last but not least is my favorite — okonomiyaki, which is a food often prepared at an outdoor stand during festivals in Japan. I really can’t understand why I’ve never seen a restaurant in America serve this, because I think it would be quite popular. Okonomiyaki gets a bit controversial, since every region of Japan has its own version, but I created my own Steve-style (Steve-no-teki-na okonomiyaki). The key ingredient is the special flour which you have to get at a Japanese grocery store. (Pictures of all the special ingredients to buy can be seen here.) Chop up some cabbage and some green onions, and thaw some frozen little shrimps in the microwave. (If you’re more adventurous, you can also chop up some octopus.) Put all this in a mixing bowl with the flour. Crack an egg into it, and stir. Add a little water as necessary to make a thick pancake batter, or add some more flour. It’s easy to add more of whatever until you get the consistency you want. Typically, Japanese people fry this on a pan with oil the same way we’d fry a pancake, but I think butter tastes better than oil. (And for that matter, frying in butter is better for American-style pancakes too.)

okonomiyaki sauce, photo by FotoosVanRobin

After you’ve cooked both sides (flipping it like a pancake, which is always fun), squirt on some special okonomiyaki sauce on the top and spread it over the surface. (I use a basting brush, but that’s unconventional. As you can see from the photo above, it’s usually just squirted around.)  You can buy this sauce at most Asian stores. In addition to the sauce, I like to also add katsuobushi (the bonito fish flakes) and aonori (a special kind of “blue seaweed” that’s not really blue, but can be bought ground-up in a little bottle in most stores.) What’s fun is to sprinkle the katsuobushi and aonori onto the okonomiyaki pancake while it’s still in the pan (with the stove turned off of course), and for some reason, the residual heat from the pan causes the katsuobushi flakes to wave at you. It’s very cute. 

So, those are my recipes. What’s my theoretical point? Not much of one, but simply that a little innovation can produce a nice quick meal and satisfy one’s cravings for whatever ethnic food one has some sentimental feelings about. There’s no need to get all anxious and worry about authenticity or the exact recipe. Only pretentious posers care about that nonsense. As cultural theorists such as Gilles Deleuze and Paul Gilroy point out — and as I argued repeatedly in all my blog posts about my trip to Japan last summer [here] — there is no original, authentic culture. Rather, all culture constantly innovates and adapts in transformative ways. (Their fancy jargony way to think about this is to say that all culture is rhizomorphic.) For instance, consider that some Japanese people eat their oden with mustard and their okonomiyaki with mayonaise (both of which came from Europe and which I personally don’t like on my oden and okonomiyaki). So, my culinary motto is to experiment, experiment, experiment, and as you do so, trust your own intuitions.

February 21, 2010 Posted by | food | 6 Comments

Food Innovations 1: Raw Fish

I like to eat. I really, really like to eat, and I also like to cook, and admittedly, I can be a bit of a snob about it. So, recently I’ve been thinking that maybe I should blog about food. Why not? If I can apply theory to literature, movies, politics, and philanthropy, why not also food? I was inspired to do this while I was making lunch yesterday when I experienced the dilemma of eating raw fish that I had bought from a supermarket. 

Before I go on with my story, I have to tell you that even before I lived in Japan I was one of those people who loves raw fish — sushi, ceviche, whatever.  From Korea to Denmark to Mexico, so many cultures have specialty dishes of raw (or almost raw) fish, and I’ve never been disappointed. (Raw beef too, but that’s another story.) So, in my fridge I had a steak of wild tuna that I had just purchased from the supermarket the night before. If I had bought this from a Japanese grocery story, I would feel entirely safe eating it raw with just a little soy sauce and wasabi to season it, but I couldn’t help feel a little nervous since this was from one of those oversized American supermarkets. I wasn’t worried about the quality of the fish, as I know that all deep-sea fish such as tuna is frozen right there on the boat immediately after it’s caught, but I was worried about the quality controls at American supermarkets. 

It was a dilemma. On the one hand, I really love raw tuna and think that cooking it simply ruins the flavor. On the other hand, I didn’t want to get a disease. What to do?

tuna sashimi

My solution was to pour some rice vinegar onto a plate and lay the tuna over it, wait a couple of minutes, and then turn the tuna over so all sides had touched the vinegar. This is basically the principle behind the Latin American dish ceviche as well as the Japanese sasazushi, a kind of sushi invented specifically for regions distant from the ocean. Essentially, the vinegar “cooks” or preserves the fish, and so yesterday I imagined it would kill the germs too. To complement the fish, I also cooked some rice, boiled some edamame, and made a green salad with mixed greens, carrots, and tomatoes. My Japanese-style recipe for salad dressing is simple: rice vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, black pepper, and sansho (a Japanese spice that has a bit of a lemony flavor and is available at almost all Asian markets), and I don’t think I’m bragging when I say my dressing tastes much, much better than the sugary crap I’ve seen masquerading as “Asian dressing” in many restaurants and cafeterias. The whole lunch took me just 25 minutes to prepare, and it was delicious.

So, that was my culinary innovation. Please don’t sue me if you try this at home and get sick from contaminated fish.  But here of course is the irony. For the sake of this blog, I decided today to look up the chances that I might have done something really stupid yesterday (since, honestly, I don’t really know what I’m talking about here), and found this helpful NY Times article. It turns out the only real danger in eating raw fish is from a parasite called anisakis, which would have been killed when the tuna was frozen on the deep-sea fishing vessel (in contrast to fresh-water and coastal fishes such as salmon, which I would never eat raw except from a real sushi chef.) So, no worries there. But do I trust the supermarket for keeping the fish clean? As you can see from this website here, people are worried about the standards governing where the fish comes from (especially when it’s farmed, fresh-water fish), not the standards governing what happens to it once it gets to the supermarket. Maybe I have nothing to worry about and didn’t need to add the vinegar at all!!! Perhaps my clever innovation based on my desires and fears was all for nothing (though it was tasty, so I’m happy anyway.) Interestingly, the NY Times article notes that although many people in America are worried about getting sick from raw fish, nobody in Japan is, and, all things considered, hardly anyone in any country ever does.

So, what’s the upshot here? Besides observing that our eating habits are in many ways irrational, no matter how scientific we think we are being, what does any of this have to do with theory? Well, one of the famous structuralist anthropologists Claude Levi-Strauss once wrote a book called The Raw and the Cooked. There he argues that in spite of the fact that the human stomach can digest just about anything, human beings feel the need to “socialize” their food. One of the basic ways human beings do this — Levi-Strauss observed across the many cultures he analyzed — is through categories of raw, cooked, and rotten. His basic point is that cooking is just like a language, and like all languages, it has an unconscious structure to it. The basic unconscious structure is our relationship to nature and culture, and our often irrational feelings about food seems to traverse this nature/culture binary.

There seems to be an interesting paradox. One might think that the more cooked (or more socialized) the better, but Levi-Strauss notes that the foods most socially connected to prestige or high status are the foods that are either raw or even partly rotten (e.g., sushi and blue cheese.) And if one looks at the price of these foods, one will notice the same thing. Raw and rotten foods are often more expensive. This suggests that our culinary language is more complex than simple binaries such as raw/cooked, nature/culture, outside/inside, or good/bad. Our cultural attitudes are coordinated complexly along more than just one axis of intepretation.

So, what is the moral here?… There is no moral, silly. Just some good eatin’.

February 10, 2010 Posted by | food | Leave a comment