Saving time, but losing a tradition among Japanese

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TOKYO -- Stroll through a depachika, one of the sprawling basement food halls found in Japanese department stores, and you'll encounter a breathtaking display of ready-to-eat items: jewellike salads, tantalizing croquettes, tofu salads, grilled chicken on skewers and other offerings known collectively as sozai.

For young working women with little inclination to cook elaborate meals, store-bought sozai is a time-saving grace. Traditionalists, though, say the commercial sozai boom is to blame for the vanishing art of home cooking in Japan.

From generation to generation, Japanese homemakers have passed to their daughters the skills for preparing sozai, the catchall term for the various dishes that comprise home-cooked meals throughout the Asian nation. Usually made with fish, tofu, miso, ginger and other ingredients underpinning ancient culinary customs, sozai is to Japan what meat and potatoes are to America.

"I grew up eating my mother's dishes," says Hiroko Shimbo, the New York-based author of The Japanese Kitchen: 250 Recipes in a Traditional Spirit (Harvard Common Press, 2000, $21.95), which features 250 dishes that qualify as sozai. Shimbo's childhood favorites include stir-fried hijiki seaweed and tofu, miso-simmered mackerel, salt-grilled fish and, she says, "vegetables dressed with sesame dressing, and just good-quality tofu."

As fewer women marry, more mothers enter the workforce and the population ages, the Japanese have become increasingly dependent on nakashoku. Translated as "home-meal replacement," nakashoku includes sozai, an industry that is reaping tens of billions of dollars in sales despite Japan's recent recession.

Since the mid-1990s, a staggering variety of sozai has become available in Japanese food courts, cafes, restaurants, specialty shops and convenience stores.

"If I were living on my own, I'd pop into a department store or supermarket, or if I [didn't] have the energy to cook," says Miyako Yoshida, a Tokyo interpreter in her early 30s with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose mother still prepares dinner nightly. Young single women who do swing by a depachika after work for costly sozai dishes get the bulk of the blame for the demise of homemade dinners, although you will hear no complaints from the Japan Sozai Association, a trade group for sozai producers.

Because the Japanese also are flocking to restaurants, once primarily the domain of carousing salarymen, they've become more particular about what they eat. "The traditional taste of home cooking has unquestionably been pushed out of household meals," according to Japanese Food Past and Present, a pamphlet published by the Foreign Press Center in Tokyo.

In a country that craves innovation while clinging to tradition, this predicament spawned an enterprising solution: "Ironically, bars and eateries advertising 'the taste of home cooking' have begun to proliferate in the back streets," according to the pamphlet, published in 1996.

Today, "everyday" food has traveled from back-street kitchens to designer deli counters, as sozai producers compete fiercely for the palates of those who, in quintessential Japanese fashion, seek new taste trends while waxing nostalgic for their mothers' cooking.

Sozai made outside the Japanese home kitchen is hardly a new phenomenon. During the Edo period, (1603 to 1876), outlets called sozaiya offered prepared foods. And the depachika in posh department stores have long included sozai in vendors' gleaming showcases, along with green tea, confections, fruit and delicacies intended for gifts and celebrations. Until relatively recently, though, sozai obtained commercially was a rarity. Today, it is ubiquitous.

The concept of sozai even is making its way to the United States, where consumers take for granted the availability of precooked meals, from chicken fingers to entire Thanksgiving dinners, but not precooked meals with a Japanese flair.

The salads and other offerings of Delica rf1, a leading sozai purveyor in Japan that recently opened an outlet in San Francisco, have been described as a "fusion of the Western deli with Japanese attention to presentation in creating a new understanding of the food as accessible and beautiful."

With dishes bearing alluring names such as platinum-pork salad, sozai, like so many of the country's other popular culture trends, embodies Japan's love of the old and the new. Familiar side dishes, such as bean curd smothered in miso and marinated octopus, have been joined by elegant reinterpretations of old standards, not to mention lasagna, Chinese food and hamburgers.

To appeal to her family's different preferences, a working mother may buy several sozai dishes in the depachika next to the subway station on her way home, and serve them with rice steamed earlier in the family cooker. As is increasingly common, though, she might skip the rice and opt instead for a baguette from a French bakery in the same depachika.

News programs and fashion magazines hype the latest sozai sensations, which change with the speed of clothing trends, and are often devised by celebrity chefs.

Companies vying with one another in the sozai market "always have to come up with the best flavor and something very seasonal," Shimbo says. "It's very, very competitive."

The latest sozai selections are pitched with exuberant advertising campaigns that highlight a product's nutritional content as well as its geographic origins. "One week it might be artichoke salads, the next maybe red peppers will be in vogue," according to a 2002 article called "Sozai: Japan's Fashionable Food Boom" on a Web site devoted to Japan called Sake-Drenched Postcards.

Rikkyo University student Fumiyasu Konishi works in Hong Kong Garden, a Chinese sozai shop in a Tokyo branch of the Seibu department store, where he sells dumplings and spring rolls. "Most of the customers are married females who work full-time jobs so they don't have any time to cook dinner for [their] family," he says. "Of course, single people prefer sozai."

Single working women with ample disposable incomes may be able to afford pricey sozai purchased by the gram from fashionable department stores such as Takashimaya, Isetan and Tobu, where depachika lines grow long at lunch and dinner time. But students, the elderly, part-time workers, middle-aged salarymen and others with limited means have turned in huge numbers to convenience stores such as 7-Eleven, am/pm and Lawson, which seem to occupy every urban block, for cheap, fast sozai.

The selection in these stores is frequently replenished during the day and goes far beyond the subs and fried chicken that are the norm in American convenience stores. In addition to American-style salads and soups, customers may grab a bento box, noodle dish, rice ball or a sozai side dish, such as a plastic container of tasty spinach and sesame salad, for a couple of dollars. Lately, in ads aimed at older viewers, chains are promoting sozai and other prepared food as healthful and free of additives.

For Eric Gower, author of The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen: Inspired New Tastes (Kodansha, 2003, $27), the commercial sozai craze can be attributed in part to a lack of culinary confidence. Preparing traditional sozai is "pretty labor-intensive," says Gower, who lived in Japan for 15 years and seeks to replace conventional notions of sozai with a mixture of old and new ingredients.

"I think a lot of young people especially are kind of afraid of cooking," Gower says. "Like with so many things in Japan [they feel they] have to be professional and licensed to do things right." Bound by rigid foodways, would-be cooks are also afraid to improvise and simplify, he says.

This isn't the first generation to be cowed by Japan's venerable cooking traditions, Gower says. Mothers rearing families in the 1970s and 1980s were also intimidated, he says.

But then, as now, the Japanese women who still prize their role as homemakers above all else would never rely on store-bought sozai to feed her family, Gower says. Raised to be thrifty, he says, "No self-respecting housewife is going to plunk down that kind of bread."

Chilled Eggplant-and-Tomato Salad

Serves 3 to 4 as a side dish

1 tablespoon peeled and minced ginger

2 tablespoons minced scallion, white part only

4 tablespoons komezu (rice vinegar)

2 tablespoons shoyu (soy sauce)

1 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons sesame oil

6 Japanese or Italian eggplants, stemmed

1 medium tomato, parboiled in water for 30 seconds, peeled, cored and seeded

In a small saucepan, combine the ginger, scallion, komezu, shoyu, sugar and sesame oil. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat. Transfer the dressing to a small bowl, and let it cool to room temperature. Then chill the dressing, covered, in the refrigerator.

Heat a broiler or a grill. Cook the eggplants until their skins are lightly charred. Peel the skins, and cut each eggplant in half crosswise. Cut each piece lengthwise into quarters. Cut the tomato into half-inch cubes. Arrange the eggplant on a serving platter, and top with the tomato. Chill the vegetables, covered, in the refrigerator.

Before serving, pour the dressing over the vegetables. At the table, toss the vegetables with the dressing.

- "The Japanese Kitchen: 250 Recipes in a Traditional Spirit" by Hiroko Shimbo (Harvard Common Press, 2000, $21.95)

Per serving: 245 calories; 8 grams protein; 8 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 43 grams carbohydrate; 0 grams fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 517 milligrams sodium

Hot Vegetable Summer Salad With Miso Vinaigrette

Serves 3 or 4 as a side dish

2 ears very fresh corn, shucked

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 small to medium zucchini, roughly chopped

1/4 pound fresh green beans, ends trimmed, cut in 1-inch pieces

sea salt

fresh coarsely ground black pepper

2 tablespoons walnut oil

2 tablespoons brown rice (or other) vinegar

1 tablespoon miso

1 teaspoon apricot jam

10 shiso leaves, minced

1 tablespoon chives, minced

Cut the kernels from the cob into a bowl. Warm the olive oil in a large frying pan, add the corn, zucchini and green beans. Salt and pepper them to taste, and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the walnut oil, vinegar, miso and apricot jam in a cup and mix, to make a vinaigrette. Add this to the pan, mixing gently but thoroughly.

Add the shiso and mix again. Taste for salt and serve on warm plates. Top with chives.

- "The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen: Inspired New Tastes" by Eric Gower (Kodansha, 2003, $27)

Per serving: 184 calories; 2 grams protein; 14 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 14 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 166 milligrams sodium

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