I know I’m in the land of sushi and ramen, but a girl can only go so long without a good cheese sauce. Yes, I know Tokyo is “so international,” and that it has the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants out of any city in the world, but let me tell you about the struggle to find good cheese and good Italian food.
I’m not really sure how they make cheese sauce here, but evidently it’s made with fish flavoring and skim milk. It’s not at all the rich, creamy stuff of your dreams like what we have in Little Italy. And if the Italian food here is disappointing, the Mexican food is downright bad. I guess that’s somewhat unsurprising though. Staple foods here are raw fish and plain rice; Japanese culture doesn’t seem to value rich food in the same way as the West. If you want a pierogi, you’re going to have to travel a few thousand miles. Those definitely don’t exist here.
It’s times like these that make me appreciate the diversity of America. When my fourth grade teacher tried to explain the concept of America as a melting pot, and I pictured a great big vat of stew, I wasn’t wrong. America, when taking in immigrants, also takes in a huge variety of food cultures. ‘The melting pot’ is the reason you can find great Ethiopian food on Cleveland’s east side, amazing Polish food on the west side and all sorts of food in between, including Little Italy. And that’s all in Cleveland, a city with less than a million people in the middle of America .
The greater Tokyo area has about 38 million people in it. You would think I should be able to find a few people who know how Italian food should taste. But Japan is far from a melting pot. According to the CIA World Factbook, 98.5% of the population in Japan is Japanese. For comparison, the majority racial group in the United states is non-hispanic whites at 72.4% of the population. So in Japan, it’s reasonable to assume that way fewer people grew up eating non-Japanese food.
Of course, anyone can learn to make a cheese sauce. However, in Japan, there are a very limited amount of traditional foods, if any, that incorporate dairy. If you grew up essentially without eating butter, cheese or milk, how good do you think your cheese sauce would really taste? Well, I’m telling you from personal experience that it won’t taste very good, and it’s not your fault.
In Japan, the net migration rate is so low that it is estimated at 0 migrants per 1,000 people (in the United States, it’s about 3.9 migrants per 1,000 people). There aren’t many people moving to Japan who grew up cooking with butter, cheese and milk. So of course the Italian food doesn’t taste like it does in Little Italy, made by the hands of second and third generation immigrants whose parents and grandparents grew up eating food made in Italy and passed on their recipes, techniques and inimitable taste preferences.
Tokyo has an incredibly diverse set of international travelers, but not of immigrants, of people who set up homes and businesses here. America’s history of immigration is the reason you can get high quality food of so many ethnicities without much more effort than a Google search. And it’s the reason why, even though I’m so grateful I have the world’s best sushi at my fingertips, I wake up dreaming of bratwurst, tacos and tortellini.
Morgan Wood is a third-year student studying art history and economics. She is spending the fall term studying abroad in Tokyo, Japan. Upon arriving back in Cleveland in December, she plans on going straight from the airport to Presti’s Bakery and then stopping at Barrio on the way home.