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July 13, 2011

Between Cultures: Butter rice or sugar rice?

Even today when some Japanese travel abroad, they lug around an extra suitcase filled with noodles, miso and other goodies from the national diet. They simply don't feel at ease without a bite of Japanese food.

I was reminded of this when reading Donald Keene's Modern Japanese Diaries, in which the great scholar discusses a diary describing the first embassy ever sent abroad in modern times by the Japanese. This was an official trip made in 1860 to ratify the treaty of amity and commerce concluded in 1857 with the United States. Diarist and leader of the embassy was shogunal top-ranking official, Muragaki Norimasa (a somewhat dour figure who continuously berates the Americans for being without manners and decorum, without appreciating their kindliness).

Too long bereft of proper Japanese food, in Philadelphia the Japanese group is overjoyed when a bowl of rice appears on the table. But to their dismay the rice has been cooked in butter. They ask the kitchen to make new rice without butter. New rice appears, but now to their even greater dismay, it has been cooked with sugar! Disappointed at this barbarian way of treating rice, the Japanese delegation eats bread instead. Muragaki comments as follows:
In general customs relating to food are the same throughout the world, but our country's are unique. For this reason, it is impossible to describe adequately in words the hardships we suffer when we travel abroad."
[Donald Keene, Modern Japanese Diaries]