Japanese Food in America

Samurai Sam's

Recently, I spent a week in sunny Phoenix, AZ again for work training and some research for my company.1 The weather was 105°F (43°C) so it was extremely hot, but I still enjoy going to Phoenix anyway. Of the places I’ve visited in the US (not many to be honest), Phoenix is among my favorite. One of the places that my co-workers brought me to for lunch was a small American-chain called Samurai Sam’s. It bills itself (from the website):

We serve tasty Japanese dishes at an affordable price, using only the highest quality ingredients.

Samurai Sam’s was good and cheap, but it wasn’t very Japanese. This got me thinking about the American-perception of Japanese food.

Japanese food in the US usually means:

  • Sushi, or
  • Teriyaki

However, neither of these dishes is commonly eaten in Japan. Yes, sushi is quite popular in Japan, but it’s expensive, and people usually only go for business meetings or for family celebrations. There’s also sushi-delivery in Japan, which is pretty cool (I wish they had that in the US). The focus is on quality too, so sushi pieces in Japan are quite small, but the presentation and quality of ingredients is very high. In the US, you can buy sushi with all kinds of non-traditional ingredients, and the quality isn’t very high,2 but the portions are larger than real Japanese sushi.

But what about teriyaki? Again, this isn’t very common in Japan. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten teriyaki in Japan, only the US. Japan has lots of good, grilled foods (yakitori (焼き鳥) for example, grilled chicken) like teriyaki, but it’s not the same. Teriyaki in the US actually can be really good, but if you look carefully, most teriyaki restaurants in the US are not owned by Japanese people, and real Japanese restaurants will usually not serve it.

Also, the Samurai Sam’s I went to, had some interesting decor. There was a cute mural in the back with Japanese writing on it, but the layout was gramatically incorrect (a mix of vertical and horizontal words), plus I think the cup had incorrect grammar:

Japanese Grammar on cup

I might be wrong on this, but to me, it was missing a “na” な between 新鮮 (shinsen “fresh”) and 野菜 (yasai “vegetable”). I took a pen and fixed my cup because I am a huge nerd. 😉 However, since this is just advertising, maybe it’s not necessary anyway.

Wok the Healthy Path

Their slogan is “Wok the Healthy Path”. This is a word-play: wok sounds like “walk” as in “walk the healthy path”. A wok is actually a Chinese-style pan, not Japanese. Even in Japanese it’s called chūkanabe (中華鍋) or “Chinese cooking-pot”. The “walk the path” bit obviously is taken from American images of Zen Buddhism too. :p

But the average American wouldn’t notice any of this. Most people don’t have much contact with Asian people or culture, so they wouldn’t know the difference between Japanese and Chinese culture or cuisine. It’s just “Asian food” to most Americans. So, a company like Samurai Sam’s can blend different Asian “cliches” into something they can market easily.

Although I’m poking fun at America, the same phenomenon goes both ways. In Japan, people tend to assume that Americans eat a lot of steak and hamburgers. I know this because when I watched Japanese TV shows with my daughter, if they talked about other countries, the image of American people was almost always a blond, blue-eyed boy eating a steak. I always found that funny. 😉 Also, it’s funny when McDonald’s in Japan advertises new burgers, which have an “ethnic” taste like Indian burgers, French burgers, German burgers, etc. The commercials for these burgers often feature silly stereotypes of other cultures, just like American TV.

If you think that’s silly though, Korean TV is even worse.

Capitalism and ignorance are funny things, aren’t they? 🙂

P.S. Although I joked about Samurai Sam’s in this post, it was a good, cheap place to eat. Fun, friendly and fast too. I wish there was one here in Seattle, because I’d probably go again.

P.P.S. Thanks to reader Ruairi for reminded me of this: Japanese food (as really eaten by Japanese people) often comprises of baked fish (not raw), seafood and vegetables, often pickled. This is just a generalization though. More on that in an older post.

1 Sadly, I had no chance to visit the local Zen temple there. I worked 12-13 hours a day for four days, so I just had no time. I really tried though. 😦

2 To be honest, having visited and lived in other countries, I sincerely believe that American food overall is just fucking terrible. I mean, really awful. Culturally, we like quantity, not quality, and we suffer for it. Poorer, or less developed countries still eat better than we do. It’s not a problem of money, but culture, ignornace (not knowing that better food is out there) and attitude. Interesting fact: families in the US spend less money on food proportionately than other modern, industrialized countries do. So what do we spend that money on? No idea.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

3 thoughts on “Japanese Food in America”

  1. Great post Doug…im fascinated by what is perceived as ‘authentic food’

    Two questions:
    What do you mean by ‘teriyaki’? I’ve always associated it with a particular marinade…
    What *is* authentic Japanese food? What are regular day-to-day meals? Over here, alot of Japanese places do noodle broths, stir fries etc?


    1. Hi Ruairi!

      Teriyaki literally means something that shines (teri) and is baked/grilled (yaki), so it is a way with cooking a specific glaze. You’re right, the glaze itself is used sometimes in Japanese food.

      However, in at least the American context, it almost always means “grilled chicken” only or a burger. Neither of which are common applications of teriyaki, so far as I have seen.

      As for what is authentic, lots of seafood (cooked) and vegetables. My wife likes to eat a whole baked fish often with pickled veggies. Neither of which are common in Western Japanese restaurants unless you go to the more expensive ones usually. That’s just one example though. Hope that makes sense. 🙂

      P.S. I should update this post with that detail. It’s a good call out.


  2. I noticed that in Lawrence, KS–where I will be living soon–a donburi (rice bowl) restaurant seems to be pretty popular. You can put just about anything on top of a bowl of rice, so it can be very Japanese, or it can be made more to local tastes. And, it is pretty familiar in both restaurants and home cooking in Japan. At the same time, Japanese restaurants in the US serve a salad as part of a meal–but salad is never part of a traditional Japanese meal. Pickled veggies seem to partly fulfill that role in Japan, and there are lots of other yummy veggie dishes in most meals. But I have discovered a common ancestor. The Italian word for salad is ‘insalata,’ which means ‘salt applied.’ This suggests that our salads were actually pickles in the past. I plan to investigate home-made Japanese-style pickles in Lawrence.


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