In early 2007 the Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO) published a guide to Japanese restaurants in Paris, based on the findings of 12 anonymous ‘sushi police’. Based on such criteria as quality, service, and authenticity, only 50 out of 600 in the city and surrounding area made the grade. In January 2008 the Ministry of Agriculture rolled out a worldwide ‘authenticity screen’.
All this commotion has had little noticeable effect on the mushrooming of Paris’s fake Japanese restaurants, known by those in the know as ‘nisejapo’ (fake Japanese). A gentle stroll along a rue of your choice will reveal a succession of cookie-cutter inauthentic restaurants with names that would put you straight out of business in Japan: Banzai Sushi, Bonsai Sushi, or – my favourite to date – Yaki-kochi.
These places aren’t just similar – they’re identical. They offer the same set menus, serve the same weird mustard-y salad, the same clear ‘miso soup’, the same cheese-in-beef brochettes. Someone out there is clearly getting fat off the sales of a do-it-yourself Japanese restaurant conversion kit, with the majority of their customers trading sweet and sour pork for raw tuna – around 90% of Japanese restaurants in Paris are Chinese-owned.
How wrong is it? It’s hard to know where to start. In all the years I’ve spent in Japan, I’ve never seen miso soup without, well, miso in it. I was also under the impression that cheese had never formed a major part of the Japanese diet, but apparently that centuries-long spurning of animal products and near-total lack of dairy herds was just a smokescreen.
It’s also, frequently, not very good, nowhere near the standards you would expect of even the meanest yatai stall in Japan. The dry, chewy skewer meat would prompt any yakitori chef worth his soy to ritually end it all, and the salad is just indescribable. But it’s cheap and it’s cheerful, and in marketing terms that means it’s streets ahead of the more ‘authentic’ competition.
From here on September 15th 2008.