The EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) has been characterised in Europe as “cars for cheese”. As a cheese loving North European, I did indeed miss being able to buy reasonably priced good quality cheese when I was living in Japan. It was a kind of comfort food for me – either hunks of cheese on bread, or sometimes I would have what I called my “spaghetti Bolognese” moment, where I would crave the umami of a tomato and beef sauce smothered with parmesan cheese.
But because I also lived in Japan as a child, traditional Japanese foods are comfort food for me too. Now I am living in the UK – I sometimes make miso soup (particularly the red miso I remember from when I was a child in Sendai), or okonomiyaki, or curry rice or tonkatsu to cheer myself up.
The EPA now has to be approved by various local European parliaments, and one of the ways of persuading them to accept the agreement is to point out that it will ensure the geographical designation of over 200 European food and drink products are protected in the Japanese market, such as Polish vodka or Parma ham.
If this argument is sufficiently persuasive to local parliaments, the agreement is expected to be ratified in 2018 and implemented in 2019.
Europeans get very passionate about the authenticity of local food – particularly the Italians. There is even a Twitter account called “Italians mad at food” (@Italiancomments) which retweets comments from Italians outraged – mostly at Americans – for putting mushrooms or garlic in carbonara sauce or pineapple on pizza.
Italians would not be impressed with my spaghetti Bolognese either – there is no such dish as spaghetti Bolognese in Italy. There is ragu alla Bolognese, which means simply a meat sauce – and is meant to be eaten with tagliatelle, not spaghetti.
The British have a long history of adopting foods from other cultures – our favourite national dish is Chicken Tikka Masala – which is a curry which does not exist in India – and the second or third generation British Chinese who run our takeaway food shops have become resigned to putting sweet and sour sauce on fries.
The British have become far more sophisticated about foreign food these days. Multicultural street food has become fashionable across Europe – most major cities have markets full of “yatai” – one in my town has a Chilean stall and a falafel (Middle Eastern food) stall which is actually run by a couple of Koreans.
Japanese people are somewhat dismayed to see fast food chains selling “sushi” in the UK which have little resemblance to the authentic Japanese version but of course curry rice, tempura and tonkatsu are actually hybrid Japanese/European/Indian foods themselves.
So the EPA seems likely to herald another chapter of hybridization. Japan and Europe will trade in each other’s authentic, local foods, and create new hybrids that will be the comfort foods for the next generation. It’s a business opportunity both for traditional farmers and adventurous cooks.
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