West Eats East
Japanese Food Business
Ethnic foods first arrived here primarily by migrant workers at the West Coast or immigrants at the East Coast. They stayed within cultural boundaries but spread to other groups or the mainstream if favored. Japanese migrant workers came, many through sugar or pineapple plantations in Hawaii, to the West Coast for agriculture, mining or other labor intensive works on contract since the 1850’s. Labor contractors and trading companies along with ocean liners set up a scheme to bring their customary foods to minimize annoyance of changing eating habits as if a part of the labor contract. The Japanese food business started from here.
Export, import, custom clearance, warehousing, distribution, logistics to the western states from Seattle or San Francisco, a port of entry then, and sales at the locations where migrants settled down, were done. Soy sauce, miso, rice, Kombu or Nori sea-veggie, radish pickles, you name it among the foods brought in. Today such trading functions thrive at key ports like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New York and other sea or airports. They were the core of food business, which was often invisible behind the scenes. The first visible one was grocery stores selling these ethnic items. Some of them still exist reminiscent of the early ones while others have come later. Katagiri in New York 100+ years old, Nakata Market of Japan on Rainbow in Las Vegas and Nak’s in Menlo Park, CA are examples. Some small stores grew to good size supermarkets like Uwajimaya in Seattle. The larger ones like Mitsuwa, Marukai or Nijiya in California were latecomers for the growing population of Japanese residents and sojourners in a new wave of economic activities and oversea education. In the last several years a new stable class of Asian nationals have gone there for healthy Japanese foods. Several of the merchandise is from Japan with the original packages and labels or directly translated ones along with the import regulatory requirements in English. They are basically ethnic stores where the mainstream people need to ask many questions.
Some ethnic foods like tofu were locally made firstly at home or by the cottage industry at every settlement, which was the dawn of ethnic food manufacturing. Some grew to large food processing particularly since the 1960’s, such as soy sauce by Kikkoman in Wisconsin and Yamasa in Oregon, instant noodles by Nissin or Maruchan in California, tofu by House Foods in California, dumplings by Ajinomoto in Washington, Tobikko raw fish eggs often in colors used in sushi rolls, soba buckwheat noodles, pickles and many others. Today you may buy many basic Japanese items in the Asian section of supermarkets and even at Costco, imported or domestically manufactured.
Some migrant workers decided to stay permanently for family or economic reasons. Among them, some moved to Little Tokyo in L.A. or Japan Town in S.F. to live together with their people, just like other ethnic groups at Little Italy, Chinatown, Little Saigon, etc. Eating out was almost a must for these city dwellers. One of my records shows that a restaurant in Little Tokyo served more than two thousand 10 cent meals a day in 1930. In the 1950’s such ethnic restaurants started serving those who had experienced Japan in addition to ethnic residents and visitors from Japan, like Tokyo Sukiyaki at a corner of Fisherman’s Wharf and Azume at a college town, Ithaca, NY, where I had a part time job of serving and cooking. Sukiyaki and tempura were major orders with no trace of sushi. Teriyaki of beef or chicken followed, which enabled a beef bowl chain, Yoshinoya, to open as the first chain restaurant of the Japanese taste. Then Japanese restaurants hopped out in big cities and suburbs serving various Japanese-style meals all over the country.
In the 1980’s due to our concern over health, Japanese foods got recognition for healthy, long living. Sushi came into our eating. Japanese restaurants became almost synonymous to sushi bar. Though it is an American style, sushi may cause heart attacks to authentic sushi people in Japan for its appearance, taste and eating surrounding. Visitors from Japan exclaimed “that is not sushi!” Here in our market that is our sushi. Creative roll sushi, Carousel Kaiten sushi, started at Miyake in Palo Alto, CA, and 75-85% of sushi restaurant owners of Korean origin are primary driving forces to the current sushi progress. Sushi is now a must item even at a Chinese or seafood or cruise ship buffet. Many ethnic foods are generally consumed only at restaurants or in to-go style at home. Cooking ethnic food is not difficult but may be too foreign to start, though I have seen a sushi making set in a cooking book section of a major bookstore. I am sure you can make sushi but are not tempted to because you need lots of gadgets and ingredients. You had better buy it to-go or eat it at a restaurant. Thus restaurants must be at the center of the ethnic food business. More to come about Japanese restaurants later.