Savor the history of Japanese American cuisine with a new book by Gil Asakawa

While reading Tabemacho! Let’s eat! it’s like having a conversation with a friend – if your friend was an expert on Japanese American culture and had a story for each of their great restaurant recommendations. In his new book, Denver-based author Gil Asakawa recounts the past and present of Japanese cuisine in the United States while weaving stories of a childhood that combined two cultures into one delicious culinary identity.

Asakawa is a third-generation Japanese-American who lived in Japan until the age of eight, when his family moved to northern Virginia and then to Denver in the 1970s. His father was born in Hawaii and joined the US Army. Asakawa therefore felt an American influence even before emigrating. “My dad was very culturally fluid. He spoke English to us at home and English with all his gastrointestinal friends. He even spoke English to my mom too. But my mom always spoke more Japanese,” Asakawa says. “I feel like we had this bicultural upbringing, and we never felt like one was fighting the other.”

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In Tabemacho! Let’s eat!Gil Asakawa tells the story of food from 1603 to the present day, intertwined with his Japanese-American childhood memories.

Gil Asakawa/Instagram

In the book, Asakawa tells stories of his mother making burgers or spaghetti for dinner, or his father grilling a steak — meals served with an ubiquitous bowl of rice. Often, he said, his mother ate rice, salmon and pickled vegetables while he and his brothers ate more “American” dishes. “She had a very stubborn consumption of Japanese food,” he jokes.

On special occasions or when they had out-of-town visitors, the family traveled to Benihana. While chronicling the last century of Japanese restaurants in America in Tabemacho! Let’s eat!Asakawa recounts the experience: “It’s hard to explain now how amazing it was to dine at a restaurant in the 1960s that featured Japanese cuisine as something ordinary Americans could enjoy, and with their whole family. Benihana made it ‘safe for Central Americans to love Japanese food, even if it wasn’t exactly the dishes a Japanese in Japan might choose to eat.’

While food has always been a big part of Asakawa’s life, it hasn’t always been a subject of his work. In fact, one of his first gigs out of college was as Westwordfirst music publisher, from 1983 to the then six-year-old newspaper. Throughout his nearly four decades in the print and online media industry, he has been involved with countless outlets in Colorado, eTown radio in Boulder at the Denver Post and Colorado Public Television. In 2004, he published his first book, Be Japanese Americanon the broader experience of having mixed heritage.

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Asakawa’s love of Japanese American cuisine has grown even stronger with the rise of social media.

Erin Yoshimura

Asakawa says he doesn’t think about Tabemacho! Let’s eat! as a result of Be Japanese American; rather, it is a new lens on its cultural identity that has evolved from the evolution of technology. “[Being Japanese American] it was really before social media and having really good smartphones with cameras so you could take ‘food porn,’” he notes. “It was before I realized how much I had become a foodie. I take pictures of almost everything I eat. … I became really immersed in the food.”

His obsession appears throughout the book as Asakawa recalls eating deliciously creamy tonkotsu ramen in the dish’s original region of Kyushu in Japan or drinking Calpis (a cultured milk drink known as Calpico in America) when he was a child. Denver readers of Tabemacho! will be delighted with the many references to local restaurants such as Tokyo, Sushi lair and Star Ramen. The chapter on Japanese American ingenuity describes Karami Japanese Salsa, a pot condiment that has its roots in a Japanese side dish called tsukudani which is made with green Pueblo chili peppers (instead of the more traditional wakame seaweed) and mixed with soy sauce and sugar. You can find Karami Salsa at Pacific Mercantile Company at 1925 Lawrence Street.

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In addition to beef gyudon bowls, Kokoro offers a variety of Japanese American dishes, such as yakisoba noodle stir-fry “Sobaghetti.”

Kokoro/Facebook

Another chapter on donburi (rice bowls topped with meat and vegetables) describes the evolution of a beef and rice dish called gyudon. Asakawa explains how in 1899 the Japanese fast food restaurant gyudon Yoshinoya was established and eventually opened its first office outside Japan in Denver in 1973. As the chain eventually pulled out of Colorado, one of its leaders stayed and took over a few of the locations, reopening them as they went Kokoro Restaurants. Today, you can still get gyudon (simply called beef bowls on the menu now), as well as yakisoba “Sobaghetti” and a variety of other Japanese American dishes at Kokoro’s two restaurants, Arvada and on South Colorado Boulevard in the University Hills neighborhood.

Kokoro’s story is just a taste of what Tabemacho! Let’s eat! must share. For Denver foodies, Japanese food aficionados, and other Japanese Americans, Asakawa has created a casual story that’s detailed but easy to enjoy and opinionated without being pretentious. If you want to learn a surprisingly delicious story while discovering a new set of restaurants to love, grab a copy and get hungry.

Tabemacho! Let’s eat ! : A Tasty History of Japanese Food in America is available from online retailers, including Tattered cover bookstores, Barnes & Noble, Librairie.org and Amazon.

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