The question of authenticity in Madison’s food scene
Japanese cuisine has morphed for American palates
It’s day four of January 2019’s polar vortex and Shinji Muramoto is sitting at the table closest to the frost-covered windows of The Victory on Atwood Avenue, hesitant to answer my question. Muramoto, who owns three restaurants in Madison, Restaurant Muramoto on King Street, Sushi Muramoto in Hilldale Shopping Center and Morris Ramen on King Street, where he is co-owner – is still wearing his thick winter coat while he holds on to a small to-go cup of coffee. The silence is tangible as I try again.
“What are some tips you have for someone who is new to eating sushi?” I ask.
Earlier in the week I had posed this question to Muramoto over social media while working on an article about Japanese restaurants in Madison, but instead of answering Muramoto said he would like to meet in person; but now he’s not talking. To fill the silence, I continue. “What about using soy sauce? Should people dip their sushi in it?” Muramoto sighs. “I am frustrated by how much soy sauce people use,” he says. “If you use too much, you don’t taste the fish.” At this point, Muramoto leans in and starts to get to the heart of the matter.
According to Muramoto, there are no true Japanese restaurants in Madison. While there are more than 20 local establishments with Japanese-inspired cuisine, many menus are Americanized. Originally from Sapporo, Japan, Muramoto moved to Madison in 1992. Although he is one of the few Japanese restaurant owners in Wisconsin, he doesn’t consider his restaurants – or any other Japanese restaurants in the state – to be purveyors of authentic Japanese dishes.
Sushi is a perfect example, Muramoto says, of how traditional Japanese food has become Americanized (like many other cuisines are). “In Japan, sushi is very simple with respect for the ingredients.”
While the origin of inside-out roll – the rolls with rice on the outside that have become ubiquitous at restaurants across the United States – is disputed, most agree the rolls were invented by chefs in North America around the 1970s. “The chef realized that people didn’t want to eat food that looked black, so he put rice on the outside of the nori [seaweed],” Muramoto says.
When Muramoto opened his original “Asian fusion” restaurant in 2004 (where Morris Ramen is now located), he didn’t want to include sushi on the menu.
“In Japan, people have so much respect for sushi chefs,” Muramoto says. “Even now, after making sushi for 25 years, I don’t consider myself a sushi chef. But there is still demand. I have to make a living, too, so I decided to have five special sushi rolls on the menu. But I didn’t even have table soy sauce unless people asked for it.”
Muramoto says that in Japan the majority of restaurants specialize in one dish. “The sushi restaurant does only sushi, the udon shop does only udon noodle,” he says. While there are places with more general menus – like izakayas, which are casual drinking establishments with small dishes of food – most places focus on one type of Japanese cuisine. In recent years Muramoto has noticed the trend of new restaurants specializing in one type of Japanese cuisine in the United States, mainly in large metropolitan areas like Chicago and New York. So it would make sense that Madison’s first ramen shop – Umami Ramen and Dumpling Bar, which celebrated its eighth anniversary in March – was opened by someone who moved to Madison from New York.
Mike Ding is the owner of Umami and the izakaya-style restaurant Tavernakaya on Capitol Square. Originally from Taiwan, Ding says he fell in love with ramen while traveling in Japan and throughout Asia. Before coming to Madison for college, Ding lived in New York City. He returned to New York and eventually moved back to Madison to start a restaurant with a friend. “At that time eight years ago, ramen was really just starting to proliferate in New York,” Ding says. “We thought ramen would work in Madison due to the long winters.”
Ding echoes Muramoto when talking about restaurants in Japan. “Generally if you go to a ramen shop in Japan they will specialize in one type of ramen,” he says. But when Ding and his former business partner started Umami they knew they would have to provide more options. “We knew we couldn’t be that focused. Although our specialty is tonkotsu – broth made with pork bones – we knew that if we just came out with that one offering that it might not be enough to gain traction with the population in Madison,” Ding says. Ding and the Umami team strive to make things “the way they are supposed to be made” despite having several types of ramen. Ding says more options make it more approachable for Madison diners. “In the bigger cities there is a lot more density – there are millions and millions of residents – you can specialize in one thing and get the business you need to survive,” Ding says.
All of the noodles at Umami are made in-house with a machine imported from Japan, something Ding says is unique to Madison and similar to Japanese ramen shops.
Muramoto also senses an opportunity to serve people more traditional food at his restaurants. “People order more nigiri [raw fish on rice] compared to 10 years ago,” Muramoto says. “When I opened at Hilldale in 2007 we sold a lot more rolls but now I think people are more educated. That’s why I don’t want people to use too much soy sauce. That is the beauty of sushi – you taste the fish.”
Erica Krug is a Madison-based writer.
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