Change is not always bad. An odd thing to learn from Japan. This is a country where time honed tradition and history always seem to trump innovation and modernization. You can drink tea, eat ramen and watch sumo, and get the exact same experience as you would have a hundred years ago. Japan’s reputation is as a country with a long memory and a short tolerance for change.
However, despite its own stubborn grip on tradition, Japan is very quick to initiate change in things that come from abroad. Thus imported culture, food and even language quickly go under a samurai sword sized knife for a reconstructive surgery, often leaving it nearly unrecognizable.
The Bastardization of Food
Spend a few days in Japan and you will realize that food is an extreme example of this. Stop into an Italian restaurant and expect takko and corn on your pizza and fish eggs in your pasta. Try ramen in Japan and China and you will hardly recognize that one was based off the other. And of course stop into any one of the “American style restaurants” and you will be hard pressed to find a single American staple. Seriously, if you are going to prepare anything resembling a hamburger, at least put it on a bun.
Recently however, I stumbled upon a rarity that completely changed my perception of the Japanese habit of adjusting things. A new hamburger shop called Sonora Burger opened up in my city. I was skeptical, but when I walked in and spotted a giant hamburger on display, bun and all, I started to get my hopes up. The next thing I saw made me think it too good to be true:
100% Yonezawa Beef
This seemed the stuff of legend and I felt like I was living a dream until I saw the many jars of pickled who knows what lining the bar. This could be a deal breaker, but I decided there was at least enough positive signs to withhold judgment until I actually bit in to one of these burgers.
After further encouragement from the simple menu that lacked a “tako natto baga”, I could hardly wait to sink my teeth into one of these bad boys. I decided to keep it simple and just get their normal burger and some onion rings to ease into this new experience. It came out with the typical beauty and small portion size of any Japanese dish, but luckily pickles on the side.
The results were unprecedented. This juicy bit of heaven was in fact the best hamburger I have had the pleasure of devouring. The combination of superb meat quality, fresh lettuce tomato and onion and the sparing use of ketchup, mustard and chopped onion is in a class all its own. It is as if every ingredients sole purpose for existence was to highlight the flavor of the Yonezawa beef. Couple all this with unimaginably low expectations and I can truly say that I have never, and probably will never, have another hamburger experience that even begins to measure up.
The Hamburger Ninja
During the following months, in the process of eating my way through the entire menu, I was able to talk with the owner a little bit. Using my limited Japanese, I learned that the owner discovered the secret to a perfect burger while training high in the mountains of Hokkaido’s Daisetsuzan.
After his first attempt at opening a hamburger shop failed he went on a journey and vowed to venture into the wilderness, to return with the ultimate burger recipe or not at all. After about a week of mediation atop a large rock overlooking a valley, he had starved himself to within an inch of his life. He lost consciousness and fell, seemingly to his death from the large bolder. He awoke to the sound of growling and when his vision cleared he realized that two bears were tearing each other apart, fighting over his very flesh.
He had awakened just in time to witness the larger bear dealing the deathblow across the others throat. Startled to alertness by this epic battle he formed his resolve. If only he could live through this he would no longer pursue his own selfish ambitions. He would make the perfect hamburger, not for fortune or fame, but to feed the hungry and to bring joy to his precious customers.
Forced to the brink of death by his fasting and the realization that he may be devoured at any moment by this massive bear, he suddenly felt at one with the nature around him. He closed his eyes and awareness came over him. He could sense the bear. He need not even see. A nearby rock was calling out to him. This was the moment he realized that not only would he survive, but he would use this mighty bear’s very life to realize his dream and master the sacred art of baga no jutsu.
He slowly rose to his feet, arming himself with the stone. With his last remaining strength he hurled the stone burring it deep into the approaching bears face. Spent, he and the bear fell, simultaneously hitting the ground.
When next he awoke it was to a sudden downpour of rain. He could barely sit up his vision fogging. The rain water had puddled only inches from his face and he greedily gulped down a few swallows of rain water, only to fall back into unconsciousness. He alternated between dreams of bears feeding on his lifeless body and visions of finally mastering the perfect hamburger.
He finally returned to true consciousness to the crash of lightning striking nearby. He smelled smoke and looked over to see a tree catching fire. It had been split clean in half by the lightning.
Taking this as a sign he pushed himself off the ground and pulled the rock from the bears face. He found some more stones and using a fairly flat rock as a surface began to grind some of the bear’s meat. It was tough and unwieldy, but finally he had a small amount finely ground. He took another thin flat stone and tossed it into the fire quickly heating it up. After a few minutes he removed it from the fire with his bare hands and set the meat to cook. After tossing yet another thin flat stone into the fire he entered a state of mediation awaiting the perfect moment to flip the burger.
Now! He didn’t waste a second, but in one deft sweep he pulled the other stone from the fire and flipped the bear burger onto it to finish cooking the meat. Finally with this burger, not only would he be able to survive, but he would return to complete his recipe and master the perfect hamburger.
All that remained was to find meat worthy of this new method. He chose the succulent beef of Yonezawa, where they massage the cows and feed them beer to evenly distribute the fat throughout the beef. He applied his hand grinding method and grew all the other ingredients in a small garden. The wisdom he gained from his journey coupled with the freshest possible ingredients resulted in a burger that truly surpasses imagination.
This burger may not actually be the result of an epic spirit quest, but it does reflect a certain level of mastery. It is very common to see restaurants in Japan with really only one specialty offered. These restaurants are sometimes in odd places, but they still draw business from far and wide. In specializing in a single item, they are able to achieve an unprecedented level of mastery. Therefore, they often are able to take a foreign food, art or skill and truly surpass even its origin. It is in this way that the same Japan that produces natto Kit Kats, can yield some pretty amazing cuisine.