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Chicken Rice Dreams: Creating Ethnic Cuisine in Nishiogi

According to University of Leiden food historian Katarzyna Cwiertka modern Japanese cuisine rests on three legs, Japanese, Chinese and Western culinary traditions, all of which represent the modernization and globalization of Japanese eating habits in the early 20th century. Since the 1980s, a new “leg” has emerged in “ethnic cuisine" (esunikku ryouri), a term associated in the USA with migrant-owned restaurants, presumed to be spicy and authentic, but also cheap -- stereotypes critiqued by NYU food scholar Krishnendu Ray.

 

Japan has its own interpretations of the ethnic restaurant, associated with Japan’s own culinary Orientalism. The context is less one of mass migration, than of Japanese tourism in the 1980s, and a longing for a more relaxed lifestyle associated with tropical Asian beaches, colorful folksy fashion, and simple but spicy foods. In contrast with the USA, however, far fewer of these restaurants have been opened by migrants themselves, but rather by Japanese pursuing alternative tastes and lifestyles, particularly associated with Southeast Asia.

 

Such home-grown ethnic restaurants flourish along the Chuo Line. One pioneer of this style of casual ethnic restaurant in Nishi-Ogikubo is the Singaporean restaurant Mu-Hung, which translates as “Dream Rice,” a romantic way of describing Singapore’s most quotidian lunch meal, known as “Hai Nan Chicken Rice” (Hainan jifan). The owner and head chef of this restaurant is Ito Lui, now in his 60s. Still looking a bit like the rock musician he was, Lui described how he was inspired by the flavors of Southeast Asia but also how the style of dining at Mu-Hung continued the traditions of the surrounding neighborhood.

 

Before he started a restaurant, Lui operated a bar in Kichijoji, playing soul music, reggae and other “black music” on vinyl records while customers drank and chatted until late in the morning. It wasn’t a business he could physically sustain. “On really crazy nights, they would stay until 10 in the morning drinking. ‘I can’t keep doing this,’ I thought, ‘I’ll be worn out.’”

 

He came upon Singaporean chicken rice in a conversation with a Japanese artist who was a customer at the bar. “When that guy went to Singapore, he always ate chicken rice, and he told me it was incredibly delicious. So I thought, ‘that’s interesting,’ and I looked for Singapore chicken rice in Tokyo. This was about 17 years ago, and there wasn’t anything. There was a Singaporean restaurant in Shinbashi then, but they didn’t cook their rice in chicken stock. So I thought, ‘this is not right.’ I got the original recipe and tried it out, and I thought, ‘this is really delicious.’”

 

Back then when Japanese people heard the phrase chicken rice they pictured a dish in which ketchup and green peas are stirred into the rice, so this new recipe was quite a finding, Lui thought. The recipe Lui now uses is based on his tasting experiences in Singapore while experimenting with Japanese rice as the base.

 

“In Singapore I went to the famous old places for Chicken Rice such as the Mandarin Hotel and the Chatterbox. 'It’s delicious,' I thought, but the rice was different. It was jasmine rice. If you make this with Japanese rice, I thought it would be better. We also make it with jasmine rice here, but I think that the Japanese rice tastes better. Japanese rice is able to absorb the broth, so I prefer it. But people have different ideas of what is good.”

 

Because some of the regulars prefer jasmine rice, he does both. Every month six times – on all the days of the month divisible by five – they offer chicken rice made with jasmine rice. The fragrance of the rice is good, Lui said, and it is made that way back in Singapore.

 

Mu-Hung opened March 21, 2000. When he opened he wasn’t expecting so many customers, so half the space was devoted to a gallery and half to a restaurant. In the beginning people were like ‘what is this?’ and they didn’t come. But this was expected, Lui said. In English the dish is “chicken rice” though originally it was called “Hainan jifan." But he thought that this would not be so appealing. So when he broadcast the name “Singaporean chicken rice,” people were like, “what is this?” “But people with a sensitive antenna for food were attracted,” Lui said.

 

Everything on the menu is connected with Singapore. There is curry and radish cake (daikon mochi), called “carrot cake" in Singapore. There are many things he would like to try, but the preparation for chicken rice is time consuming so he and his staff cannot do too many different dishes.

 

There are many regulars at Mu-Hung, some coming two or three times a week. Many people come with their families. Some people do have a drink, but it is not a drinking spot. It has more the image of an eatery. And there are dishes clearly aimed at kids. There is even porridge for babies. This is an everyday restaurant where everyone from babies to old folks can have a meal.

 

Lui has deep ties to the area and his outlook was influenced by his exposure to the US Occupation culture. He was born in Kichijoji. The reason he thought of opening a music bar there was the presence of the American military personnel in the area. “When I was a kid there was an apartment building in Central Park called Green Park. And there was an American school in the place where the city hall is now. We played softball and baseball and went to the Native American festival. In Nerima there was an apartment called Grand Heights. In the postwar period when I was a kid we looked up to America, and we got into the music. I fell in love with Sam Cook then, and we had a band that did covers of Sam Cook. But I wanted to be independent so I started a bar in Kichijoji.”

 

Lui was familiar with Nishiogi since his childhood and talked about the changes in the food culture. “Now we have Italian food and Spanish food, all run by young people. But in the past families would go to an izakaya to have dinner with rice. That kind of culture is still around, that kind of open attitude. At that time there weren’t really restaurants. There was [the French cafe] Kokeshiya. And there were always izakaya, and these were places for meals.”

 

Nishiogi remains a place where everyone, including elderly and children can go out to eat, and also for a drink. Mu-Hung has the image of an ethnic restaurant, but it is very much tied to the local community and its foodways. Neighboring shopkeepers enjoy good relations. “The people on this shopping street get along well. We have the temple festival, and then people sell things in front of the shop.” (James Farrer,  Sept. 2, 2016, edited March 14, 2017)