You may have heard about the new Japanese custom of eating KFC on Christmas Day. Aware that fowl has some sort of sacred significance in Western Christmases, Japanese consumers started celebrating the day with Deluxe Boneless Feasts and Spicy Double Bucket Deals. KFC Japan – no doubt blinking at their good fortune – latched onto this and quickly jumped on the marketing bus.
Equally eager to benefit from the season, my local Tokyo supermarket used to sell chocolate figurines of Santa Claus… He had full garb on and a big grin, but happened also to be on a cross. Eating a crucified Santa is weird, and strangely fulfilling.
We can and should laugh at cultural misappropriation, but this wrongly implies a mistake has been made, when that is not always the case. Often it is cleverer than that – it is business responding to consumer needs.
Take Wagamama, our version of crucified Father Christmas. Its explosion in the ’90s was due to an efficient understanding of the UK tastebud. It got that we think Japan is premium, but it also understood that our tastebuds need more than the refinement Japanese food can offer. So, it brought us pan-Asian dishes in Japanese clothes. Pad Thai became ‘Amai Udon’, and we became fans.
Some will hurl shouts of ‘inauthenticity’, but they miss the point. We are not Japanese, and no restaurant outside its homeland is authentic. Food snobbery is a charade; the pleasure of food is innovation.
The winners are the restaurants who get this, and who manage to deliver food as cool as the country they emulate, but as good as your favourite dish.