Kodawari Can Render the Prosaic Profound
August 27, 2014
What’s your kodawari
? The word, a Japanese term literally meaning “obsession” but carrying connotations of incredibly specific personal tastes, seems to have a sort of magical power. Creating or consuming something according to your kodawari
can make even the most ordinary aspect of your day a matter of deep importance, high ritual. Take, for example, gourmet rāmen
. In an article this spring from Satomi Fukutomi, a researcher from the Center for International Studies at the University of St. Thomas,*
the author proposes that the kodawari
of producers and consumers alike are responsible for the elevation of the humble rāmen
dish to a gourmet status.
In the article “Bottom-up Food: Making Rāmen
a Gourmet Food in Tokyo,” Fukutomi divides Japanese rāmen
joints into three categories: old school, new wave, and franchise. While franchises are seen as nothing more than factory-line fast food, and new wave shops drive towards a more stylish, upscale kind of rāmen
, the old school is where kodawari
really comes into play. At a hole-in-the-wall rāmen
shop, the owner’s deep dedication to their craft turns the simple, traditionally lower-class dish into a profound and personal aesthetic statement. Kodawari
could come out in the way the chef greets the customers, the way the tables are arranged, or even the way the ingredients are smattered into the pot.
In response, Fukutomi says, rāmen
aficionados (sometimes called raota
, or rāmen otaku
) are guided by their own kodawari
in responding to the dishes. Take a moment to parse that out, because in today’s world of factory production and mass consumerism, that’s a pretty big deal. Rāmen
aficionados, in following their kodawari
, are following their personal tastes and methodologies rather than culturally-guided ideas about what’s hip, delicious, or worthy of reverence. Thus, an entire community of aesthetics and ritual springs up around what might otherwise be a blip on the day-to-day radar, a cultural throwaway. Customers line up for hours to eat a (very) quick bowl of noodles; chefs obsess about the volume of customer greetings and the arrangement of garnishes; and together they shape a rāmen
culture that defies culinary logic.
But what about the world outside of rāmen
? What about the world outside Japan? Kodawari
is a Japanese term for a Japanese concept, and it’s hard to say offhand that there’s quite the same ethos in America. Then again, the idea of foodies avidly pursuing unique dining experiences, and of offbeat, artisanal restaurants that take the long way around for the sake of their principles, that’s something you can find all over the world. Is it still kodawari
? And if so, how are the kodawari
of artisans and consumers popping up outside Japan? In America, we might point to the coffee brewers of Seattle, pizza pie rivalries on the East Coast, or the obsessive and idiosyncratic ways of Southern barbecue culture. They’re points of regional pride, sure, but viewed as manifestations of kodawari
they become even more. They become an experiential, lived, (delicious) democracy. As Fukutomi implies with the title of the article, the adherence to personal taste adds up in a “bottom-up” account of cultural tastes and preferences. If not everybody’s kodawari
aligns, having kodawari
in respect to something at least marks that something as worthwhile and meaningful, and when many people have kodawari
for something, it becomes a cultural touchstone as well as a platform for deep and personal interaction with the world and people around you.
Do you have kodawari
for something? Do you think it’s a transferable concept across cultures? Discuss.
*Satomi Fukutomi (2014) Bottom-up Food: Making Rāmen a Gourmet Food in Tokyo
, Food and Foodways: Explorations in the History and Culture of Human Nourishment, 22:1-2, 65-89, DOI: 10.1080/07409710.2014.895563