TOKYO -- Stroll through a depachika, one of the sprawling basement food halls found in Japanese department stores, and you'll encounter a breathtaking display of ready-to-eat items: jewellike salads, tantalizing croquettes, tofu salads, grilled chicken on skewers and other offerings known collectively as sozai.
For young working women with little inclination to cook elaborate meals, store-bought sozai is a time-saving grace. Traditionalists, though, say the commercial sozai boom is to blame for the vanishing art of home cooking in Japan.
From generation to generation, Japanese homemakers have passed to their daughters the skills for preparing sozai, the catchall term for the various dishes that comprise home-cooked meals throughout the Asian nation. Usually made with fish, tofu, miso, ginger and other ingredients underpinning ancient culinary customs, sozai is to Japan what meat and potatoes are to America.
"I grew up eating my mother's dishes," says Hiroko Shimbo, the New York-based author of The Japanese Kitchen: 250 Recipes in a Traditional Spirit (Harvard Common Press, 2000, $21.95), which features 250 dishes that qualify as sozai. Shimbo's childhood favorites include stir-fried hijiki seaweed and tofu, miso-simmered mackerel, salt-grilled fish and, she says, "vegetables dressed with sesame dressing, and just good-quality tofu."
As fewer women marry, more mothers enter the workforce and the population ages, the Japanese have become increasingly dependent on nakashoku. Translated as "home-meal replacement," nakashoku includes sozai, an industry that is reaping tens of billions of dollars in sales despite Japan's recent recession.
Since the mid-1990s, a staggering variety of sozai has become available in Japanese food courts, cafes, restaurants, specialty shops and convenience stores.
"If I were living on my own, I'd pop into a department store or supermarket, or if I [didn't] have the energy to cook," says Miyako Yoshida, a Tokyo interpreter in her early 30s with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose mother still prepares dinner nightly. Young single women who do swing by a depachika after work for costly sozai dishes get the bulk of the blame for the demise of homemade dinners, although you will hear no complaints from the Japan Sozai Association, a trade group for sozai producers.
Because the Japanese also are flocking to restaurants, once primarily the domain of carousing salarymen, they've become more particular about what they eat. "The traditional taste of home cooking has unquestionably been pushed out of household meals," according to Japanese Food Past and Present, a pamphlet published by the Foreign Press Center in Tokyo.
In a country that craves innovation while clinging to tradition, this predicament spawned an enterprising solution: "Ironically, bars and eateries advertising `the taste of home cooking' have begun to proliferate in the back streets," according to the pamphlet, published in 1996.
Today, "everyday" food has traveled from back-street kitchens to designer deli counters, as sozai producers compete fiercely for the palates of those who, in quintessential Japanese fashion, seek new taste trends while waxing nostalgic for their mothers' cooking.
Sozai made outside the Japanese home kitchen is hardly a new phenomenon. During the Edo period, (1603 to 1876), outlets called sozaiya offered prepared foods. And the depachika in posh department stores have long included sozai in vendors' gleaming showcases, along with green tea, confections, fruit and delicacies intended for gifts and celebrations. Until relatively recently, though, sozai obtained commercially was a rarity. Today, it is ubiquitous.
The concept of sozai even is making its way to the United States, where consumers take for granted the availability of precooked meals, from chicken fingers to entire Thanksgiving dinners, but not precooked meals with a Japanese flair.
The salads and other offerings of Delica rf1, a leading sozai purveyor in Japan that recently opened an outlet in San Francisco, have been described as a "fusion of the Western deli with Japanese attention to presentation in creating a new understanding of the food as accessible and beautiful."
With dishes bearing alluring names such as platinum-pork salad, sozai, like so many of the country's other popular culture trends, embodies Japan's love of the old and the new. Familiar side dishes, such as bean curd smothered in miso and marinated octopus, have been joined by elegant reinterpretations of old standards, not to mention lasagna, Chinese food and hamburgers.
To appeal to her family's different preferences, a working mother may buy several sozai dishes in the depachika next to the subway station on her way home, and serve them with rice steamed earlier in the family cooker. As is increasingly common, though, she might skip the rice and opt instead for a baguette from a French bakery in the same depachika.