When I was young, maybe 9 or 10, my Mom decided we (my two brothers and I) should all try sushi for the first time as a dinner adventure. Up to this point, my only experience with Japan and its culture was ninjas, swords, and the Power Rangers, but I was nonetheless nervously excited. Excited to try something new and outside my horizons, nervous because sushi was raw fish, after all- why wouldn't they just cook it?
While the place we picked up from didn't exactly go along with any kind of mythos with its decor- neon and several godzilla toys- Mom was firing on all cylinders prepping the table at home. She set everything up at the coffee table (which meant sitting on the floor) with bamboo placemats, chopsticks, tiny bowls, and other accoutrements. I still remember my first delicious-yet-perplexing taste of miso soup (and, by proxy, tofu), along with my first attempt at using chopsticks. After much flailing, mom let slip that it was okay to eat with our fingers, and despite my nervousness and some tough nori, I was intrigued by this experience called sushi. How everything had its place and its time- The ginger was a palate cleanser, to be eaten between pieces of sushi. The wasabi, the soy sauce, even how the pieces were assembled so ornately. It was magical in a way I'd never seen before, and I loved the secret handshake of how to really eat sushi.
Starting at college and going out with friends for sushi, I came at odds with said friends almost immediately. "Um, actually the ginger is a a palate cleanser, it's not a sushi topping." " You're not supposed to rub the chopsticks together! That's a huge insult to the sushi restaurant, oh my god I'm so embarassed." While I eventually kept my judgments to myself so I could keep having friends, I silently judged them all the same. Why couldn't they have the respect for this grand tradition? Why didn't they want the handshake??
However, when making a menu recently, I had a moment of pause.
The dish was intended to be a playful reminder of spring, and the direction I'd gone was taking a nod to the Cherry Blossom Festival and its origin country- Japan. Crispy tempura sushi rice, toasted nori, sour cherry... and pickled ginger. That palate cleanser of the sushi dinner, something made for that singular purpose. Yet here I was, using the same concept as the college friends I (quietly) judged. It's one thing to use fish, or rice, or any other number of ingredients that lack such a connection, but taking something so specific and tied to tradition was something else entirely... right?
Tradition in food is a powerful thing, whether drawn from one of your own memories, your culture or treasured experience with another, or even something as seemingly innocuous as a burger night with friends. I loved learning different traditions, or making ones of my own. Through them, I learned so much- traditions in American Barbecue, Japanese sushi, Moroccan Tagine, among others- where they come from, why they're there, and why they endure. Innovation, meanwhile, is the wind that many chefs ride, finding new ways to use ingredients and techniques, finding different language to tell stories through their menus. Some view this as transgressive, others as the changing culture of food itself. The lines of what is too precious or pure vary wildly based on who you ask.
Personally, I think there's room for both- a traditional dish done to the letter but without good taste or cooking technique is a poor reflection on what it comes from, while one done right can be a gateway into another world outside what you know. A modernist dish can tell a story so specific and thoughtful that it takes on its own authenticity- an identity to itself with callbacks and respect to the traditions that it came from- or done wrong can just be pretentious and overwrought.
In a way, many of our experiences and traditions are already innovations and modernist changes to the original ideal. My love of sushi? Turns out that despite my strong opinions about ginger and chopsticks, I was utterly ignorant of the taboo of mixing wasabi into soy sauce (oops) or the insult that is letting soy sauce touch the rice in a piece of sushi (well dang)- none of which ruined my gateway or enjoyment of sushi. Were I in a traditional sushi restaurant in Tokyo, those would have been non-starters. Also half the rolls on the menu wouldn't exist. So while I'll still use ginger as a palate cleanser when I'm eating sushi, for the dish I created? It has wisps of pickled ginger- and that's exactly what the dish needed.