For Chef Shintaro, fusion equals authenticity

There’s never been a more delicious way to get schooled on what it means to be Asian American today.

Feed Me

From the outside, Bar Moga looks like a Midwestern pub, the type where men in camouflage gear swig Coors Light by a pool table. But once you walk inside, you’re worlds away from Milwaukee, suddenly amidst the clandestine glamor of Japan’s Roaring Twenties — yes, it happened there too. The walls are adorned with gold-embossed wallpaper and vintage posters of flapper girls and wooden accents warm the space.

To many, the spot is an anomaly in New York’s highbrow Japanese food scene for many reasons, and reviews like this make it sound as though Moga is trying to pander to Western palates. In actuality, its food is as authentically Japanese as any sashimi joint in the city. The food is original, but adaptable; assertive, but not pretentious. In many ways, the menu is an extension of the identity of its chef de cuisine, Shintaro Eleazar Tozzo-Okuda, who is half Japanese, half Argentinian, and completely Asian American.

In Japan, the term “moga” was used in the 1920s to refer to the then-modern Japanese woman, who during that time attained greater personal freedoms and was allowed to have some semblance of fun (dancing like a flapper girl was the modern-day equivalent of twerking, apparently). Okuda, who goes by Chef Shintaro, bottles the essence of that era and specializes in the yōshoku cuisine — which relies on meat as its main ingredient — that was also popularized at the time.

You really can’t enjoy yōshoku to its fullest extent until you understand how the style came to be. Shintaro tells me that during a time of rapid industrialization (during the early 1900s), Japan wanted to be taken seriously on the world stage and in order to do that, Japanese people felt that they needed to get physically larger, which meant eating the type of protein-rich diets common in Europe and the U.S. Thus, a type of fusion was born — the type we ordinarily wouldn’t consider fusion, because it was born entirely of one country’s desire to evolve.

Japanese people adopted elements of Western cuisine while still using Japanese ingredients, which gave birth to such beloved classics as Japanese curry and korokke. Chef Shintaro is not just creating and re-imagining this food, but also educating others about this often forgotten history. “Some of the dietary styles were not fit for our digestion — so we reinvented them,” Chef Shintaro explains. This open attitude makes yōshoku cuisine particularly fertile ground for experimentation, and well, deliciousness.

A type of fusion was born that — the type we ordinarily wouldn’t consider fusion because it was born entirely of one country’s desire to evolve.

As any foodie will tell you, there’s a natural pushback to anything labeled fusion right now (although you couldn’t escape the term about a decade ago). Somehow, the term implies a messy splicing of two random types of food thrown together to try and create genius, like the cronut.

But yōshoku is Asian. It’s a testament to the spirit of a people who persisted. The discourse that Chef Shintaro is trying to push back against involves the misconception (by both Japanese and American customers) that yōshoku cuisine cannot be sophisticated or authentic because it fuses together the cuisine of two different cultures.

Photo courtesy of Chef Shintaro

The types of Japanese cuisine that are most often respected tend to be viewed as more classically and stereotypically Japanese, with sushi being the most obvious. It’s a type of essentialism that prevents people from seeing that hybridity does not equate to watered-down. Cultures have borrowed and built upon each other since the beginning of time. And food can be simultaneously Asian and American.

On any given night, Chef Shintaro and his team will whip up several orders of omurice, a soft, fluffy omelet that sits on a bed of chicken fried rice, bathed in a tangy, sumptuous demi-glace. His version is particularly mouth-watering, with an explosive interior that oozes out when you slice through it.

Unsurprisingly, the omurice is where the cultural contentiousness of yōshoku cuisine becomes most evident. For Asians from all over the diaspora, half-cooked or runny eggs are safely and deliciously consumed. “But we used to get Instagram messages all the time from people saying they didn’t want to eat this half-cooked egg, that this was unhealthy,” Chef Shintaro tells me. I don’t want to pop off and go on a tangent, but if Americans are going to start worrying about “unhealthy food,” maybe we should start by looking at the way we produce meat, among other things.

In the context of newly revitalized anti-Asian sentiment in the West, it’s important to see his food ethos as a form of taking up space.

American consumers feel like the omelet belongs to them, while Japanese consumers might wonder why something they ate for breakfast as children is being served in an upscale Manhattan restaurant. Many of the critiques about Bar Moga — and really, any restaurant that serves yōshoku cuisine — are about how things are “supposed to be,” a sentiment that extends beyond the dinner plate. In many ways, it mirrors the experience of anyone who inhabits more than one culture in that our authenticity is called into question by all sides.

Chef Shintaro’s effort to elevate yōshoku cuisine and give it the respect it deserves in the culinary landscape is also a fight to have hybrid identities such as his be seen as whole. His large, tattooed frame exemplifies the ethos of yōshoku cuisine to literally grow larger. In the context of newly revitalized anti-Asian sentiment in the West, it’s important to see his food ethos as a form of taking up space. Our culture’s portrayal of Asians as quiet, obedient, and small is not an acceptable or realistic one. One hundred years after the original Roaring Twenties, standing strong in our identity has taken on a new urgency, especially during a terrifying uptick in hate crimes.

What I found most refreshing about Chef Shintaro’s “Westernized Japanese” food is that it does not apologize for being itself. If getting the respect it deserves means inventing a whole new category, then there’s a sense that he is willing to go in that direction. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Japanese food, Chinese food, Korean food, anything can be elevated,” he tells me. “If you take care and put your spirit into what you’re making, it becomes its own style of cuisine.”