It’s a small thing, really—both literally and in its almost total insignificance. Still, when something occurs to me as stupid, I feel compelled to call it out.
And so, this week’s column is all about those weird little bits of plastic grass that are wedged, unfailingly, into every container of store-bought sushi, sashimi, and nigiri. Yes, I know it’s merely a drop in the ocean and that there are bigger fish to fry, but this one is sticking in my craw. And yes, I know that I have written rather expressively on my loathing for puns, and all three of the ones in my previous sentence were beneath me. I can only blame the fact that my brain is addled from pondering the process by which fake grass became the go-to decoration for this particular food.
But before we get to the grass (for which there is somewhat of an explanation), let us pause upon the questionable concept of store-bought sushi, sashimi, and nigiri. Like so many practices in Japanese culture, the preparation of these foods is considered an art form, one that is less likely to have been mastered by the fine chefs at your local Kroger’s. In fact, it’s rare that such stores even bother to differentiate between them, labeling all such options as “sushi” which (as I’ve known ever since I looked it up six minutes ago) is the rice, not the fish.
Questions of accuracy, preparation, aesthetics, and freshness aside, I’ve been positively baffled by the ubiquitous practice of garnishing the contents of these less-than-appetizing little plastic boxes with even-less-appetizing replicas of grass. The presence of something that imitates something fresh and natural makes me more than a bit suspicious of the food itself. Does it too perhaps bear only a mere resemblance to something fresh and natural?
And I must also ask: why grass? In my experience, neither rice nor fish is traditionally found in forests. You’re not likely to discover pickled ginger growing in a nearby meadow. One might go so far as to say that few things are more distant from each other than Japanese food and the stuff that grows on your lawn. I know what you’re thinking: It’s supposed to look like kelp. Well, firstly, no. And secondly, it doesn’t. In fact, it doesn’t even resemble grass so much as corrugated fiberglass roofing panels.
The so-called “bento grass” (or, as one writer dubbed it, “bento-turf”) first appeared in the 1960s, when supermarkets first started popping up in Japan. It references an age-old Japanese tradition (which I’ve been studying for nearly ten minutes now) of separating foods using fresh leaves, called haran. Originally, haran served two purposes. One was to keep the flavors distinct. The other was to create a natural preservative. Back then, the freshly picked leaves came from bamboo, lily, or orchid. And to this day, the intricate cutting and arranging of these leaves is yet another Japanese artform, known as sasagiri.
But in its supermarket iteration, the garnish is no more than a cheap knock-off of its former self. The modern-day haran comes not from bamboo, lily, or orchid leaves, but from Amazon. And of course, the plastic version does not act as a preservative. As for separating the flavors (such as they are), well, perhaps it does. But it also adds a flavor, and not a pleasant one, unless you enjoy chewing on cellophane.
Leave it to the modern age to find a cheaper version that completely misses the original point while contributing more plastic to a world that’s already choking on the stuff. I suppose it stands to reason that the faux foliage was invented in Japan, where there’s a thriving fake food industry creating plastic restaurant displays like the ones below.
But of course, in Japan, even fake plastic food is an art form.