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YOU ARE WHAT THE MENU SAYS YOU EAT
By Michael Matthews
November 21, 2013 -- Do you have the slightest idea what you are eating? Not so much as when you are at home and preparing your own meals, but when you're on the road or perhaps out on a date night with your wife or mistress?

You probably haven't a clue and you rely on what the menu tells you and what the waiter says.

The Japanese press has gotten its collective knickers in a knot about what menus in Japan say and there is an, er, um, feeding frenzy in print, radio and television. And guess what? What you're reading on the menu apparently isn't what you're getting on the plate.

I stumbled across the controversy a few weeks ago thanks to an article in the Japan Times, which claims to be the country's only "independent" English-language newspaper. A reporter named Mizuho Aoki--Wasn't it an Aoki who started the Benihana chain?--wrote a column explaining that some of Japan's best-known restaurants, hotels and department stores have been found to be serving anything but what's on their menus. She--and, trust me, I'm not proficient enough in Japanese to know that she's a she without having checked--made it clear that Japan is awash in shark fin soup that had no more seen a shark than the premium abalone had seen its mother shell. There are dozens of other equally creative menu fibs.

JAL Hotels, Miss Aoki tells us, admits to misrepresenting 130,000 dishes. The wonderful, venerable Hotel Okura group says it served 386,000 dishes that were a far cry from their menu descriptions. Several department stores-- Isetan, Sogo & Seibu and Odakyu, all household names in Japanese retailing--admitted using ingredients different from those listed on their menus. The menu mendacity includes serving processed beef as steak, cheap shrimp as much more expensive Shiba shrimp and cakes baked with Chinese chestnuts being labeled as European pastry.

Before this scandal is over, I see a vast range of chefs and company executives doing a lot of humble bowing with perhaps the odd sword in the tummy.

So what about over here? Are we getting what we ordered? I'm starting to wonder.

The other day I saw a dish labeled Dover Sole on a restaurant menu. After seriously questioning the waiter, however, he admitted that the Dover Sole was actually a white fish from South America, not the much more expensive (and nearly fished out) North Sea delicacy. At a celebrated steak house near where I live, they advertise "Kobe" steak with great fanfare. They also sell it at an insanely high price that seems to indicate it is, indeed, from Kobe, Japan. But in tiny letters that you can hardly read in the restaurant's dismal lighting, it turns out that the Kobe beef is actually "from Texas."

I wouldn't think of messing with Texas, but do you really think a Texas cowpoke would do what they do in Japan to Kobe beef? Besides, if you can believe Wikipedia, which I admit is often as accurate as a restaurant menu, genuine Kobe beef must actually come from a particular strain of cattle born, fed and processed in specific Japanese prefectures.

(Texas is many things, but Texas is definitely not located in Japan. Unless, of course, Texas seceded from the United States and aligned with Japan while I was away on a recent cruise. If so, I humbly apologize and say to my Texas friends, "Banzai, y'all!")

Meanwhile, my wife called the other day and requested I bring home some organic honey from our local Whole Foods Market. But think about that for a moment: How can honey be organic? Honey comes from bees, bees fly all over the place to collect the pollen and nectar needed to create the honey. By definition, Scientific American explains, "organic" honey is a "sweet illusion."

(I went to Whole Foods and bought a jar marked "organic" anyway. Wife was happy.)

What goes into your sausages? Have you noticed the ones on display almost never list the ingredients? Just their alleged nationality: Polish, Italian, Hungarian, Moroccan, Chinese and even a product sold as "English Breakfast." Trust me, the latter product tastes nothing like the bangers we had in Blighty.

And don't get me started on haggis. You really don't want to know ...

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ABOUT MICHAEL MATTHEWS Michael Matthews has managed and marketed fine hotels around the world for more than 45 years. He spent 14 years in Hong Kong building the legendary Regent International group. He has also worked with St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton and Rosewood hotels. Matthews is currently based in Arizona. He began writing Do Not Disturb in early 2004.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Michael Matthews in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Matthews. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Michael Matthews.

This column is Copyright 2013 by Michael Matthews. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.