Sushi, Pacific lobster … cheeseburgers: Japanese food fit for a president

North Korea, China, trade and security. When US presidents visit Japan, the summit agenda practically writes itself. Deciding what to give them to eat, though, is a different matter altogether.

When the White House is occupied by someone with as unadventurous a palate as Donald Trump, the scope for showcasing the delicate flavours and aesthetic beauty of its cooking, or washoku, is limited.

That was the case during Trump’s first visit to Japan in 2017, when he and the then prime minister, Shinzo Abe, sat down to cheeseburgers and fries at a golf club – a choice that spurred a run on burgers at the Tokyo restaurant that made them.

Treating presidents and their delegations to some of Tokyo’s finest food – in a city with more Michelin stars than Paris – hasn’t always gone to plan.

In 1991, George HW Bush interrupted a Japanese banquet to vomit into the lap of his host, the then Japanese prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa. The incident, in which Bush fainted, was blamed on a bout of flu, not the food.

There was greater success in 2014, when Barack Obama and Abe discussed trade at the world’s best sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro.

Despite reports that Obama had failed to complete the 20-piece course, the owner’s son, Yoshikazu Ono, said the president had polished off every morsel.

“He seemed to like chu-toro [medium fatty tuna] very much because he winked when he ate it,” Ono said. “He said three times, ‘This is the best sushi I’ve ever had in my life.’”

Shinzo Abe pours sake for Barack Obama as they have dinner at the Sukiyabashi Jiro sushi restaurant in Tokyo, in 2014.
Shinzo Abe pours sake for Barack Obama as they have dinner at the Sukiyabashi Jiro sushi restaurant in Tokyo, in 2014. Photograph: Cabinet Public Relations Office/Reuters

In 2002, Japan’s maverick prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, eschewed a formal state dinner and instead introduced the teetotal George W Bush and first lady Laura Bush to the delights of an izakaya Japanese-style pub.

Days before Biden’s arrival in Tokyo on Sunday, the Asahi Shimbun reported that Japanese officials were fretting over how to combine Japanese cuisine with the president’s penchant for the “food of the common folk”.

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Biden is known to have a taste for ice-cream, and reportedly devoured two – chocolate chip, then vanilla and chocolate – in quick succession while chatting to US troops and their families at Osan airbase in South Korea at the weekend.

Dinner at a restaurant serving okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake from Hiroshima, where the Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has his constituency, was ruled out over “security concerns”, the Asahi said.

Kishida and Biden, who is travelling without the first lady, Jill Biden, were due to dine at Happo-en, a traditional Japanese restaurant that serves multiple-course kaiseki banquets.

The seafood-heavy menu for the two leaders includes simmered Pacific lobster – accompanied by dried sea-cucumber ovary – crab, squid and scallop and, in a nod to the guest of honour, a “special gelato” for dessert.


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