The Soft Power of Japanese Gastronomy

When you think of Japanese food, what comes into your mind? A glistening red and white striped prawn draped over a wedge of vinegar-ed rice? Or perhaps a bowl of cloudy miso soup with tofu cubes settled at the bottom?

When Japanese food is concerned, sushi, ramen or tempura have become clichés in the Western world – clichés that don’t always communicate the depth of the Japanese cuisine. They also don’t answer the question of how foodies and chefs from around the world have been so inspired by Japanese cooking traditions.

I was first attracted to Japan for its exquisite food, but my enduring attachment developed through a passion for the country’s culture, language and people. As I discovered different elements of Japanese cuisine, I realised that what fascinated me as much as the food was the people behind it – their hard work and their dedication. As Masaharu Morimoto says, “Japanese chefs believe our soul goes into our knives once we start using them.” I’ve come to believe that all good cooking is a reflection of the chef’s spirit. Likewise, every restaurant, every dish and every ingredient has a human story behind it.

For me, one of the best ways to discover a foreign culture is through eating. Each country or region’s gastronomy reflects not only the climate, nature, or terroir of that place, but also its history and social customs. The Japanese idea of ‘kaizen’, or continuous improvement, is a deeply rooted social concept that can be felt even in the kitchen – chefs will spend years perfecting a single technique before they will allow themselves to be considered good at it. For example, a sushi master’s apprentice will only be allowed to perform low kitchen tasks for years before he is allowed to handle the fish. Discipline reigns as well, ensuring that each task is given the time it deserves.

By specialising in certain techniques and committing to continuous improvement, Japanese chefs manage to achieve world class results with even the most commonplace foods, be it chocolate cake (the best runny chocolate cake I’ve had in my life was at Ken’s Cafe in Shinjuku), coffee, or simply deep fried vegetables. I’m talking about Shigeya Sakakibara, the chef-owner of a tiny tempura counter in Tokyo called 7-chome Kyoboshi that, a few years ago, received three stars in the Michelin guide (then later mysteriously disappearing from the guide…)

How did Shigeya Sakakibara manage to do this with deep fried food? By practicing his craft for most of his life. By mastering the temperature and duration of deep frying required to bring out the best in each ingredient, by painstakingly selecting only the freshest, highest quality products, by perfecting his batter, which is so thin it’s practically translucent.

As well as the specialisation, excellent ingredients and respect to them is a critical element of Japanese cooking. Japanese chefs go to extreme lengths to celebrate the changing seasons. One can’t find a better example than through kaiseki, a multi-course meal that has its roots in 16th century tea ceremonies. Modern kaiseki combines several forms of Japanese haute gastronomy: that of the Imperial Court, Buddhist temples, the aforementioned tea ceremony, and samurai culture. A kaiseki menu is based on a series of bite-sized appetiser-like dishes, which each highlight local seasonal ingredients, providing a showcase of the chef’s talent.
Kaiseki and omakase (“leave it to the chef”) concepts have enormously influenced chefs and restaurants around the world. More and more restaurants in Europe and the United States have obliterated their à la carte menus entirely and are instead serving multiple course tasting menus crafted from fresh market produce. Many Western chefs believe that they can learn a lot from the presentation and cooking techniques used in the Japanese art of gastronomy, and many travel to Japan just to gain inspiration…
Japan’s attractiveness to the Western world has grown in the last several decades. Perhaps this is because Western society is becoming more and more health conscious, returning to a foundation of fresh, seasonal and light cooking that Japanese cuisine has maintained for hundreds of years. For, if Japan has played a key role in the history of great food, it is also shaping its future – a future which we have the pleasure to watch unfold with every fine meal we eat.