The world’s insatiable urgency to adopt Japanese cuisine gives no semblance of how isolated the nation was before the Meiji Restoration. Before the arrival of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry (insert Friends joke here) in the mid-1800s, the Tokugawa Shogunate forbade overseas travel under penalty of death, and restricted Japan’s gaijin trading partners to a handful of specially licensed Dutch and Chinese merchants.
Today, Japan’s traditional and pop culture enjoy incomparable welcome worldwide, and the delicate art of Japanese-style food preparation is one of only three national cuisines that are recognised and protected by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage (the other two being Mexican and French cuisines). This statute gives a good indication that as Japanese gastronomy is hastily espoused around the world, its retainers struggle to protect its many traditions and principles from being globalised, and thereby homogenised.
FRESH AND CLEAN
Two uncanny traits that distinguish washoku from other cuisines is Japanese chefs’ shunting of oil and carbohydrates, save Japan’s iconic gohan short-grain sticky rice, and the nation’s penchant for serving uncooked animal flesh. The latter is a display of transparency and confidence made possible by ikejime, a painstaking method of executing and bleeding out a skewered fish in cold water right after capture, which significantly delays rigor mortis and decomposition.
Chef Hara of Kanda Wadatsumi is one such beneficiary of this ancient and ingenious Japanese invention. Furthermore, he has access to the unrivalled calibre and range of Japan’s ingredients as Kanda Wadatsumi is backed by the Zengyoren Japan Fisheries Association, which represents all coastal fishermen in Japan.
Besides sourcing and purchasing rare ingredients of uncompromising quality, Japanese chefs like Chef Hara also honour their guests through meticulous artistic presentation. “Japanese cuisine is driven by the seasons, so I believe that it is important to not only observe but to ‘feel’ the spring, summer, autumn and winter. Every Japanese chef, myself included, will be thinking about specific ingredients and how to make the flavours reflect the seasons when we create our dishes,” he enlightens.
“We must always have and be in a ‘beautiful’ mind space. It is not just about food preparation but everything around it as well, from the cutting of ingredients and presentation to the cleaning up of the working space, the cleaning of the pots and even how we present ourselves in the kitchen,” adds Chef Hara.
Besides ingredients within and garnishing a dish that usually depict the current season, its expensive ceramic vessel too serves that purpose and might sometimes be centuries old – the Japanese don’t hold back when it comes to hospitality.
A Japanese fine dining chef might have a huge storeroom of pottery, which he will pore over to create the perfect presentation and juxtaposition for each of his dishes. General Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who succeeded Japan’s first unifier Nobunaga Oda – and who fathered the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 17th century – infamously kidnapped Korean potters, reflecting his passion for ceramic dinnerware that is still prevalent in Japanese society today.
THE JAPANESE TAKEAWAY
“I think of my native cuisine as a game of subtraction rather than addition,” Chef Fukashi Adachi of The Fat Cow summarises of Japanese cooking. “Experiment with ingredients, check the freshness of the ingredients and the aged process for its prime-ness, be precise with every ingredient and the cooking method, respect Japanese cuisine’s years of traditions and culture, and stay true to it.”
Chef Fukashi divulges that he feels a lot of pressure as a culinary ambassador of his country when he cooks outside of Japan. “Japanese chefs refrain from over-complicating or muddling a dish, and from destroying the unique texture of each ingredient, as texture is the key element of Japanese cuisine. It is our job at our restaurant to try and convey facets that might not be known about our cuisine, such as seasonality and regionality.”
As such, garlic and chilli are not favoured by Japanese chefs, who have a somewhat Italian mentality of shining the spotlight on the flavours and textures of fresh ingredients, and a sort of French mindset toward crafting infallible sauces.
“French cooking is about adding something that accentuates a food, while the Japanese way involves taking things away in order to shift the focus to the main ingredient,” echoes Chef Hiroyuki Shinkai of Lewin Terrace.
While Chef Hiroyuki might opine that French and Japanese food are as different as chalk and cheese, the meticulous minder of dishes’ artistic presentation admits that he brings a Japanese mindset towards his current work. “Although I make French cuisine, my country’s culture is always on my mind. I endeavour to make every patron’s meal an enjoyable experience. My ideal and my attempt might deviate, but the Japanese spirit is to work toward merging the two.”
IN THE GRAVY
Relentless journeymen of a sauce-serious discipline, Japanese chefs devote hours, days and years to perfecting their personal recipes for sauces that accentuate or contrast particular foods. “We must never cut corners with dashi [bonito stock], our pride, because it is sacred and is the foundation of Japanese flavours,” emphasises Chef Hara.
“I’ve learnt that it doesn’t pay to take short cuts,” adds Chef Fukashi, who also shares that both his mind and body rarely leave the kitchen. He gladly soldiers on even though his feet have taken a toll from his extended hours of standing every day. “Working with ready-made sauces, dressings and industrially made ingredients dumb down my food. As I worked to establish myself as a chef, I received inspiration from my fellow chef friends who were dedicated to personalising everything that they made.”
“A good homemade sauce should be made with quality ingredients to enhance the flavours of, highlight and marry well with the main dish. You can’t make a good Ponzu sauce with a low grade soy sauce as its base. A bad sauce will cover or mask the quality of good ingredients, or in the worst case scenario, diners might be unable to identify the key ingredients of the dish,” Chef Fukashi chimes in. “There is a variety of essential sauces that Japanese chefs usually work with, like Ponzu, a citrus infused soy for which I use a different type of citrus fruit depending on season and the availability; Tosazu, Katsuo-infused soy-based sauce; Sumiso, a vinegar miso sauce; and Irizake, which is a flavourful sake reduction. These components are the crux of my dishes. Most of the time, these sauces are not listed on the menu as they are incorporated into the dish, and help to enhance each dish further. The hardest challenge for a chef is to keep things simple, but I believe that this is imperative for a chef of Japanese cuisine.”
THE INDOMITABLE SPIRIT
France and Japan are continually neck-and-neck when it comes to the number of three-Michelin-star restaurants each has. To date, they are tied at 26 a piece. The Japanese chef is so highly esteemed an order that apprentices often wait tables and attend to menial housekeeping matters for years before even being allowed to treat main dishes.
Japanese cuisine reached the height of its sophistication during the Edo period, which is also the former name of the capital Tokyo, when most principles of modern traditional (slightly ironic) Japanese food traditions were cast in stone.
“I never want to stop learning because I want to provide my returning customers with a different experience each time – different ingredients and different meals. A good chef never stops learning!” Remarks Chef Kenjiro “Hatch” Hashida who was schooled in the old ways. The founder of his namesake establishment, Hashida, is one such traditionalist who does not serve salmon, which was not served as sashimi until the invention of fish farms rendered salmon sanitary enough for raw consumption, and who perseveres in preserving the ancient techniques of slicing fish.
Chef Hatch is obsessive as it gets when it comes to the quality of his imported produce, which is flown in four times a week from Tokyo’s eminent Tsukiji fish market, as well as two times a week from Hokkaido and Kyushu, which are the northernmost and southernmost major islands of Japan respectively.
Besides the opening of Norwegian fisheries being partly responsible for salmon sashimi, it might also surprise the Japanese food diehard that other foods like tempura too are bilateral inventions. The very Catholic Portuguese introduced the idea of batter-frying fish during religious seasons (the Portuguese word for season is “tempora”) when they abstained from meat.
Incidentally, this writer’s ancestor, Luis Frois, was one of the first European missionaries in Japan, who tried to write the history of Japan. Long story short, his manifesto was too long and was rejected by the Emperor of Japan, which was afterward lost in a fire. Poor guy. I hope I don’t lose this server in a fire [Ed’s note: Knock on wood, Andre!].
To burst more of your bubbles, ramen and gyoza too were rubbed off on the Japanese from the Chinese, whose interaction with the Japanese was limited to a minimum 9,000 to 11,000 years ago, after the melting that followed an ice age submerged the land bridge that linked modern Japan and China. If you’re getting on the same frequency as this discussion, you might have already noticed that ramen too hardly fits the mould of Japanese cuisine.
To further evidence that washoku is not a stationary but an ever-evolving set of traditions, it is interesting to note that the Japanese started off as meat-eaters (dogs and monkeys included), became Buddhist vegetarians, then became meat-eaters again.
Following the arrival of Buddhism in Japan in the 6th century, the nation gradually turned vegetarian, which culminated in the late 7th with Emperor Tenmu’s prohibition of the consumption of most animals. Today, most Japanese follow both the Shinto ethnic religion and Buddhism, which have separate temples but meld into one nationwide creed. Animals are still sacred to the meat-eating Japanese, who treat their cows especially well, before packing them off lovingly to slaughter houses that issue a death certificate detailing each beef cut’s family tree.
Later on in the 9th century, Japan would throw out its spoons, which Koreans and the Chinese continue to use at the dinner table. The Japanese today drink soup from the edge of their bowls and eat rice only with chopsticks.
The mindful diner never leaves his chopsticks across his bowl. He or she, however, is encouraged to slurp when consuming noodles, which is meant as a sign of satisfaction with one’s noodles.
Other unusual rules of engagement that might fluster the uninitiated include the over-pouring of sake – a well wish of abundance through which the good host shows his or her esteem for the guest (the Moroccans likewise pour mint tea from a great height, with the height correlating to the importance of the guest). Japanese table manners also dictate that the guest must never douse his or her gohan with sauce – which implies that the rice is of poor quality – and that the host must never allow the separate foods served to touch.
THROWING OUT THE RULE BOOK
All this makes Fukuoka-born-and-raised Chef Teppei Yamashita an outlier. His crowd-favourite masterpiece is a don [rice bowl meal] with mixed sashimi, seared unagi [eel] and ikura [salmon roe]. The inventor of this delicious chaos has no qualms with the different fish touching and with mixing them up in the embrace of a tasty sauce that drips through to drench its gohan. Yet, his discerning jetsetter following who frequent his prominent namesake establishment, Teppei, will not deny that his fare is both satisfying and intrinsically Japanese.
“I don’t feel that there are any particular do’s or don’ts in the process of Japanese food preparation, but if I must name one rule, it would be to understand the nature of every ingredient that we handle, in order to turn each into a magical dish,” elucidates the passionate Singapore-based artisan, who enjoys trawling Japanese markets of tuna eyeballs, giant clams and fish sperm sacs regularly in search of new ingredients to experiment with.
“I went abroad to cook because I desired to introduce my style of cooking to other countries and bring smiles to everyone who tries my food. I want to introduce them to another type of Japanese cuisine and, of course for a personal reason, I would like to experience the world rather than restrict myself to staying in Japan.”
Chef Teppei receives his ingredients from Fukuoka – a major city on Kyushu – twice a week. He describes Fukuoka as a city that relishes much stronger culinary flavours than the rest of Japan. “Over the years, I learned the skill of giving my heart to creating each dish and when serving customers,” he adds. “In my view, in order to fully take pleasure in a meal, a cheery environment is an important factor as well. Once a person feels contented, the mood they have to appreciate the cuisine will be greatly boosted. This is what I’ve been trying to instil in the chefs who are around me, but it isn’t an easy task. It still takes time for my staff to comprehend the true meaning behind having this attitude.”
As Chef Teppei carefully sears his unagi with a blowtorch, a French customer asks him if he can buy his delicious sauce. “I specially prepare this sauce in my main kitchen. Sorry, it’s not for sale… yet.”
For a cuisine that appears adamantly traditionalist at face value, history has conversely proven that Japanese gastronomy is ever evolving. Among the pillars of Japanese cooking that come and go, perhaps its cornerstone is how the Japanese are dead serious about orchestrating a gratifying dining experience.
Kanpai to this breathtaking cuisine, based not on rules but on values.