Thursday, 13 February 2014

Japan’s cuisines: Acquired taste

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Chef Murata is getting a gaijin to make it next time

WITH three Michelin stars to his name, Master Hachiro Mizutani is one of the world’s finest sushi chefs. He is as confident of the future of Japanese cuisine as he is at manipulating the morsels of mackerel, flounder and tuna perched on rice which draw a steady flow of devotees to his restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza district. Young Japanese may be eating more Western food, he says, but they always return to healthier home fare as they get older. Likewise, foreigners start with ersatz conveyor-belt sushi outside Japan, but soon hunger for the real thing—Tokyo’s genius take on fast food.

It is a far cry from the near-paranoia over the country’s cuisine expressed by some until recently. In 2006-07 the farm and fisheries ministry came up with a scheme to send out so-called sushi police abroad to uncover bastardisations of classic Japanese dishes. For a self-styled Japanese restaurant in Colorado to put sushi on the menu alongside Korean-style barbecued beef was seen as a particular outrage.

The government scrapped the scheme, rightly fearing a backlash. Food fascism is absurd. Much fare that is seen as quintessentially Japanese has foreign origins. Pork- and vegetable-filled gyoza dumplings, served up in massive quantities by Japanese housewives, are essentially Chinese jiaozi, popularised in Japan during its occupation of Manchuria from 1931. Japanese ramen restaurants are all the rage in London and New York, but the noodles are Chinese: lamian, meaning pulled noodles. As for that Japanese national dish, katsu kare, a deep-fried breaded pork cutlet in a slather of curry sauce on a mound of rice: it is true that the monstrosity exists in no other country, but it could not have come about had not the Chinese introduced pork to the Japanese diet, and the English curry powder.

With Tokyo restaurants now bagging more Michelin stars than London and New York together, even the bureaucrats are relaxing their vigilance. When two years ago the government applied to UNESCO for washoku, Japan’s traditional food culture, based on the seasons, to be granted the status of “intangible cultural heritage”, it acknowledged that foreigners have influenced and recreated the country’s cuisines. The era of the sushi police is over, promises Yoshihiro Murata, a Kyoto-based chef who led the effort. Just as washoku won UNESCO designation in December, Mr Murata’s restaurant, Kikunoi, was about to accept its first foreign trainee chef. Until now, Japan has granted working visas to overseas chefs only to make foreign food. Now it wants them to train in Japanese cuisine.

Only French and Mexican cuisines are similarly honoured by UNESCO, along with the Mediterranean diet and Turkish kashkek, a ceremonial dish made of meat and wheat. The new status will help Japan to export its food. Daisuke Matsuda, owner of a shop selling tamagoyaki, or egg rolls, outside Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, expects them now to become far better known around the world.

But one change at home still worries Tokyo’s sushi chefs. They buy their ingredients at Tsukiji, the world’s biggest fish market and the city’s last tangible link with a vibrant mercantile past. The government plans to shift trading to a landfill site in Tokyo Bay that once housed a dirty gasworks, letting in the property developers once the market has moved. The chefs fear that, even after a supposed clean-up, their fish could be contaminated by the benzene that has leached into the site. The current market, with a warren of surrounding shops selling everything from sea grapes to kitchen knives, is a huge draw for visitors, further spreading Japan’s food culture. Conserving Tsukiji, says Mr Mizutani, is far more important for the future of washoku than UNESCO’s recognition.

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