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Quality rises above the menu scandals

by Robbie Swinnerton

Since the first Tokyo Michelin guide was published in autumn of 2007, the unveiling of each new edition has become one of the major events of the gastronomic calendar. Despite the initial indignation that a foreign tire company could dare to judge Japanese restaurants, the local media have embraced the Red Guide with ever-increasing fervor.

In part this reflects Japan’s age-old love of lists and rankings. At the same time, the enthusiasm has continued to rise, along with the number of restaurants included in the various guides. Tokyo famously now has more three-starred restaurants than Paris, and Japan is set to overtake France in terms total number of stars awarded too.

Clearly, this is a matter of substantial national pride. But nothing to compare with the imminent announcement (expected early in December) that UNESCO is formally recognizing Japanese cuisine, washoku, as part of the world’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.

It will represent an official seal of approval for sushi, sashimi and the whole gamut of Japan’s traditional culinary culture. It also means that washoku will be ranked alongside and equal to France’s renowned gastronomy — and the foods of the Mediterranean and traditional Mexican cooking — in the U.N. body’s global pantheon. Expect a media feeding frenzy, on a par with the eruption of hyperbole that accompanied Mount Fuji’s elevation to similar UNESCO status earlier this year.

The timing couldn’t be better for Japan’s beleaguered restaurant industry. With public confidence rocked by revelations of fraud — the favorite euphemisms are “mislabeling” and “misunderstanding” — in department stores and hotel dining rooms, any news to deflect this attention must come as a welcome diversion.

The food-labeling scandal has rumbled on for weeks now, and the revelations to date are no doubt just the tip of a very murky iceberg. Much has been made of diners’ inability to differentiate between salmon caviar and flying-fish roe, or between Kyoto heirloom veggies and common-and-garden generic varieties. But the sad truth is that practices like these aren’t by any means new. Nor are they confined to Japan.

It wasn’t that long ago that a ryokan (inn) of some renown was revealed to have even been taking the sashimi cuts left on people’s plates and feeding them to the next group of punters. Nor does a restaurant having Michelin stars to its name mean it can relax if it outsources production to a careless canner, as the three-star Ishikawa in Tokyo’s Kagurazaka district found to its cost in 2008, when jars of black beans marketed under its name were found to have a dangerous bacillus contamination (they were promptly recalled and the problem never recurred).

Does this mean that the Michelin guide is worthless, its starred restaurants unscrupulous and the UNESCO designation meaningless? Quite the opposite. No matter what you think of the guide and the foodies who use its star system as their bible, the restaurants it selects invariably use quality ingredients. This is especially so in Japan, where most have owner-chefs who interact directly both with the farmers, fishermen and food producers, and the customers who sit at their open kitchens.

And that is precisely what UNESCO is recognizing: not the large-scale, churn-it-out hotel kitchens that (unknowingly or not) substitute lesser ingredients in their impersonal banquets, but the centuries of tradition, the deep understanding that washoku is never just about cooking and eating. It’s just as much about the connection between the soil, the sea and the seasons — sustenance in its widest sense.

Details of the “Tokyo Yokohama Shonan 2014″ Michelin guide will be announced on Dec. 3 and published simultaneously in English and Japanese on Dec. 6.