Michelin-starred chef fears loss of tradition

by Junko Fujita

Reuters

At his three-star Michelin restaurant in Tokyo, Yoshihiro Murata serves elaborate 12-course meals of delicate Japanese food. But his real passion is to make sure simple, traditional food is passed on to the next generation.

Japanese food is now widely available around the world, and “washoku” — traditional cooking — was declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO last year. But Murata fears that even though sushi has become universal, appreciation for Japanese food is declining in its homeland.

“Japanese cuisine is becoming extinct,” Murata said, seated in a quiet tatami mat room in his Kikunoi restaurant in the Akasaka business district.

“The fact that it has become a cultural heritage means it is fading so it needs to be protected.”

Murata, 62, is the third generation of his family to run the restaurant established in 1912. He lived in France to learn French cuisine in his younger days and now runs three restaurants in Kyoto and Tokyo, one of which has three stars from Michelin and the others two stars.

His big concern, though, is that many Japanese have drifted away from their own national cuisine.

“Japanese people rely too much on Western food every day,” Murata said. When he asks schoolchildren what their favorite dish is, the most popular item is hamburger steak — essentially a hamburger minus the bun — followed by curry and rice and spaghetti. At many schools, bread is served more often for lunch than rice.

“They have lost their identity when it comes to the food they eat every day,” Murata said.

Household spending on the basic ingredients of Japanese daily food is falling. The purchased amount of miso paste, the main ingredient for miso soup, was down 39 percent last year compared with 1990, while purchases of rice were down 40 percent over the same period, government statistics show.

Sales of bread rose 15 percent over the same period and purchases of cheese rose 67 percent.

Murata believes that the beauty of Japanese cuisine lies not only in “kaiseki,” a course of dishes made from seasonal vegetables and fish, but also in more everyday food.

Through a Kyoto-based nonprofit organization called the Japanese Culinary Academy, Murata visits local elementary schools and lets students taste “dashi,” or Japanese soup stock, a base for most Japanese dishes, made from dried kelp and dried bonito flakes.

“I want children to know how good dashi tastes,” Murata said. “If they appreciate it, they ask their mother to make dashi for them, which is why I approach children first, rather than mothers.”

Murata also said he wants to promote Japanese food overseas because he thinks people’s understanding of it around the world is not very developed.

“Many people still do not know what real sushi is. They think anything rolled in rice with seaweed is sushi, but that is not true,” Murata said.

The Japanese Culinary Academy is now preparing a 200-page book on Japanese cuisine in English, Italian and Japanese, which will be ready for sale by the time of the World Exposition in Milan next year.

In the meantime, though, Murata welcomes even “fake” Japanese food overseas as it does at least make Japanese food familiar to people.

“Japanese cuisine is still a nursery tree and a lot of unnecessary leaves grow out of it,” he said.

“But I will let them grow as it is and just focus on making the trunk bigger. Because if we say too much now, Japanese cuisine will become an artificial tree like bonsai.”