These days, the mere mention of Tokyo is enough to make gourmands drool. After garnering a staggering 227 Michelin stars this year, the city became the focus of the culinary world. So for several internationally renowned chefs who look to Japan for inspiration, traveling here last week to participate in the Tokyo Taste World Gastronomy Summit must have felt like a pilgrimage to Mecca.
The event at the Tokyo International Forum, which aimed to foster intercultural communication through the language of cuisine, brought foreign superstars such as Ferran Adria of Spain’s El Bulli , Joel Robuchon of Paris’ L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon and Pierre Gagnaire of Paris’ Pierre Gagnaire restaurant together with local celebrities including Seiji Yamamoto of Roppongi’s Ryugin and Yoshihiro Narisawa of Aoyama’s Les Creations de Narisawa, as well as chefs representing the next generation of the avant garde. Over the course of three days, the chefs wowed audiences with displays of kitchen wizardry, producing fantastic creations using Japanese ingredients.
With Japanese restaurants numbering 25,000 worldwide and countless others serving dishes influenced by Japan, food translates into valuable cultural capital for the country. For many, a bite of sushi or a sip of miso soup is their first contact with Japanese culture.
Adria, often credited with popularizing molecular gastronomy, a deconstructivist interpretation of nouvelle cuisine that relies heavily on science and cutting-edge technology, cites his first visit to Japan as a life-changing experience. Referring to Japanese cuisine as “a mysterious world of complexity,” he noted that Japanese culture has been slow to make inroads into Europe.
“Knowing Japan is not easy,” said the Spaniard, speaking through an interpreter and gesticulating broadly with both hands. “It takes time.”
Nobuyuki Matsuhisa of the world-famous chain of Nobu restaurants described acquainting foreign diners with Japanese foods such as sashimi as a delicate process that requires a great deal of modification. Now that the foundation has been laid, he hopes to introduce more traditional Japanese foods and techniques abroad.
Beyond the discovery of new ingredients such as yuzu (citrus fruit) and sansho (Japanese pepper), chefs find inspiration in Japanese attitudes toward food: the appreciation of seasonal offerings, emphasis on quality and pride in local produce.
This “reverence for ingredients” and established practices led Britain’s foremost molecular gastronomist, Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck restaurant, to re-evaluate his own country’s culinary history. His research has unearthed a treasure trove of recipes from the Victorian era that have fallen out of fashion, such as mock turtle soup, which uses organ meats to imitate the viscous texture of green turtle soup.
But despite a tradition of proper concern for food, evidence suggests that even the famously health-conscious Japanese aren’t immune to the negative effects of modern life, which have taken a toll on eating habits. In response to a growing concern over lifestyle-induced health problems such as metabolic syndrome, in 2005 the government enacted the Basic Law on Shoku-iku (food and nutrition education), an initiative designed to increase awareness of Japanese food culture and encourage healthy habits through school- and community-based programs. Japan was the first country to take such measures.
Now, chefs from abroad see themselves in a position to influence people’s dietary practices and are getting involved in similar activities. Fat Duck’s Blumenthal applauded the educational work of English television chef Jamie Oliver, whose campaign to raise the quality of Britain’s school lunches resulted in legislation requiring the government to increase spending on school food, before describing his own recent collaboration with Great Britain’s National Health Service. The project targets the elderly with a program that will attempt to “get older people excited about food.” Blumenthal said that efforts will include improving hospital food standards and practices, pointing out that simple adjustments, such as making sure that mealtimes don’t coincide with sessions for medical treatment, make the experience of eating more pleasurable.
Blumenthal maintains that it’s important for chefs who have been fortunate enough not to have felt the effects of the recession, to be socially aware and active. He spoke passionately about the need to educate youth and discussed his book “Kitchen Chemistry” (2005), a resource for schools produced in partnership with Britain’s Royal Society of Chemistry. Blumenthal’s intention with the book is to explain practical chemistry in a light-hearted way with examples from the kitchen, such as the role of salt in cooking and the science involved in making ice cream.
Even El Bulli’s Adria, whose name has long been associated with the wealthy elite, has jumped on the charity bandwagon.
“Until 2008, I made only haute cuisine,” the chef said, “but now I see the need for more interaction in society.”
Adria serves as director of the Alicia Foundation, which takes its name from a combination of the Spanish words for “food” and “science” — alimentacion and ciencia — a research center created by the Catalonian Parliament and the Bank of Manresa. The center focuses on exploring technology in kitchen science, preserving traditional foods and recipes, and advancing food safety, particularly in developing countries.
Adria believes that technology can be instrumental in promoting health and nutrition. During a demonstration with fellow Spaniard Andoni Luis Aduriz of the restaurant Mugaritz, Adria used liquid nitrogen to make a fat- and sucrose-free sorbet from fresh orange juice. He also discussed the positive health implications of vacuum-based cooking techniques such as sous-vide, which allows ingredients to be heated very slowly over a low heat, thus preserving their structural integrity and nutritional value.
As Kunio Tokuoka of Kyoto Kitcho pointed out, Japanese cooking techniques and ingredients have a role to play. Chef Tokuoka showed how glutamate-rich konbu dashi (seaweed soup stock) could be used to create simple, flavorful dishes that contain little fat and salt.
The presentations stimulated minds as well as appetites, and a tinge of excitement lingered in the air as Tokyo Taste came to a close. With events such as these being held in the city, eyes and palates should stay trained on Japan in the years to come.
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