Seasonal, Simple, Sublime
Organic and naturally grown food, cooked according to Japanese traditional methods.
My mission is to rekindle reverence for the food we eat. We can learn a lot from the Japanese on this subject.
Seasonal, simple, sublime these are three words used to sum up the Japanese cuisine in the documentary film WA-SHOKU ~Beyond Sushi~. A Japanese and American collaboration.
Most people think of Sushi, when they think of Japanese food. Sushi is now well-known all over the world and enjoyed by all cultures. But this is not all the Japanese cuisine has to offer. The film features several chefs and Mr. Noritsohi Kanai, who died at the age of 94 in 2017. He wasa CEO of Mutual Trading Co, whose mission it was since the 1960’s to make Japan’s true and authentic cuisine WA-SHOKU meaning Japanese food, well-known in the USA. If you are interested in food from different cultures it is well worth watching this documentary full of passion.
WA-SHOKU was named in the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013. The principles of Traditional Japanese Food, WA-SHOKU – an ideal meal should involve
- – red,
- and black,
5 methods of preparation
- grilled or seared,
engage all 5 tastes
and also arouse all 5 senses
– contribute to a healthy diet.
What’s the secret?
- the number 5
- the small portions
- the hospitality
- the perfection
- the reverence towards food
All of this and more:
We are experiencing a revival of cooking and eating seasonal and regional food in the West. I say revival because it is now somewhat hyped as trendy and of superior value. In fact, we used to cook seasonally and regionally, because there was no other way to provide for ourselves. We cooked what we had, when we had it.
Then the world became a village and we were eating products from all far corners of the earth at all times of year.
Quite honestly, I don´t think our digestive systems were really made for this. Judging by the fact that some of our body functions still date back to the era of saber tooth tigers, it’s might be a bit much to expect our gut to adapt to exotic dishes with an ever expanding array of ingredients and spices at the speed they came into our kitchens.
So, what I am I advocating the Japanese cuisine for then, you might ask. Valid point. As I explained in my post Food and Identity our cultures have been greatly enriched by immigrants sticking to their culinary roots and broadening our culinary horizon.
I think if the ingredients are adapted to where you are, and not highly processed it is fine to try out new methods of cooking. What I don’t advocate is eating highly processed food made from ingredients that have been imported half way across the world and in such a variety that our gut can only get in to a frenzy possibly resulting in all sorts of complaints such as Irritable Bowel Syndrom.
But the point I am trying to make about the Japanese culture and Japanese way of preparing dishes is exactly the reverence for food on a whole and the life the food being prepared, had. This fuels Japanese cooks desire to cook with nature as is seasonal and regional.
I know there are examples of a different way of thinking to be found. But traditionally speaking, this is what WA-SHOKU is about.
They say, when you are cooking you are cooking products that had a life, and they don’t just mean animals. We need to respect that. Here that seems to have gone out of the window due to the mass production meat industry.
Another incentive of the Japanese kitchen is no waste. If you are going to kill an animal to eat it, then make good use of it and don’t throw half of it away. It doesn’t deserve that. If you are going to eat one fish, catch one fish, not a whole net full to throw away as by products.
The Japanese don’t really have a concept of left-overs. They endeavour to cook the amount they eat, and if any is left over it will be found in a child’s or husband’s or wife’s bento box the next day. But that is another story.
Respect is shown not only in the way the food is prepared and cooked but also by the tools used. The most important tool is a sharp knife, and I mean sharp. Japanese cooks take pride in their knives and also care for them well.
The simplicity and precision of Japanese cuisine require a sharp blade in order not to tamper with the fresh flavours and appearance of ingredients. Therefore cutting with a blunt knife damages the cell walls of food and leads to loss of colour and wilting. It also provides a rough surface for bacteria to dock onto.
Japanes Blacksmiths knife forging skills are second to none. Paired with a combination of different metals, this enables the making of such incomparably sharp blades.
It may seem going over the top but there is even a place to bring knives that are no longer used. A graveyard for knives.
Japanese cooking does not overpower nature by forcing flavours upon it, but rather enhances and accentuates the flavours nature provides.
A relative of mine who spent some time in Japan did quite a lot of cooking in her tiny kitchen. She tried some Japanese recipes and cooking methods but also tried cooking the recipes she knew from home using Japanese ingredients. Sometimes a kind of crossover cuisine was the result.
Her Japanese boyfriend was very happy to eat the western style food as spicy as it should be. However, he was not happy when Japanese dishes were what he experienced as over-seasoned, even less so if my relative said, it has no taste without the seasoning. He considered that lack of respect for the natural taste of food.
I think we have at least partially forgotten how food tastes naturally and are used to masking that with other tastes. I fast regularly. At the end of four weeks of fasting, one of the most astounding experiences is being able to taste the natural taste of food without lots of salt and seasoning.
On the other hand, the Japanese cuisine is based on the taste Umami known as the fifth taste alongside, sweet, salty, bitter and sour. A rough translation of Umami is pleasant savoury taste.
Meat and fish, shiitake mushrooms, tomatoes, and parmesan cheese are sources of this umami flavour. In the Japanese cuisine it is known in broths and soups.
Therefore in foods that have been cooked long and slowly to make them particularly flavoursome. This method is also typical, because nothing is too much trouble when trying to obtain the right taste. Other ways of developing the umami taste are aging, drying, smoking, curing, stewing, and fermenting. The latter also being very gut friendly.
Umami was discovered by Ikeda Kikunae, a chemistry professor in 1907. Currently what we know Monosodiumglutamate, which has a bad reputation and is often used in processed foods, is produced by bacterial fermentation.
However, using umami that we can create using the methods above in balance with the other four primary tastes, enhances the deliciousness of a dish in a natural way. In summary umami is the basis of Japanese dishes. The many flavours typical to Japanese cuisine are put together to create a well-rounded and mouthwatering and outstanding gastronomic experience.
According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary sublime means awe inspiring due to elevated quality. I am sure it has become clear that this adjective definitely applies to the Japanese cuisine.
The Japanese have a saying, particularly in Okinawa, HARA HACHI BU. They also teach this to their children. So what does it mean? Stop eating when you are 80% full. How do you know, when you are 80% full? You don’t exactly and it takes a little practice. But if you are eating a variety of small portions and stop eating before you have any inkling of feeling full, you are on the right track.
And being sensible or rather sensitive to your body’s needs doesn’t stop there. The Japanese also have an attitude towards snacking called flexible restraint. Which means, it’s alright to have a little snack now and again but only in really small portions, a bite full so to speak.
In a nutshell the WA-SHOKU way of eating which entails a variety of dishes, small portions, soups, lots of vegetables, different cooking methods, a large amount of water, and making use of natural umami – the savoury taste, adds up to a very enjoyable, sensual eating experience, but also ensures a signal for having eaten enough, so one doesn’t feel the need to overeat.
Hospitality and the importance of tableware
During the time I spent in Osaka, I was very fortunate to be invited into the home of a Japanese family for dinner. I was overwhelmed by the variety of dishes on the table and very impressed that all these had been prepared with so much attention to detail in a minuscule kitchen, as far as our kitchens go. I will never moan about not having enough space again. I was treated like a VIP guest and very wary of doing something wrong, which I surely did. It was February so the tableware reflected the time of year in colour and also in character. The bowls and plates were earthenware, whereas in Summer in they would have been fine porcelain. Attention had been paid to every detail and I felt very honoured.
The Japanese religion Shinto sees gods in every part of nature. This documentary from 1977 explains the connection to nature. It takes about 45 Minutes. The narrators are really pleasant to listen to, you can experience it like a meditation.
It is no big secret that the way you view life makes a big difference to how you experience it. Having a positive attitude is more contagious and makes for a better quality of life. Looking at your food in a positive as in respectful manner can be just as rewarding. So, what changes will you be making?
Kayo, K. K., Shamima, A. S., Ikuko, K. I., Atsushi, G. A., Tetsuya, M. T. & Mitsuhiko, M. N. (2016, 12. Februar). Quality of diet and mortality among Japanese men and women: Japan Public Health Center based prospective study. www.bmj.com. https://www.bmj.com/content/352/bmj.i1209
Gabriel, A. S. G., Ninomiya, K. N. & Uneyama, H. U. (2018, 3. Februar). The Role of the Japanese Traditional Diet in Healthy and Sustainable Dietary Patterns around the World. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5852749/
Suzuki, J. (Regie). (2015). [Wa-Shoku: Beyond Sushi]. Under The Milky Way.