The Japanese Table / Home chefs must help ‘endangered’ washoku

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Yoshihiro Murata

The Yomiuri ShimbunFive years have passed since washoku traditional Japanese cuisine was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

With more and more Japanese restaurants springing up overseas, interest in washoku is expected to grow even further heading into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. At the same time, however, challenges remain as to how this asset should be passed down in the home.

This series will discuss washoku as it is now and its future. In this installment, The Yomiuri Shimbun interviews a renowned chef who spoke about his commitment to the profession.

Yoshihiro Murata / Owner of Japanese ryotei restaurant Kikunoi in Kyoto

I’m hoping to make Kikunoi the most inexpensive three-star restaurant in the world. It would be bad if we set our prices such that everyday people who work decently can’t afford to splurge on a special day.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Kikunoi’s kaiseki course meals are filled with a sense of the season, as exemplified by this springtime warabi-ika dish.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Surinagashi pureed green pea soup

The word “ryotei” [or traditional Japanese restaurant] in Tokyo carries the sense of a politicians’ meeting place. However, ryotei in Kyoto simply means a restaurant or eating place.

[Many people in Kyoto] go to their very first ryotei on the occasion of miyamairi [a baby’s first shrine visit], when they are held by their grandma, and then shichi-go-san [a festival to celebrate children who are 3, 5 and 7], the coming-of-age ceremony and Buddhist memorial services. Ryotei takes on all these events. We are so close to people’s milestones in life.

So, I think it’s best not to think ryotei is always better if it is particularly expensive. If ryotei moves out of the hands of ordinary people, washoku culture won’t be handed down.

Washoku makes use of various ingredients to express the season and nature. For example, warabi-ika, a dish we serve in April, uses squid, green dried seaweed and egg yolk to represent warabi bracken growing from the ground.

The major player of washoku is umami from dashi stock. Stock or broth from almost all countries is based on fat, but washoku can be cooked without a drop of oil. The kaiseki ryori course meal uses roughly 65 types of food, excluding dessert, and contains about 1,000 kilocalories. However, a hamburger and french fries easily exceeds that caloric amount. The world is paying attention to washoku in terms of its health benefits, too.

Cooking has long been done based mostly on the chef’s wit and experience, but I think it should be done more rationally.

At the Japanese Culinary Academy (JCA), an incorporated nonprofit organization that I chair, universities and chefs work together to scientifically study cooking. To make stock from kombu, it’s long been common sense to heat the seaweed in water until right before it starts to boil. However, glutamic acid, an ingredient that provides umami flavor, increases in dashi by 30 percent when the water is heated with the temperature steady at about 60 C. Our experiments have revealed such a fact.

At Kikunoi, I tell chefs to use a ruler if they can’t cut vegetables evenly. To check if the food is cooked, I don’t think it’s good advice to say, “Stick a bamboo skewer into the food, pull it out and then put it on your lip.” I would rather recommend that chefs use a food thermometer.

Home cuisine, however, is a different story. What’s not good is to stop cooking because one develops a mind-set that cooking is difficult. For example, it’s often said you should pour hot water over aburaage deep-fried tofu to get rid of the food’s oil. However, this is actually advice that dates back to when bad oil was used to deep-fry the tofu. Other advice includes, “You won’t make a mistake if you mix all the seasonings, including sugar and salt, in advance.”

However, cooking at home should be done casually enough to spark exchanges [between those who cook and those who eat] like this:

“Mom, today’s dish is a bit salty.”

“Oh really? Eat it anyway.”

Seasoning changes every day, and that’s why a family can eat it every day.

Washoku was registered as an intangible cultural heritage not because it’s delicious, but because it’s almost like an “endangered species” and needs to be protected. I want Japanese to be more aware of the fact that washoku should be handed down.

The JCA has been publishing a series of cookbooks on Japanese cuisine that contain the results of our scientific studies. Meanwhile, I’d like to realize a screening system to evaluate a chef’s skills and knowledge. If they are highly evaluated by the system, they can work anywhere in the world as a professional chef and eventually help boost the exports of agricultural products.

I want to make Japanese cuisine world cuisine. However, that might result in New York, for example, enjoying a reputation as the best place to eat washoku some decades from now. To avoid this, restaurants in Japan must keep trying to constantly improve themselves.

(This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Takehiro Ito.)

Surinagashi green peas for spring

Surinagashi is a Japanese cooking method of pureeing vegetables and seafood and then mixing them into dashi.

Murata recommends pureeing endomame, or green peas, as they are currently in season. He adds takenoko bamboo shoot to fill the dish with a sense of spring.

Remove the peas from their shells and boil. Then put them in a blender and puree. Make dashi with kombu and shredded dried bonito flakes and season with salt and usukuchi light-colored soy sauce.

For the soup’s solid ingredient, use store-bought boiled takenoko bamboo shoots if you’d like to make the dish at home. Boil takenoko with dashi, take it out and place in a bowl.

Add a mixture of starch and water to the remaining dashi to thicken the soup and then add the pureed peas. Pour the mixture over the takenoko to serve.

Heat causes peas to lose their color, so Murata recommends adding the peas right before serving so the dish stays green.

■ Yoshihiro Murata

Born in 1951, Murata became the third-generation owner of Kikunoi. He studied cooking in France before being trained at a ryotei in Nagoya. He worked hard to see that washoku was registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Kikunoi’s main restaurant has earned three Michelin stars, the highest number possible. Its kaiseki dinner course meal starts from ¥16,000, plus tax and service fees.

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