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The Japanese Table / Quality of frozen food wowed Olympic chefs

Courtesy of Nichirei Foods Inc.

Frozen food products are delivered to the Athletes Village for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

The Yomiuri ShimbunThis series discusses the present and future of washoku traditional Japanese cuisine. For this installment, we will explore the relationship between the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and Japanese food.

Isamu Suzuki, 78, was one of the chefs from around the nation who cooked meals at the Athletes Village that was set up in Tokyo’s Yoyogi district. In the kitchens, he and other staff members were surprised to see various frozen food items.

“All ingredients could be frozen and their quality was not bad after thawing,” he said. “I was surprised.”

Ingredients were thawed at a supply section inside the Athletes Village and brought to the kitchens ready to cook. Besides meat, the ingredients included spinach, haricot vert green beans, green asparagus, fillets of salted salmon and cut-open conger eels.

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  • Courtesy of Imperial Hotel

    Eisaku Sato, second from left, then state minister in charge of the Games, and other guests try dishes including those prepared with frozen food to be served at the Athletes Village during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Isamu Suzuki, who worked at the Athletes Village, is now a chef at a Western-style restaurant in Yokohama.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Potato croquettes  

“I believe both freezing and thawing technologies were great,” Suzuki said. “They were easy to cook and tasted good.”

The 1964 Tokyo Games gave a boost to the recognition of frozen food. While such products had already been on the market for both household and commercial use in Japan, their qualities were improved and new products were developed with an eye on their use at the Games.

Grand chefs for the Athletes Village dining halls set their sights on frozen food. Among those who conducted extensive research on such products were Nobuo Murakami from Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel and fellow chefs.

Nearly 10,000 athletes and officials stayed at the complex, and athletes required twice as many calories as ordinary people did. It had become an issue for chefs as to how they were to procure a large amount of ingredients to support athletes’ diets. During a peak period of the Games, more than 10 tons of meat and 6 tons of vegetables were needed per day, for example.

If the Athletes Village kitchens bought fresh food from markets every day, that might have triggered price hikes and therefore affected ordinary consumers. That was why the chefs believed it would be necessary to make use of frozen food that could be prepared in advance and preserved for a while.

Nippon Reizo Co., what is now Nichirei Corp., cooperated in developing frozen food products.

“To serve athletes from various parts of the world, our company conducted research to work on the challenge of offering various kinds of products that would have a quality on par with that of fresh food,” a public relations officer said.

The team succeeded in freezing vegetables, which had been considered a difficult task. Spinach, for example, should be placed with the stems down in a basket and boiled for about a minute. The vegetable should then be submerged in cold water before being frozen. Frozen potatoes would not lose their texture if they were quickly cooked with hot water. If stewed meat was quickly frozen after being seasoned, the dish could keep its flavor even after being defrosted, and it would not require much time to add finishing touches. Thus, the best processing and thawing methods, depending on ingredients and dishes, were discovered.

In August 1963, an event was held to sample dishes to be served at the Athletes Village, in which two kinds of roast beef were served — one made from raw meat and the other prepared using frozen meat. Guests reportedly found it hard to tell the difference, with Eisaku Sato, then state minister in charge of the Tokyo Olympics who later became prime minister, also enjoying the dishes.

In 1965, the year following the Olympics, the government made a recommendation calling for a cold chain system for the nation’s food supply to keep food at low temperatures, with an aim to improve the quality of the Japanese diet. The move prompted studies on methods to deliver products from producers to consumers while maintaining their quality.

Around that time, 100,000 tons of frozen food were produced per year, but the amount exceeded 1 million tons in 1990 and 1.55 million tons in 2016.

Katsuhide Takashima, a Mitsui & Co. Global Strategic Studies Institute economist specializing in the distribution industry, said the quality of meals was highly evaluated at the Tokyo Olympics, which apparently prompted the further research and development of frozen food products.

“Today, frozen food is appreciated not only in terms of making cooking easier, but also in terms of the environment, because it helps reduce food waste,” he said. “While the sense of seasonality might be weakened by featuring frozen food products, today it’s difficult to prepare everyday meals without them.”

Western-style Japanese soul food: Potato croquettes

Cooking expert Naomi Kijima, 64, is introducing dishes served at home around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. These dishes were cooked by her mother, Akiko Murakami (1927-2004), before she stared her career as a cooking expert. Many of them are dishes of Western origin but eaten with rice in a style unique to Japan.

“My mother’s croquettes are barrel-shaped and include a slightly larger amount of ground meat than those sold at stores,” Kijima said. “Before the arrival of microwaves, potatoes were boiled or steamed and mashed with a pestle in a mortar.”

Ingredients (serves 2):

300 grams potatoes (preferably danshaku variety)

150 grams onion

50 grams ground beef

Adequate amount each of flour, beaten egg, bread crumbs

Directions:

1. Chop the onion.

2. Heat two teaspoons of cooking oil in a pan and pan-fry the chopped onion. When it becomes soft, add ground beef to the pan. When the meat is cooked, season the ingredients with ⅓ teaspoon of salt and a dash of pepper.

3. Wash the potatoes and wrap each in plastic wrap. Heat them in the microwave at 600 watts for 7 or 8 minutes, stopping the microwave at the midpoint to turn the potatoes around. Peel their skins while still hot.

4. Put the cooked potatoes in a mortar and mash them with a pestle. Add the ground beef and onion and mix all the ingredients with a spatula.

5. Divide the potato mixture into six equal parts and shape them like barrels. Cover each piece with flour, beaten egg and bread crumbs in this order.

6. Deep-fry the barrel-shaped items at about 180 degrees for about three minutes until golden brown. Drain excess oil and serve with shredded cabbage and wedges of tomato.

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