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.
Though what is known as washoku is in the spotlight around the world today, there wasn’t so much interest during the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In a bid to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime chance, chefs were among those back then who racked their brains to find ways to introduce Japanese cuisine to guests from other parts of the world.
In the year before the Olympics, that was a big theme for Iwao Osaki, who was the chief of the business section at the Hotel Okura in Tokyo at that time.
“I was thinking, ‘Foreign guests are more familiar with meat than sashimi. So how can we present a Japanese-style dish using meat?’” said Osaki, who recently turned 89.
Flambeed steak cut into bite-size pieces to be eaten dipped in soy sauce using chopsticks — in other words, what is now known as teppanyaki — was just the type of washoku he had in mind.
“I thought that this would be an eating experience only available in Japan,” Osaki said.
Osaki said he sought recipes for sauces from teppanyaki restaurants in Tokyo. The hotel then developed four kinds of sauces — garlic and soy sauce, ponzu, sesame and miso.
A way to serve teppanyaki was also devised. By having the customers sit across the griddle facing the chefs as the food is being cooked, diners can have a lasting memory of the experience.
The order of a kaiseki ryori traditional Japanese course is referenced by first serving the appetizer in the form of fresh vegetables seasoned with Japanese-style dressing, followed by grilling the meat as a main dish, concluding with rice and miso soup.
“The flavor of soy sauce was quite new and appreciated by foreign guests,” Osaki said. “I think our teppanyaki helped trigger a subsequent boom of teriyaki sauce and other soy sauce-based flavors.”
Hotel Okura’s teppanyaki was such a popular dish at its Japanese cuisine restaurant that in 1990 a teppanyaki restaurant, Teppanyaki Sazanka, opened within the hotel.
Late singer Kyu Sakamoto’s 1963 song “Ue o Muite Aruko,” which literary means “walk with your chin up,” became a big hit in the United States where it was known as “Sukiyaki.” The title highlighted the Japanese dish of the same name.
Around that time, many foreign guests ordered sukiyaki at Japanese restaurant Wadakura at Palace Hotel in Tokyo. The savory simmered beef dish developed since the Meiji era (1868-1912) fascinated people from overseas as well.
Sushi also made inroads
Kyubey, a long-established sushi restaurant in the Ginza district of Tokyo, opened branches in Hotel Okura and Hotel New Otani in Tokyo in 1964.
“Compared to tempura and sukiyaki, sushi wasn’t really popular among foreign guests at that time,” said Yosuke Imada, 73, Kyubey’s second-generation president. “I sometimes found they did not eat all the pieces served.”
Back then, many customers from overseas could not figure out how to use chopsticks.
“We did our best to explain how to use them through gestures,” Imada recalled. “The  Games may have been a trigger for sushi to become known overseas.”
In later years, Japanese cuisine underwent a boom overseas thanks to trends toward healthy living. The number of overseas travelers visiting Kyubey saw drastic increases. The restaurant has focused on making efforts to promote sushi to the world by dispatching its chefs to hotels overseas.
“In the previous Tokyo Olympics, all we could do was just to explain how to eat it,” Imada said. “However, [for the upcoming Games] I hope to promote more in-depth ways of enjoying sushi, such as how to appreciate wasabi.”
Tadashi Sawauchi, who serves as grand chef for Japanese cuisine at Hotel Okura Tokyo, believes washoku has become popular apparently because its essence of not offering anything more than amplifying the flavors of the ingredients has been appreciated overseas as well.
“I hope we will pass on our traditions to 2020 and beyond,” he said.
Western-style Japanese soul food: Chicken rice
Cooking expert Naomi Kijima introduces home cooking from the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In this installment, she shares a recipe for chicken rice, which is “fried rice that includes chicken and is flavored with ketchup,” Kijima said. “I believe omuraisu [omelets wrapped usually around chicken rice] wasn’t yet a common home dish back then.”
Ingredients (serves 2):
100 grams chicken thighs
300 grams rice, cooked hard
½ small can of boiled green peas
Flavoring mixture (5 tbsp ketchup, 2 tbsp sake, ¼ tsp salt, pinch of pepper)
1 tbsp cooking oil
10 grams butter
1. Dice the onion into 5- to 6-millimeter pieces and the chicken into 1-centimeter pieces.
2. Season a frying pan with cooking oil and stir-fry the onion and chicken. Add the flavoring mixture and simmer for about 2 minutes. Add the butter, green peas and rice.
3. Chop through and mix the ingredients using a wooden spatula while frying until all the rice turns red from the ketchup.
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