The Yomiuri ShimbunFollowing is an interview with culinary school operator Yoshiki Tsuji, who shares his thoughts on washoku traditional Japanese cuisine.
I’ve long seen the forefront of food cultures in Europe, the United States and elsewhere. Over the past 40 years, Japan’s food culture has gained a solid position in the world. I think we can say it has achieved commercial success.
However, this success only applies to specific food such as sushi, yakitori, tempura and ramen, as well as seasonings including miso and soy sauce. Other styles of cuisine such as kaiseki ryori course meals or so-called counter-kappo (in which authentic dishes are cooked in front of guests and served over the counter) have not yet been culturally understood by all foreigners. These styles have an impact on aesthetic senses and spirituality, but have not taken root. Apparently, this is because there are few skilled artisans who can promote them. Such artisans need techniques to prepare dishes that suit foreign palates.
Japan still continues to have a social trend in which people care about the nationality of the people who operate a restaurant. As a result, we tend to have a prejudice that “Japanese cuisine served overseas is not authentic because it’s not prepared by Japanese.”
This is extremely rude, as it’s almost the same as saying that French cuisine cannot be done by anyone but the French.
Last year, a restaurant in California earned three Michelin stars for evolving Japanese cuisine. The chef is an American. The time has finally come when non-Japanese learn Japanese cuisine and prepare it in their own countries.
I have an American friend who barely dips white fish sushi into soy sauce. According to her, she can’t tell the differences in the flavors of the fish if it’s dipped in too much sauce.
It’s better not to categorize customers merely into foreigners or Japanese. What matters is whether they have the intellectual curiosity to enjoy new tastes.
Japanese cuisine has a certain amount of restrictions. We have seasonal and annual festivals, and the foodstuffs available change depending on the season. Among them, so-called owan-mono (soup or simmered dishes served in a bowl) represents the heart and essence of a chef’s techniques. The chef has to decide what ingredients to use for the dashi broth, how to prepare it, whether to add one more drop of soy sauce, or what to do with salt, among other factors.
In fact, it’s easy to break the rules and say something is new. How much can you bring out your own individuality under these restrictions that have been systematized over the years? With Japanese food, this is where chefs can show their originality.
You may think the social status for chefs has improved. But I don’t think so. It’s a venerable profession, but young people don’t seem to consider it appealing. This job still values long working hours and has not undergone reform of its work practices. I know it’s difficult to implement measures, but it’s possible by employing management strategies.
Creating new menu items, determining how to effectively use ingredients and set prices, and managing the status of reservations — all these aspects can be considered part of culinary technique. I believe it’s necessary to reinterpret what a “good chef” means. Some in this industry may say, “That’s easier said than done,” but other industries have already implemented such reforms.
Less washoku is being served in households. The problem is that most household chores are handled by mothers. We need to reconsider the role of fathers.
Dietary education is important, but it doesn’t work if the effort is merely a one-time event. Dietary education is not just about teaching the umami flavor of dashi. You won’t get through to people by just telling them they “should continue to eat washoku because it’s important.”
We should start by helping people understand their local food cultures, local foodstuffs and who are the people involved in their production. In that sense, I believe school lunches play an important role.
The number of foreigners is expected to keep increasing in the future, and the culture of taste can drastically change. How sensitive can we be to Japanese food culture? I think this holds the key to passing it down to the next generation.
Excellent chefs have been nurtured all over Japan, and I think we can place our hopes in these people.
— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Takehiro Ito.
■ Yoshiki Tsuji / Headmaster of Tsuji Culinary Institute
Born in 1964 in Osaka Prefecture, Tsuji also serves as the representative of the Tsuji Culinary Institute Group. He supervised the menu for the banquet for world leaders at the 2000 Group of Eight summit meeting in Okinawa Prefecture.
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