Japan: Flavors of Culture Conference & Festival

The opening day of the 13th annual CIA conference, Japan: Flavors of Culture; From Sushi & Soba to Kaiseki. A Global Celebration of Tradition, Art & Exchange started off with a thought-provoking subject: Traditions and Innovations in Japanese Cuisine: An Inquiry into the Source of Diversity. Moderator/presenter Yoshiki Tsuji illustrated this diversity within Japan by introducing three chefs from three cities which have been the driving forces in shaping the culinary landscape since the 1700s: Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

First, Yousuke Imada, chef/owner of Kyubey in Tokyo gave an introduction of Edo-mae sushi while demonstrating the preparation of two classic neta (toppings): kohada (shad), which is marinated in salt and vinegar to soften the tiny bones and intensify the flavor, and toro (fatty tuna) preserved in a mixture of soy sauce and either dashi or mirin, to get rid of excess moisture and soften what is often called the “king of fish”.

Next, Yoshihiro Takahashi, 15th-generation chef/owner of Hyotei demonstrated nimono (simmered) tai (sea bream) with Kyoto vegetables and pumpkin tofu. Tai is not only a seasonal (November brings the best flavor) but a celebratory choice, while the appearance of matsutake mushrooms symbolizes the transition from autumn to winter — and the end of the season. He even described the proper way to enjoy the soup to the audience (many of whom had never been to Japan) — from the lacquer bowl that feels soft to the touch and transfers the warmth to the diner’s hands, to the proper way to sip the hot liquid — slurping with sound, so that air mixes with the soup to enjoy the flavor more fully.

Finally, Kunio Tokuoka, 3rd generation chef/owner of Kitcho demonstrated the art of the hassun (appetizer arrangement), Osaka-style. A culinary icebreaker for conversation to be enjoyed with sake: Part landscape, part visual poetry, full of symbolism and designed to be viewed from each diners’ perspective. His ikebana-like autumn arrangement included flowers from Napa Valley in honor of the conference, which brings together a team of 50 top chefs and culinary experts from Japan and 40 from the U.S., Europe and South America for what is the first serious investigation and professional exchange of its kind.

The knowledge each chef and presenter was able to impart in a few minutes left me wanting to spend three days (or three years) with each one. To bring such great talent under one roof was a massive undertaking that took three years of preparation by devoted teams of organizers, advisers and sponsors from Japan and the U.S.

This was followed by a tasting and dinner featuring food, drink, food products and book signings. The massive hall proved too big to explore in its entirety because we kept stopping for fascinating conversations with traditional Japanese producers of katsuobushi, tea and sake. Luckily we can return tomorrow for more inspiration.