Japan, Flavors of Culture: Final Day

The final day of the conference (which took place on November 6), started with a selection of breakout sessions. I chose Flavor Convergence: Melding Culinary Ideas from Spain and Japan by Way of American and Peruvian Kitchens (how could I NOT choose this intriguing title?) which set the tone for the day, which was in many ways an investigation of the culinary reach of Japanese techniques, ideas and influence on the world, as well as the influx of Western ideas and foods to Japan.

The seminar was led by Toshiro Konishi, a fourth-generation kaiseki chef and chef/owner of Toshiro’s in Lima, Peru. His beef carpaccio–marinated in soy sauce, sherry and dashi–was a delight, as were the kombu-marinated oysters rolled in Iberico ham. The “flavor convergence” was indeed a success, and if I ever make it to Lima, it’ll be my first stop.

Other highlights included noted American food writer and critic Ruth Reichl’s fascinating timeline of the introduction of Japanese cuisine, ingredients and techniques on American dining since 1914, tracing their influences and misunderstandings on America’s collective palate. She also made a prediction that the Japanese concept of texture will be the next frontier. Here’s to hoping natto clears the hurdles to acceptance it currently faces!

Part of the reason for Japan’s culinary influence on the world stage is its’ well-known health benefits. After all, the Japanese have the longest life span in the world (especially in Okinawa) and one of the lowest obesity rates, as stated in the session Balance, Long Life and the Japanese Diet: Ideas for American Menus.

However, with the Westernization of diet– including the consumption of red meat–Lawrence Kushi, SC.D. at Kaiser Permanente showed some startling statistics charting the corresponding rise of breast and colon cancer. (I spoke with Mr. Kushi, who agreed to share the stats with us on Savory Japan for an upcoming article.)

Even though beef consumption is on the rise, in fine dining it is often merely a flavoring agent, used sparingly. This was beautifully demonstrated by seven Michelin-starred chef  Yoshihiro Murata of Kikunoi in his beef shabu shabu with two dipping sauces. Blanching and draining the beef takes away much of the fat, and the dipping sauces: Ponzu that contains dashi, mirin, vinegar, wasabi, sesame paste and lemon juice; and creamy tofu, made from ground tofu, sesame paste, light soy sauce and marscapone (which can be omitted) are both flavorful without having much fat. Additionally, they can be served with salads and vegetables as well as beef.

Perhaps the most healthy diet of all is vegan, and shojin (vegetarian) cuisine is not yet known in the West to the extent that kaiseki is. I was extremely lucky to attend Daisuke Nomura’s (chef/owner of two Michelin-starred Daigo in Tokyo) seminar Shojin Cuisine: Inside the Japanese Vegetarian Kitchen. Mr. Nomura has never been away from his restaurant and in fact closed it for two weeks in order to spread the concept of Shojin-ryori to the West. His restaurant serves shojin-ryori in the kaiseki-style to attract new devotees. I’ve long been a fan of this cuisine, but learned something new: the concept of tanmi (subtle flavor) during a tasting exercise. Okayu (rice porridge), fresh yuba (tofu skin) and simmered daikon were cooked first without flavor, then with a touch of salt, and finally, with dashi and other flavorings (the way they would be served at the restaurant). By tasting each dish successively from light to strong, I learned to appreciate and discern the subtlety of flavor of the main ingredients.

This concept resonated in my mind as I strolled the aisles of the World Marketplace during lunch, where we were able to sample many of the dishes created that day. There was a marked increase in salt, fat and spice the further one ventured from Kyoto and Tokyo; from traditional to modern and domestic to international. The dishes with the most flavor and “wow” factor tend to be bold and up front. I had to quiet my taste buds to appreciate raw yuba with no seasoning, or the richness of maguro sushi with just a light brush of soy sauce by Kyubey’s sushi artists. But these were for me the most satisfying flavors.

The conference ended with a fun segment about the TV show The Iron Chef, and Masaharu Morimoto, David Chang, Masayasu Yonemura and Kunio Tokuoka rose to the challenge of creating dishes with the secret ingredients kabocha (pumpkin) and matsutake mushrooms.

Finally, the closing included a traditional clapping ceremony led by the team of chefs. This led to a rousing standing ovation by the crowd, which seemed to surprise the modest chefs, all of whom left their restaurants during the busy fall color season to impart their knowledge to the crowd.

It remains to be seen what the effect of this amazing conference will be on the culinary world. With ideas exchanged and friendships formed, new ingredients tried and recipes improvised, who knows what will come next? We’re eager to find out, and look forward to the years ahead, when we firmly believe Japanese cuisine will be viewed as one of the greatest and most influential in the world.

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