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.

Japan: Flavors of Culture, Day 2

Today was the last day of this three-day extravaganza, and my head is spinning from the amazing amount of information I’ve heard, new flavors I tasted, and beautiful presentations I’ve seen. It’s simply too much to write about just now with any sense of clarity, for there simply isn’t enough time (nor space). So I’ll just give a brief overview and post a few photos. Please visit the Savory Japan Facebook page to see a more extensive photo album. When I return to Chicago I’ll post articles on certain subjects in their respective categories on Savory Japan.

The second day of this amazing culinary event started with classic, traditional Japanese cuisine, with an introduction to three chefs from three Kyoto ryotei (Japanese traditional restaurants), who in turn introduced three dishes. It ended with a showcase of Japanese and American chefs who push the boundaries of tradition to create their own unique dishes. In between, there were kitchen workshops, tastings and lectures on culinary history, food philosophy and even anthropology.

What follows are some highlights from day 2:

Hisato Nakahigashi owner/chef of Tankuma Kitamise, a counter style ryotei favored by professional tea masters created a lavish wansashi, (sashimi served in a bowl) for five people for a celebratory occasion.

Starting with a large square white bowl as his “blank canvas”, Nakahigashi created a landscape depicting San Francisco. A lobster represented the undulating contours of the Golden Gate bridge, while auspicious red- and white–fleshed fish: Maguro (tuna), hirame (flounder), hotate (scallops) and hamachi (yellowtail).

Nakahigashi also talked about the concept of shun, a celebration of the seasons. In Kyoto, the four seasons are divided into 12 months, and each month divided in two, marked by various subtle changes to the weather and available produce, as well as festivals. For instance, chestnuts represent the month of September. However, they are first green, then change to yellow and finally, brown. Each change is incorporated into the cuisine.

Next, a quick succession of chefs introduced various casual comfort foods, including Mr. Yoshihiro Maeda of Hanamaru Udon, a company that makes Sanuki style udon.  The ingredients for udon are simply flour, salt and water. (The softer the water, the better–It also has the be the right temperature, 30 degrees C or less). First, he mixed the water and flour together so that the water penetrated the flour to create flaky dough. This was then wrapped between two sturdy pieces of plastic and stomped by foot, then folded and repeated seven times. (Maeda explained that they have a machine to replicate this action). He then boiled the noodles and created a quick dashi soup. Other notable presenters included Ivan Orkin of Ivan Ramen, whose excellent ramen we got to taste during dinner.

This was followed by breakout sessions. I picked the seminar on Japanese tofu and  vegetable traditions, given by Kunio Tokuoka of three-Michelin-starred Kitcho. He made hirousu, deep-fried tofu balls with sauteed vegetables, as well as age dashi dofu (fried tofu) which was served in a rich soup made of chicken stock and smoked whipped cream. Both dishes were understated and elegant–but curiously–not vegetarian.

At the end of the day there was a fascinating showcase by Japanese chefs who interpret the food of the West, or use Japanese ingredients to create a new cuisine. The cross-cultural currents proved to be intriguing and made me want to try new restaurants.

Masayasu Yonemura’s demonstration was a standout due to his natural style and delicious-looking fois gras dish. His eponymous restaurant in Kyoto has earned one  Michelin star. There was also a session devoted to umami, and a seminar on the differences between kaiseki and cha-kaiseki, which I’ll cover later on Savory Japan.

As I said, it was a full day, with just too much information to do any justice to. I learned some new tips that I’m sure will help me be a better cook, and have added more restaurants to my list.

I’ll just say that I wish the conference was spread out over a week instead of just three days. However, judging from the international roster of guests and presenters, that would have been a difficult undertaking. The chefs were all unpaid, freely giving of their time and culinary secrets. Some of them even had to close their restaurants in order to attend.

I’ll follow up with a post on the highlights from today, Day 3, soon.

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.

13th Annual Worlds of Flavor, Japan: Flavors of Culture at The Culinary Institute of America

Savory Japan is deeply honored to be invited to cover the 13th Annual International Conference & Festival, Worlds of Flavor at The Culinary Institute of America.: Japan: Flavors of Culture – From Sushi to Soba to Kaiseki: A Global Celebration of Tradition, Art & Exchange. This highly anticipated three-day event, held November 4 to 6, will be the country’s largest and most important professional conferences ever to be held about Japanese Cuisine. The conference organizers have been at work for over two years to “present for the first time in the United States, a comprehensive, global standard of excellence in traditional Japanese cuisine as practiced by Japan’s most revered master chefs and food experts.”

The conference guest faculty will include more than 60 leading chefs and other luminaries of the Japanese culinary world. Confirmed chefs include:

From Japan:

  • Chef Kihachi Kumagai of Kihachi Restaurants
  • Chef Kiyomi Mikuni of the Hotel de Mikuni, Tokyo
  • Chef Yoshihiro Murata of Kyoto Kikunoi Restaurant (Three Star Michelin)
  • Chef Kunio Tokuoka of Kitcho Arashiyama Restaurant, Kyoto (Three Star Michelin)

From the United States:

  • Chef Nori Kusakabe of Sushi Ran Restaurant, Sausalito
  • Chef Masaharu Morimoto of Morimoto Restaurant, New York
  • Chef Hiroko Shimbo of Horiko’s Kitchen, New York
  • Chef Hiro Sone of Ame Restaurant in San Fransisco and Terra Restaurant, St. Helena (One Star Michelin)

Become a fan on Facebook at the CIA Worlds of Flavor Conference page to keep up-to-date on the roster, and visit the link above for full conference details and to register. In a recent posting on April 1, Savory Japan was named as one of the conference’s favorite sites on Japanese Cuisine & Culture! How awesome, and how very humbling!

With so much talent in one location, our heads will be spinning and our taste buds, tantalized. We will try our best to keep up, and keep you posted.

If you’re headed to the conference and festival, see you there!

The woes of bent cucumbers and too much plastic

We at Savory Japan are sometimes accused of over-romanticizing Japanese culture and food, so I’d like to state right here and now that I have two main gripes about food in Japan:

Number one is the amount of packaging you get when you buy Japanese food at the market, whether in Japan or in Japanese markets the the States. While I understand that some delicate food items do need special protection, I feel terrible when my meal produces multiple styrofoam trays and plastic bags. Do we really need all this extra packaging? Does extra packaging really give us extra service (as some Japanese cultural experts have stated) or make for a better customer experience? I’ll write more about this subject at a later date after doing some research. If anyone is involved in this issue, please contact me.

We've come to expect straight Japanese cucumbers as the norm
We've come to expect straight Japanese cucumbers as the norm

My other complaint is that the food is too perfect, and we as consumers have gotten used to perfection. I wasn’t even aware of my ignorance until I noticed that irregularly shaped food is sold at a substantial discount in Japan (when you can find it at all). The lower price makes the vegetables seem inferior, when in fact they simply don’t conform to what is considered the standard shape and size, which in turn is often determined by packaging. While I’m fully aware that this is the norm in the global food market, I do beleive it’s worse in Japan. Take a look at this article from the Japan Times, “Why don’t we eat bent cucumbers?”


Nakagoshi claims that standards set by JA Zennoh, the organization responsible for the marketing and quality control of products from 1,173 agricultural cooperatives in Japan, are often based on the size of the box or plastic bags that they provide.

“Take cucumbers for example. They have a special box for them and if your cucumber is too big or too small, it is classified as irregular and priced low. Of course, if it isn’t straight enough, it’s considered irregular as well,” he says.

Some of these “irregular” vegetables are simply thrown away. It’s a serious problem, and Nakagoshi has recently teamed up with a new company named Vegetable Equality to spread awareness of agricultural waste.

Vegetable Equality’s CEO, Mitsuko Mori, stumbled on the issue in 2008 while visiting potential food suppliers. During a warehouse tour, Mori noticed boxes piled high with broccoli. When she asked the farmer about them, he replied that he’d have to throw them out because of their size: The diameter of each was five centimeters too wide.

“I visited numerous farmers and noticed all of them shared a similar problem,” she says. “My immediate goal is to bring irregular vegetables to the market and change industry and consumer habits.” ”

-End quote-

So it start with us. I’m just as guilty of vegetable prejudice as others. I’m always looking for beauty and proportion when choosing my ingredients. In fact, some might call me finicky. But I’m determined to change my ways, and hope you will too. After all, it isn’t the shape of the ingredient that matters most, but taste and health, and organics win on these fronts.

Now, I’ll go back to putting on my rose-colored glasses….

Sachiyo Imai, Obanzai Savior


After the lesson, we sat down to taste our creations.
Our obanzai lunch included simmered saba and fuki.

I’ve finished the story on Sachiyo Imai, and it’s now up on Savory Japan as one of the lead articles for September. It’s rather lengthy article, as there was so much to cover in describing my encounter with this amazing woman, and yet, it only gives a taste of the deep wellspring of knowledge that is obanzai. There’s also a link to a slide show, so you can see Mrs. Imai’s kitchen, as well as some of the delicious dishes we made that day. And, despite her insistence that obanzai has no recipes, I experimented with her okara recipe so that you can try it at home, keeping the measurements imprecise as a nod to her method.

I wish to thank Mrs. Imai and her students for letting me share this wonderful experience.

Obanzai Cooking Comes out of the Kitchen

Sachiyo Imai (left) works her magic in the kitchen while an assistant and I take note.
Sachiyo Imai (left) works her magic in the kitchen while an assistant and I take note.

Over the past few years, I noticed a growing trend among the restaurants, cafes and bars of Kyoto. The word “obanzai” kept popping up on the signs. This is not a term I grew up with, and at first, I barely gave it notice. I thought perhaps it was akin to tapas, since it seemed to describe simple dishes served in mostly small quantities, and the term was freely used on signs for izakayas and bars. Contrary to this first assumption, I soon discovered that, unlike otsumami (bar food) that is enjoyed while dining out, obanzai can best be described as Kyoto’s answer to “home cooking.” It is the food your grandmother might have made (if you were so lucky)daikon simmered in dashi, hijiki with age-dofu and carrots, sauteed okara (soy lees)all those long-simmered, savory and wholesome dishes that were so good for you, yet rarely seen outside the kitchen. So why were these hip and trendy bars proudly announcing Kyoto-style home cooking?

To further understand this trend, I did some research and came across one name repeatedly: Sachiyo Imai. So in preparation for a recent trip to Kyoto, I contacted her on behalf of Savory Japan and was graciously invited to join a cooking class. What I experienced was inspiring and profoundly moving. In a word, Mrs. Imai is just as Saveur Magazine described her in their 2008 Saveur 100 list: “the guardian angel” of obanzai cuisine.

The article will kick off a series on different aspects of Japanese cooking as shared by experts and masters. My plan is to start with Sachiyo Imai’s lesson on obanzai, followed by a class on washoku (Japanese home cooking) with Elizabeth Andoh. Future articles will feature kaiseki and shojin (vegetarian) cuisine.

One of the sources that led me to Mrs. Imai’s door was Harris Salat’s excellent article, Kyoto’s Soul Food. I contacted Harris to thank him, and he kindly led his readers to this site!

Do you have any information to share about obanzai cooking? If so, please post it here, or e-mail me. The article will be one of the features for September, and I’ll post an update here when it’s up.

The Role of Rice in the Family Meal

As I explain in the ingredient introduction  of Savory Japan, “Rice is so elemental to the soul of Japanese cooking that gohan, the word for rice, is synonymous with the word for meal”, and that “the most basic meal consists of plain rice and soup, and the rest of the meal, okazu (things to go with rice) are considered to be added elements”.

That’s why noodles aren’t really considered a meal, but a snack, for without rice, a typical Japanese native feels he or she hasn’t eaten. The very idea is odd to foreigners.

In our house, rice was served at the end of a meal, with tsukemono (pickles), soup and tea. My parents, who enjoyed their cocktails, never had rice during the meal, as it was the custom to not mix alcohol with rice. (And by the way, if you know the origin of this custom, please explain it here!) While we were young, we sometimes had rice during the meal, but it was up to us. Now that we are grown and have families of our own, my sisters and I follow the custom in varying degrees. After all, we now live in the US (though I should point out that my American husband has much more traditional tastes in Japanese food than me.)

Since my extended family followed this custom, and because virtually every traditional Japanese  multi-course meal also did so, I thought it was the norm.  However, after starting Savory Japan, I heard from some of my Japanese friends who had a different experience, with rice always served during the meal.

It was enough to cause me to qualify some of the articles on the site, and it raised an interesting point. What is traditional in some families is not in others. Different family circumstances and backgrounds, economic situations and regions, all bring different customs.

So I’m curious. What was the custom at your house?