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Catering to The World's Palates

Apr. 7, 2015

People at Japan's agriculture ministry have been watching global interest in Japanese cuisine soar. They also see a big opportunity. Japan already exports just over 5 billion dollars' worth of food products every year. Agriculture ministry officials want to make that more than 8 billion by 2020. Officials have been spurred on by UNESCO'S decision to add Japanese cuisine, or washoku, to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list. They've also noticed a government survey which found that the number of washoku restaurants overseas more than doubled in less than a decade.

One of the people working to promote washoku is Yoshiki Tsuji, who runs Japan's biggest culinary academy, the Tsuji Culinary Institute. Under his leadership, the school has graduated 135,000 students who have taken his ideas all over the world. Some are running Michelin-starred restaurants. Others work in the kitchens of luxury hotels.

Tsuji was a key member of the team that lobbied to get washoku added to UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list. He says he wants to make Japanese food culture even more popular around the world.

World-famous chefs visit his school to get his latest ideas. New York-based chef David Bouley is a long-time collaborator. On one recent visit, he looked at new techniques using Japanese soup stock.

Yoshiki asks him, "Try it and let us know if it's too strong for foreign guests or too weak."

"So good. That's excellent," David replies.

When asked about Japanese food, David says, "I think today in the world, there are so many benefits we can absorb into French cooking from Japanese technique."

The Tsuji Culinary Institute now draws students from all around the world. Tsuji says he likes to challenge them to think about why they've signed up.

He asks one pupil, "Do you want to take 'pure' Japanese cuisine back to your country? Or would you rather adapt Japanese cuisine to South Korean taste?"

The student, Jung Young Ha from Korea, responds, "It's a difficult question. I'm still trying to figure out my answer to that."

Reflecting on the lessons, Jung Young Ha says, "His questions made all of us realize there were things we hadn't thought of. Trying to come up with answers really helped us flesh out our ideas."

Yoshiki Tsuji talked with Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya about the spread of washoku internationally.

Shibuya: Mr. Tsuji, how do you think adding washoku to UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list will help people better understand Japanese cuisine?

Tsuji: Well, we should be very proud that Japanese cuisine, or washoku, has been recognized as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. But it also makes us very aware of what we need to protect and what we do not need to protect. I think this is a huge issue for washoku.

Beppu: What do you think should be protected?

Tsuji: I think when it comes to protection, it has to do with the culture. It also has to do with protecting the agriculture, the fishery ingredients, the skills and education, and regional agricultural areas as well. There are so many things we need to protect in terms of what we call washoku.

Beppu: And what do you think makes washoku so unique, and why was it awarded with this honor to be a UNESCO heritage?

Tsuji: It has a lot to do with historical background. There is so much depth of spirituality of this heritage itself. The craftsmanship that we've been carrying on for thousands of years. Also its cultural and historical aspects. They all combine to make Japanese cuisine so unique.

Shibuya: You asked one of your students if it's the pure Japanese cuisine that he or she wants to take back home. Is it the pure, authentic Japanese cuisine that you want to spread to the rest of the world?

Tsuji: Good question. Can we really keep its authenticity on foreign ground? I don't believe so.

Let's take a Japanese garden. If you try to recreate a Japanese garden outside of Japan, no matter how much you spend, it's never going to be the same. This is because the soil, the trees, the humidity, the sunlight are not going to be the same.

So keeping the authenticity is important. But being able to compromise and make adjustments is also very important for this world-class heritage.

Beppu: I don't want to sound mean, but when I travel abroad I sometimes go to Japanese restaurants. And sometimes I become picky. I'll go to what I believe is an authentic place, and sometimes I will go to places that, even though I know they aren't authentic, they make me feel like I am having Japanese food. What do you think of these cheaper versions, or these not really authentic restaurants that are spreading in cities?

Tsuji: When you try to export Japanese culture or food, the strategies to export to different countries should be different. I think when exporting Japanese culture to the US, or to South America or Europe, each place should have its own strategy. The nutritious recognitions may be different in every county, as well as may be hygiene. The understanding of Japanese culture from the other perspectives is also usually different.

So I think the Japanese government should have different strategies for different countries. That way, Japanese food itself can be more flexible. You don't have to abide by such strict rules of what Japanese cuisine is. You can curve the framework and compromise it at the same time.

Shibuya: We have in our studio some dried shavings of bonito and kelp. Is it possible to make Japanese cuisine not using these ingredients, but instead for example, using tomatoes?

Tsuji: Well for example in the US, there are so many vegetarians, and of course there are also vegans who cannot eat any fishery products and certain other foods. And one thing we should not do is to be very forceful about our product, our Japanese spirituality, about what Japanese cuisine should be.

Some people are not very used to bonito flakes because it can have a seafood aroma or taste. So, you can start by using tomato juice which has the same substance as the bonito flakes.

It should never be forceful; rather it's a kind of enlightenment to start with a lighter side of what the bonito flavor should be. And you start introducing that through using tomato juice, and then you get closer and closer by serving bonito flakes and konbu as well.

So it's an education. And we shouldn't even use the word "education," it's an enlightenment towards a new palate. We can introduce a new texture, a new palate and new visuals as well. That's how we should export our cuisine.

Beppu: With your experience, have you ever seen a person who is a complete naysayer against the bonito taste at the beginning, but after starting with a tomato flavor, eventually this person moves to appreciate it?

Tsuji: Oh yes. Taste is a very educational thing. And you are either born to like it, or you are completely unfamiliar with it. And sometimes a person's memory of their past connects with a new culture's taste. Sometimes it links to that; sometimes it doesn't at all. So as I said, you need to keep introducing and enlightening them with the new taste.

But after a while, even though this person may not have been used to this seafood taste, they learn to accept it and they begin to appreciate all forms of Japanese cuisine. But it takes time.

Shibuya: What do you see for the future of washoku? Will it spread globally in the way that you wish?

Tsuji: Certainly. I think there is going to be twice the amount of restaurants and promotion of ingredients. And I think the export of ingredients will increase drastically in the future. But at the same time, I think not only do we want to have the export of products, we also want to educate foreign chefs to appreciate Japanese cuisine and have a greater understanding of its historical background.

Regarding the logic and reasoning behind every technique that Japanese cuisine has, it's very important for foreign chefs to understand that logic and historical background, as well as the nutritional reasoning for it. All combine to create an understanding of Japanese cuisine.

So it's not just a question of us exporting our culture or our ingredients. It also has to do with the other side learning from us. And that will firmly stabilize our culture on a foreign ground.