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Chef Tatsuo Saito: A Master of Japan's Culinary Arts

October 27, 2016

Might you already be a fan of the popular TV show “Dining with the Chef,” broadcast on NHK WORLD? The program is your gateway to authentic Japanese cuisine. Chef Tatsuo Saito introduces recipes that are easy even for beginners, while providing useful tips for even the most seasoned chef.

Born and bred in Osaka, Tatsuo Saito studied Japanese cooking at a prestigious academy. From 1985 he spent three years as head chef at the Japanese Embassy in Paris, and then the embassy in Washington. On one occasion in Washington he had to fry 1000 shrimp tempura! In those days, Japanese food was still a rarity around the world. He says that serving the embassy guests helped him appreciate the distinctive qualities and appeal of Japanese cuisine.

One of the most striking characteristics of Japanese food, he feels, is its close connection to the time of year in a country with very distinct seasonal variation. The season is evident not just in the use of fresh ingredients but also in the plating, and these key elements are highlighted in the program. In the hot summer months, for instance, a crisp, freshly harvested cucumber may be rotated and cut to form irregular shapes that resemble icebergs as a way to offer momentary respite from the heat. Chef Saito would like to spread this seasonal aspect of Japanese cuisine far and wide, so as to make it a part of everyday cooking around the world.

Interview with Chef Tatsuo Saito

Q1What do you find most appealing about Japanese cuisine?

There are so many wonderful qualities. I believe Japan has a food culture that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Eating with chopsticks only; handling each bowl or dish with care as you raise it close to your mouth; the abundant use of fresh seasonal ingredients; artistic plating that requires intricate cutting techniques. These are just some of the qualities that make Japanese cuisine so fascinating to people in other countries.

Q2What is important when teaching Japanese cooking to people around the world?

One key point is the fact that Japanese food can be made even if you don't have access to all the standard ingredients or seasonings. If you don't have any sake, you can use white wine or water; or you could use honey instead of mirin. Even without the basic ingredients or cooking supplies, it's possible to incorporate a Japanese touch with cutting techniques and plating. Colors are important in Japanese cuisine. If the recipe calls for a red umeboshi pickled plum, you could try using a red beet instead. People in other countries may think Japanese cuisine is difficult to prepare, but I want to dispel that notion and make Japanese cooking accessible to as many people as possible.

Q3Any special memories from teaching Japanese cuisine outside Japan?

I'm always impressed by the strong interest that people show in Japanese cuisine. People ask me why I cut things a certain way or why I use one ingredient instead of another. They're really interested in what goes into the making of a dish. So I need to stay on my toes! When we were shooting “Dining with the Chef” in Washington, I went to a Japanese restaurant run by a third-generation Japanese-American and was delighted when he told me that he studied the basics of Japanese cuisine by watching the program.

Q4What's your favorite Japanese food?

Tempura! I love cooking and eating tempura. After all, it goes so well with beer! It's very simple to make. You just deep-fry fresh ingredients coated with batter and eat them with a pinch of salt or a dipping sauce. So simple. And yet there's so much depth to the taste and texture. And even though it's deep-fried, the high water content in the batter prevents the absorption of oil, so it's very healthy.

Q5Do you have a message for global fans of Japanese food?

“Dining with the Chef” and the website JAPANESE FOOD offer a broad range of information on Japanese cuisine. There's something for everyone, no matter how new or experienced you are. I hope you'll discover how accessible Japanese cooking is. Then I hope you'll come to Japan and eat your way through the country!

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