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Rediscover the Tastes of Japan on New York Streets

January 16, 2017

Stumbling into a neighborhood café, I notice their offering of matcha latte and matcha cream puffs written in loose script font on the chalkboard under “favorites.” Have I walked into a shop in Tokyo? No, I am in a bakery in midtown Manhattan, New York City.

With its induction into UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list and recurring notable spot as one the top countries with the most Michelin starred restaurants, it comes as no surprise that the world has embraced Japanese cuisine and its various components. Washoku (Japanese word for Japanese cuisine) has been making its mark not just on its own, but has also influenced food from around the globe. 


What was once titled as an explanation of the ingredient, the actual word is now found on many recipes and menus. Matcha is understood with its name, not requiring a “Japanese green tea powder” descriptor. When frequenting Japanese restaurants as a child, after my meal, I always ordered the "green tea ice cream" that was on the menu. Nowadays, it isn't uncommon to find items simply listed as matcha pudding and matcha macarons, with the diner expected to know what they are requesting.

Moreover, basic Japanese ingredients are being integrated into the dishes of other cuisines and evolving past their long-established uses. Traditional washoku utilizes matcha mainly in sweets. It makes an appearance in other areas of the world, as well, to add refinement and to offset the sugariness to what can otherwise be overly saccharine items. Once assigned to dessert or plain old tea, matcha moves past its conventional limits. In the US, it is at times found mixed in with unorthodox items. For instance, one may find it in the cream cheese on a bagel, or in curry or tabbouleh. Its bitterness is also used to counteract particular elements, such as the briny-sweetness found in mussel broth. Loved not only for its balancing factors, matcha can also attribute its rise in popularity to its antioxidant-packed quality, prompting the health-conscious to advocate throwing a dash into your morning smoothie or granola. 


The same assimilation goes for panko, the airy and crispy Japanese breadcrumb, which is seeing its usage being expanded past the typical chicken katsu (fried chicken cutlet). Used in Japanese cooking as mainly a breading for things like tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet), potato croquette or shrimp fry, in America, panko is included in dishes in other ways, such as a binder for meatloaf or to add crunch to the American staple, macaroni and cheese. Prior to panko, if an American cook wanted to play with texture, they would have been restrained to items such as broken up potato or onion chips. Panko has allowed for contrast, without the addition of any competing flavors. Furthermore, the coarse flakes of panko, as opposed to the finely ground breadcrumbs that were prevalent in America, absorb less oil and grease, making it a more waist-friendly option for many. Past the dinner table, while panko is usually associated with savory dishes, it can also be found playing a role in sweet items, such as French toast and even chocolate brownies. 

With the incorporation of Japanese ingredients in other fares, the accessibility of such items has become easier. To get your hands on a package of panko used to require a trip to a specialty Asian market, but these days, major supermarkets carry it. Not only that, with numerous leading Western food companies featuring it in their product repertoire, you needn't go in search of the “international aisle” either. 


Along with ingredients, a food concept is also seeing its time in the spotlight in the world outside of Japan. Umami, perhaps still a difficult word to fully translate, has become ubiquitous on the lips of many chefs and foodies alike. Originally discovered in the early 1900s by a Japanese chemist, it is an idea that took about a century to be globally recognized as the fifth basic taste (along with sweet, salty, sour and bitter), due to variances in culinary culture. Today, the use of umami-dense foods has increased in Western society. Using these ingredients in food familiar to those native of other countries or adapting Japanese dishes to the appetites of local people has allowed Westerners to more easily identify umami’s taste. Whether it is sautéed shiitake mushrooms with your pasta or a swirl of soy sauce in your beef stew, non-Japanese palates are increasingly being exposed to umami.

Soy sauce in particular has been spearheading the spread of umami outside of Japan’s borders. Due to its pervasiveness in Japanese culinary culture, soy sauce may not strike a native Japanese person as an ingredient that brings out umami. However, its versatile ability to integrate itself in cuisines across the board has made it a top choice, allowing chefs to add a complex layer of taste to their dishes that otherwise would not be there. Accordingly, the majority of households across the United States surveyed in 2011 by a market research agency reported to have soy sauce in their pantries at all times.

American cooking shows will often have chefs and cooks refer to certain elements as helping bring out the umami in their dish. The word has become colloquial in the English-speaking world, as evidenced by its induction in top English-language dictionaries. Restaurants that include the word umami in their name have opened its doors across the US, as well as a prestigious newspaper creating a column named and dedicated to the very concept. 

New dishes are being crafted around umami everyday - by using the synergy of the amino acid, glutamate, with ribonucleotides or minerals, you can enhance the deliciousness of the food without adding extra fat, oils or salt. This has helped to rapidly spread the concept of umami beyond the shores of Japan, as people from all over are seeking healthier ways of preparing food without sacrificing delectable flavors.

The understanding of umami has been a central focus in molecular gastronomy, elevating food to another level as not only culinary science, but as an art form from the bottom up. Chefs, who are armed with the knowledge of why certain aspects of food taste the way they do, are able to construct dishes where the flavor of the finished product is larger than the sum of its parts. At times, the exchange of preparation or cooking methods itself has radically transformed entire cuisines. This is illustrated by several prominent French chefs moving away in the mid to late 1900s from the heavy creams and rich butter sauces that were considered standard to a more lighter fare influenced by their trips to Japan, or in the fish killing technique, ikejime, practiced by chefs worldwide in order to preserve quality.

At the register, I place my intended coffee on hold for the moment and opt for the matcha latte. As I take a sip, I notice that it is subtly sweeter than expected, perhaps in an effort to be more favorable to the American palate, but its strong bitter taste that engulfs my mouth is appealing. I hold the cup in my hands and step onto the busy sidewalk, enjoying the far-reaching effects of Japanese cuisine and its ingredients.

Text: Hana Barnes
Photo: Cinemic

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