I'm a biased man. I believe Japan is the greatest country on earth for a traveler to visit. It has the old, the new, the futuristic, the traditional, the style, the ease, the politeness, the humility, the dark underbelly, and most of all: the food.
Reading this book put me back there; smack in the middle of Osaka, the dim, cozy side streets of Kyoto, and the wintery-warmth of Hokkaido. This is a great book if you're longing for a travel memoir center around eating in the place where most chefs I know aspire to die.
“Clearly I was going to struggle to master this during a lunch sitting. As Shizuo Tsuji writes in A Simple Art, “Although the technique of deep-frying was originally introduced to Japan centuries ago by Europeans and Chinese, the Japanese have elevated it to its apogee of refinement.” He then offers elaborate instructions on how to fold the paper on which you present the tempura. Quite. But the chef did let me in on a few secrets: first the batter. This was made from just flour, water, and egg, but the water was ice-cold; he used his own special blend of tempura flour, which included a little baking powder and rice powder, and the eggs are ultrarich, as Japanese eggs usually are. You add them to the bowl in order of flour, water, and egg, so that the food gets coated with egg first and flour last, and use it immediately (there is no resting in the fridge as you do with traditional beer batter). The next secret is that you must, at all costs, resist the urge to overtax the batter, or koromo (literally “clothing” or enrobed”). The chef used chopsticks to give it the most cursory of swirls.”
“Even consumption of rice, that most sacred of Japanese foodstuffs, is down, from 300 pounds per person a year a century ago to 132 pounds today. meanwhile, their consumption of fish has more than halved, and their meat intake has more than doubled.
Hattori blames the Americans.
The Japanese had huge respect for Americans after the war. They saw their physical strength, saw that they ate bread and potatoes and steaks as thick as the coles of their shoes, and copied them,” he told me. “They felt a huge pressure to be physically stronger, so they started eating more butter, milk, and flour to be like Americans. The lunch menus at school changed from rice to bread, overnight; out went the balance of Japanese food, the soy, seaweed, cooked vegetables, rice, and fish; in came the fat and the diabetes and heart problems, which are all increasing. We had the ideal diet. We got our protein from soy, fish, and tofu, but young people today eat junk food; they buy ready-made meals, bad-quality food.
I was slowly coming to appreciate that dash is one of the major elements of Japanese cooking, in the same way that veal stock or tomato sauce is the basis of much classical French or Italian food. but dash and fond de veau are very different substances, not least because dashi takes just a few minutes to make, as opposed to the six hours or so that it takes to roast and then simmer veal bones.
In the basic recipe for ichiban—or number one—dashi, you slowly bring a postcard-sized piece of knob seaweed almost to boil, remove it before the water actually boils (otherwise the smell can be off-putting), add a handful of katsuobushi flakes, leave them to infuse for a minute or so, then strain. And that’s it.
Tuna is, of course, the star of Tsukiji, and much has been written about the early-dawn tuna auctions here—the absurd prices paid for the fish (although, actually, found for pound, whale meat is more expensive); the extraordinary lengths wholesalers will take to preserve it(carbon dioxide keeps the raw flesh red); and the precision filleting by fishmongers. It take four men to divide up a tuna the size of a man, weighing up to 661 pounds, using yard-long, thin “samurai” blades. Osamu explained that of the seven species of tuna, the most sought after is the bluefin, whose most delectable cut is o-toro, the fattiest part of the belly, closest to the head. but as recently as the 1960’s, all tuna, and o-toro in particular, was considered fit only for cat food. The Japanese postwar fondness for fat changed all that of course, as did the explosion in the popularity of sushi in the West, where tastes also lean towards rich, fatty meats.
We have known about the evils of MSG for decades. In 1968, a doctor called Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote to The New England Journal of Medicine to share an observation that Chinese food made his neck go numb, among other troubling symptoms. He coined the term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” to describe it and speculated that MSG was the cause. Others soon wrote in to add palpitations and headaches to the list of symptoms, and since then, MSG has been blamed for everything from Alzheimer’s to childhood asthma to attention deficit disorder.
The world’s largest producer of MSG is a Japanese company called Ajinomoto, which makes 2 million tons of the stuff every year and exports it around the world. Ajinomoto—it means, literally, “essence of taste”—was founded by professor Kikunae Ikeda, who discovered MSG in 1908. He realized that konbu seaweed was a natural source of the particularly delicious amino acid called glutamate and that if he could manufacture it, he would have a powerful flavor enhancer. He patented it in the form of a white crystalline powder, stabilized with salt, the following year.
Official Transcript of Interview Recording
MB: So, MSG. It’s really bad stuff, isn’t it, or what?
Yamamoto: (Laughing politely) No, it’s is no more processed than sugar or salt. It originally comes from Konbu, seaweed. It’s just basic seasoning.
MB: So what about all these headaches and numbness, then?
Yamamoto: That was disproved years ago. have you never read the essay by the American food writer Jeffery Steingarten, “If MSG Is So Bad For You, Why Doesn’t Everyone In China Have A Headache?” The World Health Organization, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the United Nations have all concluded that it poses no health risks.
MB: Steingart…erm… it doesn’t say anything about that in my notes. Wait a minute. Ok, but what about umami? You say your product enhances the umami in food, but no on ehas every actually proved that umami exists, have they?
Yamamoto: Actually, since the Miami research group discovered the umami receptor, in 2000, I don’t think there has been any doubt in the scientific community that it exists and that it is one of the basic tastes. It is not really questioned now that umami has a physiological function.
MB: But isn’t it true that Ajinomoto wants to conquer the world with MSG? I have evidence that you deliberately made the hole in the top of the dispenser larger so that people would use more of your product. What do you say to that?
Yamamoto: We did make the hole larger about thirty years ago, it’s true, but that was simple because when people added MSG to their miso soup, the steam from the soup was clogging up the hole. it is true that MSG is our company’s original product, but we only want to explain more about umami. We want to destroy anyone else’s food culture or get everyone using MSG, but we want to spread the word about Japanese food as whole. We want people to learn more about how to make Japanese food. We want people to know about dashi, but even in japan it is difficult for people to make dashi from scratch with seaweed and katsuobushi. Restaurants can do this, but MSG is, in my opinion, a really good product for home use.
MB: Well, if all that’s true, how come America has been so hostile to MSG?
Yamamoto: Because it is a Japanese discovery, I guess. Perhaps they didn’t want to eat something that looked like a chemical and was made abroad.
MB: That’s as maybe, but no chefs in the West believe in umami, do they? I mean, we’ve managed without it for centuries. It isn’t exactly a hot topic of conversation in Europe and America, is it?
Yamamoto: Do you know a chef called Heston Blumenthal of the restaurant the Fat Duck, with three Michelin stars? he wrote us some years ago, a very simple letter, asking for more information about umami and later came tp an umami workshop we ran in Kyoto in 2004. He said to me, “My heart belongs to umami.” He uses dashi and konbu in his cooking now, as does Ferran Adria. Do you know it? Thomas Keller of the French Laundry is coming to our next symposium, too.
So: the truth about MSG.
To set the record straight, MSG does not make mice’s heads explode. Nor is it in any way toxic, at least no more than, say, salt. The USDA has indeed given it the all clear, as have the UN and the European Union. It turns out that the studies carried out in the sixties purporting to show that MSG had adverse side effects involved giving mice absurd quantities of the stuff, equivalent to an adult eating a pound. So while Ajinomoto concedes that some people might have an adverse reaction to MSG, it is no more than are allergic to eggplants, say, or sofas. MSG is merely a man-made glutamic acid produced by fermenting carbohydrates and sugars—nothing more, nothing less.
Umami is usually referred to as the fifth taste, after salty, sweet, bitter, and sour… When Ikeda identified it in konbu, he wrote: “An attentive taster will find out something common in the complicated taste of asparagus, tomatoes, cheese, and meat, which is quite peculiar and cannot be classified under any well-defined four taste qualities, sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.” It is not confined to Japanese foodstuffs. Cheese—parmesan in particular—and tomatoes have a powerful umami flavor, as do air-dried ham, veal stock, and Worcestershire sauce. Mother’s milk is rich in umami (far more than cow’s milk), as is the crust on grilled or fried meat."
“Lunch was ready, and we moved through to a tat living room. As I stepped onto the mat, I felt something grabbing me from behind. It was Mrs. Shnbou, looking aghast. “No, no, you must take your slippers off before you go on the tatami mat,” she said.
More etiquette: it is rude to hover with your chopsticks over the food; don’t use chopsticks to move bowls and dishes around; never lick your chopsticks; never leave your chopsticks sticking down into rice; and never, ever pass food from you chopsticks to another person’s—that is a funerary tradition.”
“The Best sushi chefs don’t provide soy sauce for dipping, the chef continued, but make their own milder blend of dip, called nigiri, with dashi, mirin, sake, and soy (6 3/4 ounces soy; 8 teaspoons dashi; 4 teaspoons sake; 4 teaspoons mirin, briefly heated together). And they don’t provide extra wasabi either—the wasabi they add within the nigiri or maki should be enough. Anyone spotted mixing wasabi in with his or her soy will immediately be marked down as a novice—after all, how can you expect to have any sensitivity left in your taste buds if you blitz them with artificial wasabi?”
“The chef gave us some other useful tips: If you want really great service from a Japanese sushi chef, it requires just one word: omakase, which means, “Ill let you decide.” And if you want to really piss a sushi chef off, just keep ordering tuna, which many restaurants sell a loss leader. If they bring you miso soup to start, the place is probably run by Koreans or Chinese. Miso soup should come at the end of a sushi meal, as it is though to aid digestion of the fish. Meanwhile, if you are picking from a conveyor belt, choose white fish or lighter fish to start before working your way to the slam and tuna. Ignore spiced-up maki rolls, often employed to disguise the taste of aged fish.”
“In her introduction to A Simple Art, M.F.K. Fisher recalls how “fish leapt from glass tank to the cleavers and pan and then into our, in a ballet of accumulated motion and flavors,” bit in truth, fresh fish is not always desirable for sushi and sashimi. As with meat, fish needs to be let for some time—days, even—after being caught in order to reach its peak flavor. There are some exceptions of course: eel, shellfish, and squid are worth keeping alive until the point of preparation and shouldn’t be left too long after, and mackerel is notoriously perishable, but with most fish the enzymes in the flesh need time to break down the proteins and connective tissue and produce the all-important and very tasty inosinic acid that goes so well with glutamate in dashi or soy. The bluff tuna, for example, is better a week after it has been defrosted—kept well chilled, of course, sea bream needs a day; fugu, or blowfish, apparently is best aged between half a day and a day. The world’s greatest sushi chef, Jiro Ono, now ninety-one the subject of the famous documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and who still still works every day in his Ginza restaurant, will wrap tuna in ice for ten days until it reaches the ultimate flavor; with white fish, he might leave it for three days.”
Today, the Japanese still kill around seven hundred to eight hundred whales a year "for scientific research," a figure surpassed only by the Icelanders, who kill around a thousand, any of them, as I've said, ending up in Japan anyway. The Japanese have long been calling for more quotas following reported gains in the populations of some species, such as souther right whales and humpbacks, which have now been removed rom the endangered list. Every year at the annual assembly of International Whaling Commission, Japan presses to be allowed to commence unrestricted hunting again. "We've been eating whale since 300 B.C.," they complain. "This is culinary imperialism."
As we traveled on south through Japan, I began to pine for those Hokkaido crabs; in quiet moments on trains and planes, my thoughts would return to their delicate flavor, but mostly it was the texture—that intriguing half-liquid, half-solid state of raw crab meat that gave it just enough resistance to remain on one's tongue long enough for it to tease with its taste. It was another example of the Japanese's ultra refined sense of texture. They value the feel of food in the mouth almost as highly as its flavor and certainly employ it with greater nuance than they do temperature (scorching hot is the default setting for most dishes), whether it be in the unsettling chewy-crunchy of jellyfish, the soft rubber of mocha (rice-flour sweets), or the sharp spikes of fried panic bread crumbs. More challengingly, the Japanese also value the mealy texture in some foods—like adzuki bean paste, which features as a filling for various sweets and desserts, and also snot-like ground yam. Texture variation and contrast was one of the most revelatory experiences of my eating odyssey through Japan.
Kyotoites consider themselves to be the most discerning diners in Japan, if not the world. The city was the birthplace of the tea ceremony and has its own highly cultivated cuisine, kyo ryorui (mending Kyoto cusine), from which evolved kaiseki ryorui, the extravagant and costly multi course feast usually served in private rooms in ryotei, or inns, overlooking Japanese gardens. It still has almost two thousand temples and gardens, famously saved from atomic attack during World War II by Henry L. Stimson, the then U.S. secretary of war, who had visited Kyoto in the 1920s. He realized its cultural importance, and the eternal bitterness there would be toward America were it to be destroyed.
Kyoto is the home of Kaiseki. It evolved there from the fourteenth century onward, initially as an accompaniment to the tea ceremonies so beloved by the city's noblemen and royal court. From the easy seventeenth century until well into the nineteenth, when Japan was virtually cloed to the world during the sakoku, or national isolation, the tea ceremony and all those other intimidatingly rarified pastimes, like kabuki, flower arranging, calligraphy, pottery, and Bunraku, began to mutate into their uniquely Japanese forms.
"It seems to me that often French chefs want to change the things they cook with, to put their own mark on them." In other words, in Japan the chefs work with what God provides; in France the chefs think they are God. Murata echoes this in his book: "When I was young I thought it was my job to always add another taste dimension to every ingredient. But these days I find that approach a little arrogant. The real work of the chef is to coax out the fundamental taste that is innate to any ingredient."
The Japanese sake industry is in crisis. Consumption of what was for centuries the country's most popular alcoholic drink—so integral to the economy that it was used as a tax substitute—and its industry, run by the government, is in decline and has been for years. The Japanese now drink just over a third the amount of sake they did forty years ago—185 million gallons per year compared to 449 million in 1975. Instead, beer has been the drink of choice for the majority of Japanese since 1965, with wine rapidly on the rise, too—both now produced with varying degrees of success domestically. (Japanese beer: terrific. Japanese wine: I've tasted it, so you don't have to.)
"Sake is graded according to how much of the rice used to make it has been polished away before fermentation. They take the rice, put it in large revolving tanks, and spin it until the outer husk of the grains is worn away. It is the single most important element of sake making. The rice used to make the sakes here will have been polished to 35 percent, which is used to make the most refined type of sake. The less they polish the rice, the less refined the sake will be."
As well as the degree to which the rice used to make it is polished, sake is graded on a sweetness-to-dryness scale, raining from +15 for the driest to -15 for the sweetest. It is slightly stronger than wine, typically 14 to 16 percent alcohol, although genshu sake, which isn't diluted prior to sale, as other types are, has an alcohol content of 20 percent.
Tokyo's nineteenth-century workers, much like their descendants today, were time-poor. Noren, the curtains that traditionally hang at the entrance to sushi restaurants, date from this time, for example, and were originally there for customers to wipe their hands on as they hurried in and out, an especially filthy Loren being a sign of a good restaurant.
The golden rule with tofu is that it must be eaten the day it is made; otherwise, the flavor turns stale. This, I think, explains the bad rap tofu has in the West, where it is often a cheap punch line for hippie jokes: flavorless piety food for sanctimonious vegans.
Which of these useful Osaka-themed trivia facts are true and which are false?
Answer: all of the above are true.
There are, Tony explained, three basic types of miso—one made with soybeans, salt, and rice; one made with soybeans, salt, and barley; and one made with just soybeans and salt. They range n color from deep reddish brown to light sandy beige. Light-colored miso tends to be slightly sweet, while the red has a richer, more powerful flavor.
"In Buddhist terms, no drugs are allowed, because they take away consciousness. You must be conscious and present in what you are doing; that is why Buddha suggested meditation, because that way you can understand your own mind. I drink it to boost food pressure and because you are here. Actually, many years ago, I was a specialist dealer in beer, spirits, and wine. But luckily Buddhists don't judge people. We are not missionaries. While Christians say, 'This is right and this is wrong,' Buddhists are tolerant; they don't judge one way or the other. There are as many ways to reach liberation as there are sentient beings. We respect them for who they are. We know people are not perfect."
Udon and soba are purely Japanese, while ramen is a Chinese import (the word comes from the Cantonese word raomin). Despite this, the Japanese eat far more ramen than soba and udon combined, mostly because of the extraordinary popularity of instant ramen noodles. Ramen came to Japan only in the early twentieth century, but its relatively high levels of fat appealed in a similar way as meat to a postwar populace looking to bulk up, nd it was a useful rice substitute during times of shortage.
The fugu is a type of puffer fish, or blowfish; actually, several types of similar-looking blowfish are served as fugu in Japan, but all contain varying levels of poison. Their ovaries, liver, and the layer of fat beneath their skin hold a deadly neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin, which is thirteen times more poisonous than arsenic. Each fish contains enough to kill thirty people, particularly in the summer, when they are at their most potent. If you are unlucky enough to ingest too much fugu liver (kimo), the first sign will be a dry mouth. Difficulty breathing might follow, then you will start to lose focus. There is no antidote, although some people do survive. Other have died painful and horrible, paralyzed deaths, eventually through asphyxiation.
Okinawans, you see, know the secret to eternal life, or at least the secret of living a healthy, active life well into three digits. They live longer than anyone else on earth, and unlike others who claim this title—the people of the Hunza valley in Pakistan or the Ecuadorian Andes, for instance—they can prove it, having kept meticulous birth records since 1879. And they don't just cling to life courtesy of expensive medicines and machines that go ping; elderly Okinawans are active, independent, contribute to society, and remain healthy and mobile up to and beyond one hundred years of age, into the realms of the so-called supercentenarians. In Okinawa, if you meet an octogenarian, there is a good chance his or her parents are still alive.
Eating less is ingrained in both the Okinawa psyche and quite possibly their genes, too... They even have a phrase to describe this philosophy: hara hachi-bu, meaning "Eat until you're 80 percent full."
Emiko explained that the Okinawans don't in fact consider one hundred to be the big milestone we do in the West. Instead they celebrate the ninety-seventh birthday with a public party called kajimayaa.
It is only in the last month or so, as I continue to reflect on that evening, that the fundamental lesson of my visit to Mibu has become apparent: that to be a truly great chef, to excel in your métier, surpass your peers, and create something beyond a meal, you must above all else have humility: humility regarding your craft, so that you are constantly striving to learn and are open to new ways and ingredients; humility toward your peers, so that you never rest on your laurels; but, above all, crucially, humility toward the ingredients, because without the produce, without the fruit and the fish, the meat and the vegetables, a chef is nothing.