Japan and Belgium: Gourmet nations exporting their food and drink culture as a concept

LEUVEN,BELGIUM - 21 JUNE, 2013: Row of beautiful buildings on Oude Markt (Old Square), the longest bar in the world in Leuven, Belgium on 21 June 2013.

Saskia Rock reports on finding inspiration in the Belgian Beer Café concept to promote contemporary Japanese cuisine abroad.

Gourmand and gourmet

I love language, so let me start with explaining the difference between the words gourmand and gourmet. A gourmand is a person who loves to eat and drink and makes an effort to find an consume sometimes extraordinary things, and although the English translation ‘glutton’ seems to indicate rather negative things, to me, the of-origin French word gourmand invokes images of quality, good taste, and a longing to enjoy life through food and drink. Belgians and Japanese alike, will make an effort to visit certain sometimes faraway places to sample local products, this is the definition of a gourmand to me.

The word gourmet is more widely used, for quality products as well as their consumers, and I believe that both Belgium and Japan are nations of gourmands consuming gourmet products. Let’s see if we can use some cross-pollination from a very successful Belgian initiative to inspire consumption of contemporary Japanese products abroad.

 

Belgian Beer boom, now also in Japan

My Belgium has been said to have between 1000 and 1500 varieties of beer, ranging from regular Stella Artois lager and my favorite Timmermans Kriek cherry beer to recently new popular mixes of white ale with other types of fruit. Belgium is home to six of the world’s eight Trappist Beers, a label only beer brewed by a working monastery is allowed to carry. Westvleteren 12, which simply carries the name of the brewery and the alcohol percentage, is regularly voted the best or second- best beer in the world by ratebeer.com.

Belgian beers have a good reputation worldwide, but it took quite a long while for AB Inbev, the world’s biggest brewing concern based in Belgium, to advance Belgian beer in Japan from a niche product to a widely demanded luxury product. AB Inbev uses their Belgian Beer Cafés to heavily promote not only the wide variety of beer but also the Belgian lifestyle of good food and drink in a traditional Belgian atmosphere. Established all over the world since 1998, out of 60 café’s in 19 different countries, a total of seven are in Tokyo and one is in Osaka. The newest one just opened this month in Shinagawa, it’s called Leuven after my university city, so I’ll be sure to pay it a visit soon.

The success of the concept lies in the atmosphere and the supreme quality of food as well as drink. When stepping inside, you feel like you are in a Belgian brasserie where you can relax with friends and discover new beers and food. It’s almost like an out-of-body experience, in this case I’d say an out-of-country experience, I really love going to these places because they feel like home. I’m able to be an ambassador of Belgium to the friends I bring there, and it is fantastic to see them enjoy my native dishes and drinks and in doing so learn more about Belgian culture.

Belgian style grilled mussels with spinac, blue cheese and bacon

Japan-ifying the Belgian Beer Café concept

Thinking of the Belgian Beer Café concept, and wondering if it is applicable to advancing contemporary Japanese food and drink out in the world led me to reflect on Japanese establishments I have been to outside of Japan and how I felt when visiting them. Japanese food is quite well-known, especially dishes like sushi, sashimi and yakitori, but the quality varies and finding an authentic izakaya with a Japanese chef is not easy at all. We know about good quality Japanese beer and Whiskey, but there is no concentrated effort by a big company the equivalent of ABInbev to promote Japanese drinks and food outside of Japan.

So I ask myself, what if Suntory or another big Japanese drinks manufacturer would do the same for Japanese beer and whiskey, and match the drinks with excellent food? There are drinks in Japan the world definitely needs to find out about. For example, I never knew about the “Highball” until I came to Japan, and I certainly feel like I’ve been missing out for a long time.

Upon researching the origin of the word, I found that it has been around for a long time. It originated in England circa 1900 and was the original word for a Scotch and soda served in a tall glass, but was used for any mix of high spirit and a larger quantity of non-alcoholic beverage soon after. While the word fell into disuse, in Japan, the word Highball is still exclusively used for whiskey-based drinks. As usual, they have taken the concept and refined it, with some surprising results. Sure, we know about whiskey and coke but all the other things you might find in a Highball, like shochu or oolong tea to name just two, might initially be met with raised eyebrows.

Japanese Chuhai soda with skewer gizzard Yakitori

High(ball) potential

Not only the Highball, but Chuhai (other spirits and juice mixes) or novelty beers like Happoshu or Shin Janru maltless beer, need to be exported and enjoyed together with a selection of izakaya food that will wow any gourmet. Oh the happy memories I have of kara-age (fried chicken pieces), and the more recent discovery of toriten (chicken tempura), and even the humble edamame (soy beans often served with beer), will delight Japanese expats and their friends alike as they have me.

Japanese food and drink already have a good reputation abroad, so why not make use of the Belgian Beer Café example to set a new universal standard? Just thinking of what this concept is doing to promote Belgian food and drinks outside of Belgium, I firmly believe it can be used for Japan as well. So now, Japanese brewers, it is up to you to create the ultimate Japanese izakaya experience and export it to the world.

Cover Photo: Botond Horvath / Shutterstock.com
Food Photos: oldbunyip, jreika / Shutterstock.com

 

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