Of Place and Wind 7: Japan’s flavors defy globalization

Tetsuya Kaida examines the intricacies of Japanese flavors and its endearing characteristics.

As I mentioned, I have traveled overseas quite a bit over the last ten years. I wonder if this tendency to consider any foreign country ‘overseas’ is characteristically Japanese or is something we share with England, New Zealand, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

For the Japanese, the flavors that we associate with our country are impossible to experience once we have crossed the sea.

“Pardon me? You seem to forget that nowadays you can find Japanese restaurants all around the world, serving everything from tempura combos to sushi. They sell Japanese lunch boxes and ramen noodles in practically all food courts”. Such a reaction is most logical given the large number of restaurants claiming to offer these foods. And yet, and yet… Once more, and yet… Unfortunately, when we travel we hardly ever get the chance to savor the tastes that we take for granted in Japan. Actually, it would not be an exaggeration to say that we never do.

Why does this happen? My take on it is that in Japan we ‘taste food with all our 5 + α senses’.

The way in which the food is presented on matching tableware, the way it is arranged, brought to the table and placed before you, its temperature, fragrance and the atmosphere it creates, the words of the person who serves the food and their timing, the position of the chopsticks and condiments, the hand towels and water offered to you before the meal… And so many other details. The architecture and spatial structure of the restaurant, the presence or absence of music and its genre, the sounds coming out of the kitchen and the overall combination of sound and taste with the design and placement of the chairs and the tables. And then, the uncompromising cleanliness and restrained elegance of the entire place, washroom facilities included. The ingenious tactics deployed to guide you into the parking lot and from there to the table. Even the bill is presented in a manner that makes you feel good.

From time to time, the design of the establishment may allow the sights and sounds of rain or of other elements of the natural world outside to reach you through the window or in the space of a small enclosed garden.

Every single aspect needs to be integrated into a coherent vision that matches the type of food and the restaurant’s concept.

My description might give the impression that the whole thing is unnecessarily cumbersome. “After all, sushi is sushi, ramen is ramen. They taste the same wherever you eat them”. But they don’t. They taste completely different.

The itinerary of the fish used as sushi topping is a good example if we wish to delve into the technicalities of the matter. It starts every morning in the dark hours before dawn, when the boss heads to the market to buy the freshest-looking fish. It then passes through various stages where the fish is preserved, dressed, then cut with expert knife movements, paying attention to texture and sinew structure. An apprentice sushi chef needs to spend many years doing menial work before he finally gets to press together the vinegar rice and the fish, with a bit of wasabi in between. When finally presented on a plate, the sushi will appear pleasing to the eye and easy to eat.

Considering that even an amateur like me can go into such detail, it is easy to imagine the complexity of specific techniques and rules followed by each restaurant, which eventually lead to an exclamation of “wow, this really tastes good!”.

The same happens in restaurants serving fritter-like tempura, teppanyaki-style steak or oden stews, where owners and chefs have their original recipes and ideas about what makes their food special, and will sometimes give elaborate instructions on how you should be eating it.

For those who think this might be true of sushi and tempura but not of other food, I would like to make it clear that all types of restaurants are extremely particular about details.

Not even hamburgers and McDonald’s are the same everywhere. Japan’s McDonald’s has its own flavors and quality control standards, and the shops are so clean that you will never see something that has fallen on the floor.

MOS Burger, a fast-food chain that originated in Japan, has its own delicately balanced flavors. It not only boasts a menu with entirely original items like rice burgers, but also offers creative new products every season. Ingredients are carefully selected according to their producer and place of origin and most of the menu entries are prepared after they have been ordered.

Same with hot dogs. My favorite ones, which I get at a small shop called ‘Saucciess’ somewhere in the center of Nagoya, are made using a secret recipe that blends frying and deep-frying for a rich flavor. The resulting combination of crisp bread and juicy crunchy sausage is absolutely exquisite through to the last bite.

From small backstreet eateries serving set menus with various side dishes to family restaurants fusing Japanese and Western influences and even to Starbucks, all food and drink establishments in Japan have a distinct taste. So does coffee, when you drink it in cafés like the one described at the beginning of this book.

Now that I think of it, that café fulfils the functions of a personal office in my everyday life.
- It is here that, in the silence of the morning, I prepare myself mentally for the day’s activities;
- where I sometimes drop in for a final check of my appearance before going out;
- where I can ruminate at length on the reverberations left in my soul after jogging or a visit to the super sentō;
- the ‘shot library’ where I can read, research or write on a topic before I forget it;
- the liaison office I use to exchange mails during my private time;
- the den where I can focus at will on some creative pursuit;
- the charging station where I get reenergized by opening my heart to those close friends with whom I can speak without reserve;
- where I can wind down late at night, giving my mind a deserved break from routine and purifying my soul.

It is a place that fuses together the five senses with time, the heart, the mind… For this reason, it is not unusual that I head down to the café even twice a day.

This reflection on Japan would be incomplete without adding one more thing about food. Right. Because Japan is also the place where you can indulge in cuisine from all around the world with a new twist of taste. At an interview we held not so long ago in Taipei, one of the female office workers we were interviewing made the following comment:

“The main reason why I often go to Japan on vacation is that Japanese ramen is the most delicious on earth. You can’t find good ramen in Taiwan”.

“Ooops, I thought the Taiwanese ramen they sell in Japan was originally from Taiwan”.

“No, there’s no such thing here”.

Pasta and pizza, all kinds of Chinese food, a wide choice of curries, soups and salads… Food culture diversity has undergone remarkable evolution in Japan over the past thirty or twenty years, producing the ‘extended Japanese cuisine’ which can only be found here.

Speaking of soup, Soup Stock Tokyo is a trendy kitchen chain specializing in soups, which claims to feed both your stomach and your heart. When they opened their first shop in 2000, the motto was “soup brings a little happiness to your life” and they expressed their hope of contributing to “making the world a warmer place”. The company focuses on the spiritual value of physical and mental health in every person’s life. Despite being franchises, their shops are attractively designed for a personal and warm-hearted atmosphere which reflects the character and sensibility of the staff members. “Soup tastes so comforting because it is a medium for connecting people’s hearts”.

Although at first sight you might get the impression that their shops are excessively cramped, it soon becomes clear that everything – from the area around the counter, to tables, chairs, aisle width, tray size and the guide rails on the shelving – has been carefully condensed to produce an unexpected sensation of pleasure.

As a result, I may not be the only one who feels that the time spent here teaches you something about the etiquette of ‘eating within the bounds of appropriateness’.

“Tasting is worth a thousand words”. If you visit Japan, I strongly recommend their shop inside Chubu Centrair International Airport for a first taste of the country.

We say in Japan that “tasting is a deeply flavored experience indeed”. I cannot help by marvel at the ingenuous tongue of the Japanese who coined this expression. But, for all their ingenuous tongue, there is a taste that the Japanese cannot replicate: the taste of Thai cuisine. I have considered the possibility that lemongrass, fresh coriander and other typical spices and ingredients might be difficult to obtain in Japan, but we live in an age when just about any procurement problem can be worked out. My conclusive theory so far is that this gap should probably be attributed to climatic and geographical differences. Traditional Thai dishes like tom yum goong, yam som-o and kai jiao are all exquisitely tasty, and yet somehow seem out of place in Japan.

Since food is experienced with the five senses, we can assume that the climate and geography of the Kingdom of Thailand have nurtured senses that are quite unlike those prevalent in Japan. The authentic taste of Thai food can perhaps be attained only within the context of those five senses.

Come to think of it, when you go to a movie theater in Thailand, everybody stands up for a few minutes to pay their respects to the king before the movie begins. Such a protocol brings a warm, pleasant feeling even to the heart of a Japanese like me.

This said, I wish to express here my sincerest thanks to food, which has given me the opportunity to think about these issues. I wonder what to think about next.

By Tetsuya Kaida

(This article originally written and published in 2010.)

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