The beginning of 2014 marks the end of my fifteenth year in Japan. That’s more than enough time in one place for any self-respecting expat so, on visits back home, despairing friends and relatives will often ask what on earth I’m still doing here.
I just point to my belly.
You can tell everything you need to know about a country and its culture by the way they relate to food. To eat in a country is really to know it, and doing so in Japan has always been a revelation to me. Many foreigners who live here have criticized what they see as the stubborn or even obsessive aspects of the Japanese character. Japanese food has taught me to realize that such foibles have their benefits. Indeed more than simply learning that you can taste the obsession, indeed love, a chef has for his food, I have come to expect to do so.
So, are Japanese chefs better than those overseas?
I don’t think this is necessarily the case, although there is certainly a worship of process that results in an amazing consistency of output. Seldom do Japanese chefs disappoint. Nonetheless, apart from a deep respect for technique, Japanese chefs are naturally well connected with their customers. The small, owner-operated restaurants with an open kitchen, where the chef cooks and personally interacts with his customers almost guarantees good results. The need to face those you are feeding drives a different kind of attitude than if one is just tucked away safely in a kitchen.
The thinking and values behind food culture in Japan mean that, with enough study, any style of cuisine can be successfully adapted here. For example, the French restaurants in Tokyo are the equal of any native French versions I have tried. However it’s really in Japanese cuisine that you see some of the approach that makes food here so delicious. Take the ubiquitous tempura, a cuisine comprising of deep fried seafood and vegetables that was originally introduced to Japan by the Portuguese. It certainly sounds like it would be hard to mess up, and it is generally pretty well executed. But could taking this type of simple food to the next level of perfection create something altogether sublime? I can honestly say that a tempura meal I had two years ago was the best of my life.
Tempura is not necessarily about perfecting the balance in the simple batter of flour and water, although this must be done. It’s not just about how unadulterated the oil used to cook it in is, although it should be pure. It’s not even about having the freshest ingredients possible, although they must be fresh. Tempura done right is an alchemy of form, temperature and texture that reveals the essence of what lies under the batter. To eat food cooked in this way is to know it better than to eat it raw. Indeed, for Japanese, cooking at its purest is not about creating new flavors, it is about uncovering and experiencing the true nature of food. All seasoning, sauce, adornment and technique is in the service of that aim.
When I understood that point was when I started to really appreciate Japanese food. But, of course, eating is not about understanding as much as it is about experience. So, here is to hoping I will be here for another 15 years!
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