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The Art of Japanese Dining

The Art of Japanese Dining

Emmanuelle Jary - 2010-08-11

Before leaving, we are told: "Exoticism is guaranteed in Japan." Both at the dining table and elsewhere. And so we arrived, prepared to be amazed...

Experiencing Japan is something that creeps up on you: in Tokyo, the differences don’t jump out at you. On the face of it, it’s nothing more than a sprawling Asian metropolis with its buildings, neon lights, traffic jams. You won’t discover Japan through the front door. You need to look for the blind spots to find its true character. A minute means a minute. People set appointments for 11:36! Yet the Japanese don’t strike you as people in a hurry. Everything takes an age: wrapping a gift, buying a mobile phone, agreeing to meet at a certain time in a certain place. It’s all very disconcerting, exasperating even, until you come to realize that although Japan has become industrialized, it’s not at all westernized. The people may live in buildings, eat DOONUT (the latest Tokyo craze) and go mad for pizza yet, somehow, they seem to inhabit a different time and space.

The dining table presents some strange moments. All of our sensibilities of taste are turned upside down. The slimy, the sticky, the gelatinous, the spongy. All textures that are all held in high regard. It’s not always possible to be absolutely sure what you’re eating. It’s not easy to recognize the intestine of a sea cucumber, the jaw of a tuna, alevin* of sardines? And so, if the taste leaves you in the dark and your eyes aren’t helping either, the solution is to accept eating unknown as a core element of the cuisine.

At the dining table you learn that the way each thing is viewed is cultural. The Japanese eat a lot of seaweed and one of the varieties is green and known as Aonori (ao means blue, and nori seaweed). Faced with our confusion, it’s explained that in Japan, green is sometimes used to describe blue. We finally understand that there some things will never be understood. But this does nothing to prevent us from continuing to be surprised by everything.

To see and to eat
Wherever you try a bento, a sort of compartmentalized lunch box, whether you are on a train or in a Michelin-starred restaurant, the presentation is invariablyneat and designed to reflect the season. The portions are small, aesthetically pleasing and precisely arranged down to the last millimetre, as are the parks with their sculpted trees or the Zen gardens where you won’t find a single surplus stone.

Nature and cuisine are inextricably linked in Japan. Here, more than anywhere else, seasonality is imposed on the dining table. It’s not only the products that are seasonal but the colour of the plates, the preparation methods and the choice of presentation will also reflect seasonality. Autumn may see your food represented in the form of a maple leaf or your plate itself garnished with a fiery red leaf. In spring, cherry blossoms adorn the dishes. "The chefs have to go through their preparations with a sense of the season", explains Mr Okuda, head of the Kojyu restaurant in Tokyo's Ginza district, one of nine triple Michelin-starred restarants. If it isn’t hard enough to distinguish between renkon (large lotus root) and Kaga Kyura Butoh (a large cucumber from near Kanazawa) or Yamaimo (mountain yam), we also have to understand the subliminal seasonal messages!

However, after your third or fourth experience of kaiseki cuisine [a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner], you eventually realize that it is all highly codified.
The kaiseki menu begins with an aumse-bouche of tsukidashi comprising, for example, aubergine, crab from Hokkaido (Kegani) or sea urchin. Another popular tsukidashi option is abalone [sea snails]. Aficianados of Japanese cuisine will know that abalone served at the beginning of a meal is considered a luxury, though not if its served later. The ordering of food is essential.

Following an amuse-bouche, hot soup is served in an owan, a type of lacquered wood bowl. The kaiseki meal always begins with a hot dashi–based soup (a basic stock of Japanese cuisine made from dried bonito [usually skipjack tuna] and kombu seaweed) and ends with a dashi-based miso broth. What invariably follows is the most exquisite sashimi. Slices of fish to be dipped in a soy and wasabi sauce. Sashimi sliced so finely that the plate can be seen through the transparent flesh is known as usuzukuri.

You will marbel at the fish and meat on display with yakimono (grilled ingredients). Beef is served with tofu, mushrooms, aonori and rice. You may assume that a rice dish called oshokuji will be the last but another one will follow.  

In any case, that evening, after the meal is complete, we have as much to ponder in our heads as our stomachs. Japanese cuisine provides plenty of food for thought. Japan could be the a case study for ethnologists looking for daily life steeped in symbolismt.

The Way of Tea
More than anything else, Sado (often incorrectly referred to as the Japanese tea ceremony – a more accurate translation would be the way of tea) provides one an insight into the ways in which Japan is an "empire of signs."

Sado is not so much about the drinking of tea (a powdered green tea known as matcha) as it is an experience of aesthetic hospitality. For both householder and guest, the tea is the pretext for an expression of etiquette. Another term relates to this experience: chanoyu [hot water for tea]. The Japanese are masters of euphemism. The ceremony references a number of more complex, traditional Japanese practices such as flower arranging, calligraphy, architecture, etc.

The chanoyu may be accompanied by a meal, also known as kaiseki. There are two forms of Japanese kaiseki cuisine defined by two different ideograms. One refers to the great food served in prestigious restaurants. The second ideogram, based on the concept of simplicity, translates as "breast-stone" and represents the cuisine that accompanied the original Buddhist tea ceremony. During periods of fasting, the monks would place a hot stone on their stomachs in order to stave off hunger. Also underpinning this ideogram is the concept of simplicity.

The Kaiseki cuisine that accompanies the chanoyu is both refined and complex. But in Japan there is an aesthetic based on the principle of examination. The householder will decorate the room in which the tea is taken with flowers  gathered from the wild or the garden, rather than purchased flowers that would be deemed inappropriate. The host takes care of arranging the bouquets or preserving the beauty of the garden through the placing of leaves among the stones. An extended version of the chanoyu can last several hours. Conversely, shorter gatherings of barely less than an hour are just as commonplace. Although, no meal is served in these shorter gatherings, there will be sweets on offer. It seems the Japanese never drink without eating.

The izakaya
An isakaya is a type of bar where you can head for a beer or saké and where you can eat small dishes such as edamame (young soy beans cooked in salted water) of tsukemono (Japanese pickles - very often vegetables). These accompaniments can, nevertheless, be transformed into a proper meal. In Tokyo, near Shinjuku train station, a small area known as Golden Gai (the gold quarter) is where you will find a small gathering of izakayas, former travelling drinks salesmen, now settled, with four or five bar stools to each for customers.

The logic of flavour
One flavour, in particular, characterizes Japanese cuisine. Although we don’t have a specific term for it in Europe, it can be found in a lot of ingredients  including tomatoes, asparagus, dairy products and meat.

Identified by a Japanese chemist, Kikunae Ikeda, in the early 20th century, the flavour was named umami. Ikeda singled out the flavour whilst tasting a dashi broth that was neither sweet, salty, acidic or bitter. Later studies showed that umami originated from glutumate. The taste is present in many Japanese foods, both naturally, but also through the popular use of dashi in many dishes.

The translation of the term has shed light on the status of the flavour in relation to the four other identified flavour types. Umami means "succulent" or "delightful." Beyond the taste itself, it’s interesting to note the significance of umami among Japanese people. The umami taste is referred to as a vertical taste, whilst sweet, salty, sour and bitter flavours are referred to as horizontal or flat. The distinction being that whilst unami exhibits a flavour of its own, it can also bring out additional tastes in other ingredients to provide a greater depth of flavour.

Alternative places to eat
Japan has a number of restaurants that specialize in a particular type of cuisine. Examples include:

Yakitori restaurants: all kinds of skewered meat, vegetables, fish grilled over a wood fire. They will sometimes offer some more surprising options such as skewers of cartilage.

Sobaya restaurants: literally translated as Soba House and offering thin noodles made from buckwheat flour that can be eaten hot or cold. They may be accompanied by tempura (fried) vegetables but also fish. Seasoned with curry or added natto, fermented soya beans.

Unagi (freshwater eel) restaurants: typical of Tokyo and serving eels that are blanched and then grilled, coated with a sweet tare sauce and presented on a bowl of rice.

Sushi Restaurants: the best are all located around the legendary fish market in Tokyo’s Tsukiji district. We enjoyed an early morning offering at the end of the market (5am). Fish of all kinds (tuna, mackerel, squid, sea urchin, eel, salmon, etc) are usually raw, but they can also be cooked. The sushi is sometimes topped with a thin slice of sweet omelette.

Fugu restaurant:Fugu is the Japanese word for pufferfish fish that contains a deadly poison in its stomach. Only state licensed chefs are authorised to prepare it. The flesh is served as sashimi with the skin boiled or seared. Although the Japanese themselves accept that the fish has a very delicate texture and taste, it attracts a huge cult following. Half the fun, in all honesty, is in the thrill of the perceived risk, actually imaginary. More people die each year through choking on Mochi (a sticky rice cake) than fugu poisoning.

Street food: particularly widespread in Osaka, where we find takoyaki (fried or baked octopus dumplings), okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes stuffed with thick meat, seafood, vegetables, etc). Across the country, you’ll find onigiri, small portions of rice decorated fish eggs, salted plum ... surrounded by dried seaweed.

Teppanyaki restaurants: a process that involved the grilling of food on a hot plate in view of diners. Since the 19th century, the Japanese have adapted this method to cook Japanese wagyu beef (highly marbled meat), sometimes referred to as Kobe beef that, contrary to popular belief, is neither massaged nor fed beer.

Kitchen shojin: originally prepared in Buddhist temples. Presentation is very precise. It excludes fish and meat and consists of boiled vegetables, pickled or  fried (tempura), miso soup, tofu and rice.
* newly hatched fish that still have the yolk sacs attached


Japan Airlines (JAL) operates direct flights to Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, from 1,155€ TTC.
Tel: 0810 747 700.
Business class passengers can enjoy some excellent food and first class Japanese flavours.

A specialist travel operator for Japan offering a number of options including guided tours of "samurai and Zen gardens" for small groups, full board, flights and visits to Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Kyoto, Nara, Mount Koya
Prices from 3,587€ TTC per person.
Tel: 01 44 41 50 10

JNTO (Japanese National Tourism Office)
Tel: 01 42 96 20 29

Before leaving, we are told: "Exoticism is guaranteed in Japan." Both at the dining table and elsewhere. And so we arrived, prepared to be amazed...

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