What America Can Learn From Japanese Cuisine
Japanese is one of the richest and most complex cuisines in the world, but for too long, many Americans were only familiar with bits and pieces— sushi here, ramen there, maybe a few bites of teriyaki in between. Fortunately, that's started to change in the past few years, as chefs from Japan— and chefs who love Japan— have brought more regional specialties, dining styles and Japanese culinary principles to American diners.
And it won't be slowing any time soon— the Culinary Institute of America recently launched an advanced Japanese cooking curriculum, based on increased student interest in the topic. That's a big deal for a school that has, for years, touted European culinary techniques. So, what exactly is it that makes Japanese food so compelling for the next generation of chefs? After a recent trip to Japan with the CIA and Suntory, jam-packed with lessons, demos, culinary school tours and epic meals, we have some clues—and some Japanese concepts we'd like to see more of in kitchens here.
Use ingredients as nature intended
Washoku literally means "Japanese food," but in practice it's a worldview related to food that goes beyond simple definition, so much so that in 2013 UNESCO actually added it to their list of "intangible cultural heritages." Washoku revolves around respect for the natural world, and in culinary terms it translates to preparing local, hyper-seasonal ingredients in ways that maximize their natural flavor. (For a much deeper understanding, check out this Washoku primer from the Tsujiki Cooking School.)
It also means emphasizing balance, a concept chef John McCarthy of the Crimson Sparrow and Oki in New York has tried to incorporate into his cooking: "The concept of washoku has inspired me to strive for balance in cooking techniques, textures, flavors and colors on a plate. How each of those things interplay with each other is what makes a dish appealing," he says.
Keep it simple
Running hand-in-hand with washoku is the emphasis on simplicity. That doesn't necessarily mean easy—what it means is cooking in a way that brings out the purest, most intense flavor of an ingredient. Chef Isao Yamada of Brushtroke in New York describes traditional Japanese cooking as "a philosophy of subtraction"—distilling flavors to the best possible version of themselves. That doesn't always jibe with the more-is-more style in Western cooking, where we layer up on sauce, salt and spice, often all at once in a single dish. Western palates may be accustomed to more maximalist flavors, but the success of kaiseki (traditional multi-course, seasonal meals)-inspired restaurants like Brushstroke, n/naka in Los Angeles, and Kaiseki Furukawa in Minneapolis have us rooting for more in the future.
Focus on one dish
In the States, it's not uncommon for the menus at Japanese restaurants to read like a greatest-hits list, running the gamut from sushi to noodles to tempura to teriyaki and more. But in Japan, most restaurants are highly specialized, focusing on perfecting just one dish or one style of cooking. "Chefs in Japan are dedicated, for life, to mastering one thing," says Ken Oringer, the chef/restaurateur of Uni, Coppa and Toro in Boston and New York. "You can really see the nuances in the food that way." Will this style of eating ever fully take root in the U.S.? Maybe. Restaurant economics here aren't typically conducive to only serving one thing, and diners like variety, but it can succeed in certain contexts— just think of the ramen boom of the early aughts.
We've written before about mottainai, the Japanese feeling of regret over wasting the intrinsic value of something nature has given you. The idea is to use, re-use, and recycle everything, and it's a philosophy that goes beyond the nose-to-tail cooking that's been so trendy in the US recently: "Mottainai is a lifestyle in Japan," says seafood buyer-turned-chef Yuji Haraguchi, owner of Okonomi and Osanka in Brooklyn. "It's about more than just food— it's a way of thinking about how to utilize everything with no waste." That means not only using all parts of ingredients, but also thinking about how to simplify the tools and materials you cook with, and even your mindset when you enter the kitchen. De-clutter your plate; free your mind.