A grey winter morning in Kyoto and I – along with several hundred writers, chefs, and nutrition experts from around the world – sit in a conference hall listening to the Michelin-starred French chef Alain Ducasse sing the praises of Japanese food.
“The strict selection of ingredients and the sense of the four seasons are reflected [in Japanese cooking]. Longstanding experience is necessary – but we need to know and learn the basics of washoku,” says Ducasse.
His enthusiasm isn’t surprising considering that just over a year ago, Japan’s washoku became the second cuisine, after French, to be given heritage status by UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). To celebrate, the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries organised the three-day long Washoku-do, The World Japanese Cuisine Show.
The French chef’s presence is indicative of a growing awareness of the intricacies of Japanese food at its best. It’s a trend the Japanese government is keen to encourage.
Though there are between 55-60,000 Japanese restaurants in the world, only 10% of them actually have a Japanese chef working there. Organisers of the conference want chefs outside of Japan to customise washoku with authentic methods and ingredients local to their area - but also ensure the world sees that there is more to Japanese cuisine than sushi.
The Mayor of Kyoto, Daisaku Kadokawa, tells us about the training programme he introduced last year. He hopes to encourage chefs from other nations to come to Japan to gain hands-on experience with chefs, which they then can bring back to kitchens in all corners of the world.
There is also a competition, the Washoku World Challenge. Set up for non-Japanese chefs from outside the country, the 10 finalists – hailing from Italy to Thailand – have been selected to visit Kyoto to prepare their dishes for the panel of judges. Again, this is all in the hope that their skills would be cultivated and shared on their return, thus promoting authentic Japanese cuisine.
Though there are several popular Japanese chains in the UK - including Japanese fusion restaurant Wagamama, founded by legendary restaurateur Alan Yau and now has more than 100 outlets in the UK - none of these chains were founded by Japanese chefs.
The most popular Japanese cuisine in the UK is sushi, and the industry is now worth £56 million annually. But the style can be different from what one would see in Japan. The California Roll, a classic sushi dish seen in the West, was invented in America, where sushi tends to have more ingredients (such as cream cheese or avocado) than traditional Japanese sushi, which should allow the flavours of the basic ingredients to shine through without too much seasoning. The type of knife used to create the dish is credited with bringing out the right flavours and stop the flesh of the fish bruising, so carefully learned cutting techniques are principal.
In fact, there is a growing awareness of washoku. British chefs such as Heston Blumenthal and Sat Bains have spoken about how they adopted methods seen in traditional Japanese cuisine. The UK’s first Japanese cooking school, Sozai, also opened in 2013, just before Keiichi Hayashi, the Japanese Ambassador to Britain, declared 2014 "the year of washoku".
The healthy eating trends of 2015
The healthy eating trends of 2015
1/10 Acai bowls are the new green juice
Who ever thought we’d have been ok with adding spinach to our smoothies? Yet even virtuous green juices started to get something of a bad rep, as the ‘juice fast’ backlash grew and it turned out that some shop-bought juices contained as much sugar as a can of fizzy drink. Bring on Acai bowls, the new darlings of Instagram. Like a gloopier smoothie, these are made with antioxidant-rich acai berries (they are hard to come by - search for powdered or dried berries or frozen puree), which are said to aid weight loss. Blend with frozen bananas, berries and a little nut milk and top with whatever you like - seeds, nuts, cacao nibs, goji berries. A picture-perfect purple powerhouse for breakfast.
Ella Grace Denton, www.weneedtolivemore.com
2/10 Bone broth is the new Miso soup
Remember back in the day when the word ‘broth’ would conjure up visions of Dickensian orphanages? Then miso came along, Gwyneth embraced it, and we all followed suit, lauding how filling and protein rich with little wonder broth was. We’ve come full circle now, as bone broth is back on the radar. The glowing-with-health Hemsley sisters seem to use bone broth in most of their recipes, and rave about its nutritional benefits. “Bone broth is a nourishing all rounder packed with vitamins, minerals, collagen and keratin which makes it amazing for skin – including the dreaded cellulite! The healthy fats in the broth help you to assimilate important vitamins including Vit D.” There you go, something to stew over...
Food Loves Writing, Flickr
3/10 Bee pollen is the new Manuka honey
Every health hipster has a jar of manuka honey on their shelves - if they can afford it that is, a jar can cost about £15. But many claim it is worth its weight in gold, due to its unique antibacterial properties. Traditionally it was used on wounds, but many also claim that it performs miracles combatting cholesterol, diabetes, cancer and digestive problems (although the science is limited). Now bee pollen is the latest ‘superfood’ out there - thought to ward off colds, limit food cravings, improve skin tone, ward off allergies like hay fever (although some caution that it may exacerbate them) and, of course, fight cancer. Again, the science behind these claims is dubious - but it certainly adds a nice sweetness to your morning porridge.
4/10 Kelp is the new kale
Last year saw the emergence of an unassuming green leaf that was previously barely used beyond cattle feed. Now, we have kale chips in Pret, kale juices, ‘massaged’ kale salads - it’s even on the menu in fine dining restaurants. Yawn. Introducing kelp. This seaweed is high in iodine, which is said to improve thyroid function and control metabolism. It is also thought to have anti-aging properties for skin and hair. Try it in salads or add to asian-style soups.
5/10 Matcha is the new green tea
Yes, yes, yes, green tea, weightloss, yadda yadda yadda, boosts metabolism, etc etc. For 2015, though, it’s not about just any old green tea - this is matcha green tea. Made from finely milled high-grade matcha leaves, which are grown in the shade, matcha boasts 130 times more anti-oxidants than your bog standard green tea and is supposed to boost energy levels, lower stress, improve your mood and aid metabolism. It can be consumed as a regular tea, added to steamed milk for a matcha latte or even used to add a pleasant green shade and flavour to ice-cream.
6/10 Whole 30 is the new Paleo diet
Thought you were a culinary champ with your caveman-style eating plan? Well, think again, paleo is for wimps! Ok, not quite, but while people on the paleo plan cut out grains, legumes, sugar and processed foods, there is an increasing trend to paleo-fy your treats, with almond-flour pancakes, banana bread and a lot of brownies. The Whole 30 plan is a purer, stricter version of Paleo and really takes you back to basics when it comes to eating natural foods. The 30-day plan bans scales as well as sugar and alcohol, so that you can concentrate on nourishment rather than weight.
7/10 Fermenting is the new sprouting
Just when we thought we were ahead of the game by starting to sprout our own seeds and with sprouted flours creeping on to the market, the health set had to kick it up a notch. Now it’s all about making your own kombucha (fermented tea), sauerkraut or kimchi (both kinds of pickled cabbage). Fermented foods are said to aid digestion thanks to the creation of enzymes and probiotics in the process. Plus they tend to be high in B-vitamins and Omega-3 fatty acids. Think of it as the new jam-making, and break out those mason jars.
8/10 Banana flour is the new coconut flour
Coconut flour was one of the coolest baking ingredients of the year, beloved by Paleo fans. Its highly absorbent qualities mean you only need a tiny bit for baking, keeping your creations low carb but resulting in the odd dry-crumbly-mess baking fail. Banana flour is the next flour to experiment with. Made from green bananas (and no, not banana-flavoured), it is gluten free and light in texture, so ideal for baking. High in resistant starch, which is effective against colon cancer, obesity, and diabetes, it is already being lauded for its nutritional benefits in Africa and South America, and will surely start to become much more visible on health-food shop shelves in the near future.
9/10 Bulletproof coffee is the new soy latte
Nowadays it is possible to walk into almost any cafe and order a soy latte without being eyeballed as a lunatic by the person behind the counter. But would you have the guts to request a stick of butter in your morning brew? Well, some coffee shops are offering exactly that. Bulletproof coffee is a paleo-friendly invention which involves a black coffee with a dollop of coconut oil or butter. Bleurgh. But advocates say it gives you more slow-release energy, sharpens your brain and helps you to focus - and even that it is delicious. Now the theory has been expanded into a whole ‘Bulletproof’ diet plan, rich in fat. Who wants to bet on when Starbucks will give it a shot?
10/10 Tiger nuts are the new almonds
2014 was a good year for almonds. Gym-goers and raw foodists alike carried around a stash for healthy, protein-rich snacking, almond-milk lattes were quaffed, and almond flour featured in so many paleo and gluten-free treats. Now tiger nuts, or ‘earth almonds’ (yes, really), are about to vie for snacking superiority. Tiger nuts are not nuts, but the tubers of the sedge plant. Originally a key food source for Paleolithic Indians, they have until recently been used as animal feed or a side dish in South America, Africa and the Middle East, or in Hispanic companies made into a sweet, milky drink called horchata. But now the hipsters have got their hands on it, drying, roasting and flavouring with the likes of sweet chilli for an on-the-go snack. High in healthy fats, protein and natural sugar, it is rich in energy content, and thought to help prevent heart disease and improve circulation.
We’ve also seen growth in popularity for other Japanese cooking styles such as Yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), Tempura (deep friend seafood and vegetables), and more recently Kaiseki (multicourse meal for special occasions). Ramen noodles have also become widespread. But the dish taking centre stage at The World Japanese Cuisine Show is Bento, Japan’s famously beautiful lunch box meal. Typically divided into four compartments, it contains rice, sashimi, namasu (pickled fish and vegetables), and a simmered or grilled dish or a salad.
Originally a Chinese dish which moved to Kyoto in the 1300s, Bento is becoming popular in France. While sushi is a lunchtime staple in the UK, with various chains and supermarkets showing how the dish has truly taken on the sandwich, Bento boxes are extremely popular in Japan. And it’s easy to see the appeal: a fresh, colourful, low-calorie, but generously portioned meal.
During my time at the conference, Kiyomi Mikuni, one of Tokyo’s most respected chefs, takes us through the ingredients of the Bento box. It takes the amount of protein, fat and carbohydrate into consideration, as a good nutritional balance is one significant characteristic of washoku, as well as the aim to appeal to all the senses. (A good PFC balance is considered to be 15% Protein, 25% Fat and 60% carbohydrates).
The Bento we are served includes Ampo-Gaki (semi-dried persimmon), which is a local speciality of Fukushima. Ducasse believes that misguided scepticism following the Fukushima Daiichi disaster of 2011, where the world’s worst nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl took place following a tsunami, is a barrier for some to enjoy Japanese food: ‘People think the food isn’t safe,’ he says, ‘it is, and this has to be explained.’
It’s impossible not to be impressed with the aesthetics and taste of the Bento. Even better, we’re told that it’s only 590 calories – surprising for a meal so filling. The awareness of calorific content is unsurprising, however, as health is a top priority in Japan. The Specific Health Checkup, coined the ‘metabo (overweight) law’ was introduced in 2008, which saw local governments and employers monitor the waistlines of people between the ages of 40 to 74 every year: men’s waistlines must not exceed 85cm, and women’s 90cm. If they do, they will be given health guidance, such as counselling, monitoring and support. Only about 3.5% of the population is classified as obese in Japan, compared to around 64% of adults being classed as being overweight or obese in the UK.
As well as the health benefits of washoku, beautiful presentation is key to traditional Japanese cooking. Before the conference I meet Fujita Takako, specialist in Japanese cuisine and owner of a Japanese cooking school in Tokyo. She describes the effort which goes into cooking: “Each dish has elaborate care. You can enjoy the sight of the dishes so you feel satisfied even before you’re full.” Japanese tableware is traditionally passed through generations, so an eclectic and intricately patterned range of beautiful crockery which reflects the seasons is featured in every meal. As our dishes are served in a traditional zashiki setting, Takako also compliments Jamie Oliver’s campaign to make school dinners in the UK healthier, a sentiment reiterated when I later spoke to celebrity chef Harumi Kurihara (who is often compared to Martha Stewart or Nigella Lawson), who again brings up Oliver’s campaign. As the most recognised female chef in Japan, it is clear from speaking to her that health and nutrition is also hugely important in her cooking.
As our time at the conference draws to a close, judge and chef Yoshihiro Takahashi says ‘washoku is a matter of spirituality’ and praises the elegance of the cuisine. Ducasse also said the key aspects of washoku are both the locally-sourced ingredients, and ‘the harmonious Zen technique of preparation.’ Several beautifully presented Bento boxes later, and a peek into the spotless, calm and organised environment where washoku is traditionally prepared, it’s easy to see the appeal of Bento. These delicious, low-calorie meals might just be able to give sushi a run for its lunch money.Reuse content