Articles

SOLD OUT Exploring Japanese Food Culture

March 5, 2007

Keynote Speaker

Yuzaburo Mogi, Chairman & CEO, Kikkoman Corporation

Panelists
Elizabeth Andoh
, Author; Director, A Taste of Culture
Daniel Boulud, Chef-Owner, DANIEL
Masaharu Morimoto, Chef/Partner, Morimoto New York and Philadelphia

Moderator
Jeffrey Steingarten, author; Food Critic, Vogue Magazine

As part of a festival of Japanese cuisine celebrated in New York, a distinguished panel from the world of food met at Japan Society to talk about the ideas, techniques and ingredients that Japan has shared with, and absorbed from, other countries around the world.

From early on in Japanese history, most animal protein came from fish, began keynote speaker Yuzaburo Mogi, CEO of Kikkoman. Meat was generally avoided, not only because of the influence of Buddhist teachings, but also because cattle and horses were needed more as beasts of burden than as food. To preserve fresh-caught fish and other foods, "fermentation was a key early technology," with fermented soy sauce dating back to at least 600 AD.

Rice, the heart of Japanese cuisine, came to Japan even earlier, brought to the archipelago from India by way of the Silk Road in about 400 BC. "Our modern harvest festivals originate in religious respect for rice, which was also the core of the economy right up to the Meiji Restoration of the late 1800s. What wheat has been for the West, rice has been for Japan," said Mr. Mogi.

The samurai culture gave birth to the art of sado, the tea ceremony; "we then started serving chilled and heated dishes in alternation with tea and sake, developing a course menu called kaiseki that is a highlight of refined Japanese food culture," he continued.

In the 17th century, Mr. Mogi's ancestors founded a family soy sauce business that 300 years later became the modern Kikkoman Corporation. "Japanese soy sauce was shipped to the Netherlands at least as early as 1737," he noted. "The French educator Diderot defined it as a seasoning made in Japan and brought to France by the Dutch, enhancing all meat dishes and giving ham on the bone an exceptionally delicious flavor."

"Today's fresh sushi was originally a fermented food, but by the early 1800s, we started making sushi with vinegar and without fermentation. Just like a New York hot dog, we were selling sushi on street corners over 150 years ago, making sushi one of the world's oldest fast foods."

Kikkoman showed its wares at the 1873 World Exposition in Vienna, and won gold medals at expositions in Amsterdam, in 1883, and in Paris, in 1900, Mr. Mogi recounted. "We started exporting to the United States before World War II, and this year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the start of nationwide marketing in the U.S., in 1957." The company's first U.S. plant opened in Wisconsin in 1973; a second was established in California in 1998. The firm also brews soy sauce in the Netherlands, Singapore, Taiwan and China.

"New Yorkers now eat sashimi and sushi with gusto. Sushi is booming even in Russia," said Mr. Mogi. "But I remember a different era. In fact, I am happy to be able to tell you that I too was once a New Yorker. While attending Columbia Business School, I lived in a student dorm at the corner of 114th and Amsterdam, in a small room where I studied day and night--I have my classmate there, over there, he's laughing," he said dryly--"and I ate in the cafeteria, where my American schoolmates told me they served some of the worst food in the country. So if I have many excellent memories of those days, not many are linked to the food."

"Well, times have changed, and I am a happy, better-fed man today. Eating good food makes a big difference."

"We Japanese see eating rice from the same pot as a social recipe for building life-long friendship. Sharing food culture is an important pathway to peace through mutual understanding. This food culture festival is part of that same mission, giving Americans a window into the soul of the Japanese people," Mr. Mogi concluded.

***

Japan Society president Richard Wood asked:

How have you changed soy sauce as you have become a global company?

"We don't change the taste. We can sell the same soy sauce all over the world, including Japan and the U.S.," responded Mr. Mogi. "However, we have a dark colored soy sauce, a light soy sauce and a low-salt soy sauce, developed about 30 years ago."

Questions from the audience followed:

It's been reported that the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture will be sending inspectors to some Japanese restaurants outside Japan--what are your reactions to this?

"I personally feel that it's not appropriate for the Japanese government to give--to give a kind of license to Japanese restaurants" in foreign countries, Mr. Mogi said. "However, I feel that it might be necessary for somebody or some organization to promote proper handling of raw fish in foreign countries," he added.

Which companies do you consider your biggest competitors, inside Japan and abroad?

"Actually we have 1,500 soy sauce companies in Japan," replied Mr. Mogi. "A lot of people think that we have over 50 percent market share, but you know we have 26 or 27 percent market share in Japan, and Yamasa has 11 percent"; in the U.S., Kikkoman's market share is 55 percent, with La Choy ranking second.

***

"My first encounter with Japanese culture was not with Japanese cuisine directly but with Japanese chefs," said chef Daniel Boulud. During the 1960s and '70s, Shizuo Tsuji, author of the classic Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, worked through Paul Bocuse and a number of other French chefs to set up a program whereby Japanese restaurant and hotel companies sent Japanese chefs to France to learn French cuisine. "There was not a single three-star or two-star restaurant or even one-star without at least two to three Japanese chefs inside," one of whom was Mr. Boulud's chef de partie at Michel Guérard.

"The resemblance between French and Japanese chefs, in a way, their obsession for perfection, for ingredients, and their obsession for detail, and for precision and for discipline, and teamwork," were remarkable, Mr. Boulud said.

Through this exchange of food cultures, Guérard, Bocuse, Alain Senderens and other French chefs began to develop nouvelle cuisine and, in the 1990s, the tasting menu, the menu dégustation, which is based on a kaiseki model, he explained.

On moving to New York in 1980, Mr. Boulud found special inspiration in the mix of French and Japanese influences at Barry Wine's Quilted Giraffe restaurant. One signature dish was an appetizer called beggar's purses: "a crêpe purse, where it was filled with caviar and cream, a little bit, inside, and very delicate and very precious, and in a way very Zen and very Japanese."

Mr. Boulud traveled to Japan, where he enjoyed "some amazing, amazing meals in a kaiseki sort of fashion." At DANIEL, his restaurant in New York, many dishes use ingredients supplied by Japanese vendors, including a duo of tuna and hamachi with shiso cream, shiso and soybean puree, sweet beets, and a nuance of Japanese citrus such as yuzu. "It has nothing to do with Japanese cuisine," he said. "Does it have a lot to do with French cuisine? Not too much either. But it's an interpretation of how I treat sashimi in a French way, with sometimes Japanese ingredients," ingredients that are "amazing things which help us be more creative and expand."

"When I first went to Japan, I also was bowled over. Not immediately smitten, but certainly highly curious. And the segment of the cuisine that I found most curious was the botanical," said Elizabeth Andoh, author of Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen and director of the Tokyo culinary arts program A Taste of Culture.

"It was true that fish were interesting, but I had been born and raised here in New York, I had eaten fish before, not of the enormous variety that I was later to discover in Japan, but I would say that it was the vegetables that seemed so extraordinary. I knew only peas, corn, carrots; that was it. And the fact that there would even be vegetables from the sea, sea vegetables per se, the whole notion of it was rather bizarre," she continued.

Ms. Andoh, who trained at the Yanagihara Cooking School in Tokyo and has lived in Japan for nearly 40 years, focused her talk on kombu, or kelp, "perhaps the new darling--it's not quite yuzu and it's not shiso yet," but remarkable for its many different varieties, including Rishiri kombu, which makes a crystal-clear broth or stock, and ma kombu, also known by its botanical name, Laminaria japonica, which is particularly rich in the savory quality identified as the fifth basic taste, umami.

Ms. Andoh noted that kombu, in dried form called oboro kombu, may be best known in the West as an ingredient in dashi, a sea stock used extensively in Japanese soups and other dishes. She described the preparation of ma kombu as a vegetable:

The ma kombu is unfurled, and it's meters long, yards and yards long, and soaked in a kind of vinaigrette, if you will, a kind of vinegar solution, and the vinegar accomplishes several different things. It softens it, it helps to break down the fibrous nature of the kombu, so that you can eat it as a tender vegetable, as opposed to just the broth that it might give out, and it also sort of hedges your bet on kitchen hygiene.

We had some issues about kitchen hygiene before; vinegar is one of those things that ensure that foods are probably not going to do you in.

It's soaked in vinegar, and interestingly, it gets shaved. The outer surface is very dark, as you might have noticed, and as you shave it away, the shavings get lighter and lighter.

The white center core of kombu, known as shirata kombu, is used to top a kind of sushi made with mackerel that originated in Osaka, called battera-zushi. "It's interesting to watch even Japanese, young Japanese, who aren't all that terribly knowledgeable," deal with the kombu topping, Ms. Andoh said. "They think perhaps they can't eat it, and they peel it off. That's the best part, folks."

Mr. Boulud asked:

The flavor, can you elaborate more on the flavor of the ma kombu.

The marinated ma kombu "is definitely of the sea, there's a brininess to it, but it's primarily the function of the vinegar," said Ms. Andoh. The vinegar used for marinating is rice vinegar, and the ma kombu flavor "is a very, what the Japanese refer to as a very round flavor, rather than it being sharp and harsh, the way some fruit vinegars can be."

The kombu's naturally occurring umami, which comes from glutamates, enhances other flavors without changing them, she continued. "I think of it as, you know, a logarithmic event. You're getting it to the 10th power, but it's not different, it's just more so. It really does make the fish taste like a better fish for it; carrots are better off because they've been cooked with kombu; everything tastes more flavorful."

Chef Masaharu Morimoto, owner and chef at Morimoto New York and Morimoto Philadelphia and a star of the Iron Chef television series, was a star baseball player during his high school years in Hiroshima, but a shoulder injury precluded his becoming a professional player, explained moderator Jeffrey Steingarten of Vogue magazine. Mr. Morimoto didn't take professional training but began cooking in restaurants, owned a coffee shop, sold the shop and came to New York, said Mr. Steingarten.

"Now I know that Morimoto doesn't like the idea--because I've discussed this with him--of having been discovered by anyone, but--you know, besides himself--but he was discovered by Barry Wine, who had closed the Quilted Giraffe and was in charge of the Sony executive dining rooms, on one of the very high floors of what used to be the AT&T Building. And when I ate there, Barry took me to this sushi bar. And there was this guy, behind the bar, serving the most beautiful sushi.

"It was also a beautiful bar; it was a huge piece of shiny stone, and it had a river going down the middle of it, flowing, and there was Morimoto. A short time after that, Nobu stole, didn't discover Morimoto, he stole Morimoto," declared Mr. Steingarten.

Japanese restaurants did not become fashionable and popular in America overnight, Mr. Morimoto observed. One reason for their popularity now is transportation. "I can get the, all the fish from Japan, same day, but for inspection they have to stay one night in the airport, that's why I can get fish and vegetables from Japan next day, you know. So this is a very important thing."

He continued: "And there's one more thing. Daniel Boulud and Barry Wine, for example, are pioneers in using Japanese fish. Japanese restaurants are popular, but a lot of people dislike eating raw fish. But when you go to a very famous French restaurant such as DANIEL or Bouley, they are serving raw fish. They are leaders in understanding the goodness and safety of raw fish. That is, I think, the biggest reason why they are expanding Japanese food culture in this country."

Mr. Morimoto drew a connection between the strict timing of the Iron Chef program--"exactly one hour" and not altered for the sake of filming--and the importance of timing in his business. "The U.S. version of the Iron Chef program, which is modeled on the Japanese program, is very inspired by my own food and uses all my ingredients. And timing is also very important, just as the service is in a restaurant. If you know a lot about creating very good food but not a lot about timing, it's nothing."

"In the restaurant business, the food is only 30 percent"; the rest is the music, the atmosphere, all the other elements that make up the guest's experience, he reflected.

"More than in Europe, I think, Japanese cuisine here in America became also a way of life, and one more cuisine to access in a casual way," Mr. Boulud commented:

I mean, a sushi bar is not something you think--except if you go to Masa, or Morimoto, where you make your reservation a month in advance--otherwise you just think about it, maybe, half a day--usually when I go to eat sushi it's after work, and I can't go to Morimoto because it's already closed, but I go to Sushi Seki on First Avenue and everybody from the restaurant industry goes there, 62nd Street, I think, and it's a very humble, simple chef who makes just straightforward sushi, nothing creative, nothing exceptional, but very good.

Japanese chefs who had trained in France came back to Japan and applied classical French techniques to native Japanese ingredients; these dishes "eventually left Japan and affected France and certainly the rest of Europe. It's interesting to note that Italian has sort of started to come into Japan in a similar sort of way, and there are now Italian kaiseki restaurants in Tokyo," said Ms. Andoh.

"I first met Barry Wine because he stayed at the Hotel Okura, and was interested in finding out a bit about jubako, a box, layered boxes," she noted. "And I had done a number of programs at the Okura, and I get a phone call one day, saying, we have somebody here, very important from New York, he wants to learn about Japanese food. Can you make yourself available for a day? And that's how we met. What year was that? A while back."

Mr. Wine, invited by Mr. Boulud to join the panel on the Japan Society stage, replied, "That was 1985, and that's how the bento box got to New York City."

After that visit to Japan, "I changed my life," said Mr. Wine. "The Quilted Giraffe increasingly became Japanese. We used Japanese dishware, we eventually used chopsticks, we served Japanese sake."

"The one thing I guess nobody's touched on, I would like to say something about, and that is the progression of dishes in a kaiseki dinner, in a tasting dinner," he continued. "One of the great fun elements of having the Quilted Giraffe was to be able to play with dishware, the ingredients, the kind of food, the sauce."

"It's very personalized, and when somebody came for dinner, I'd love to go in the dining room, and find out where they were from, or take a look at what they were wearing, and say, we're going to make a dinner of a lifetime for these people, and we're going to customize it to something they know about. And I guess we still haven't got to that point. That was 20 years ago. But I think it will probably come," he added, citing initiatives such as cultural exchanges supported by knife manufacturer Korin through its Gohan Foundation.

Questions from the audience followed:

Could you comment on the American influence, coming from California, mostly--the indirect influence of Japanese cuisine on other forms of cooking.
 
Mr. Boulud answered, "It's clear that California is maybe the most influenced, not only the state but the whole coast, I would say from Vancouver to San Diego."

"I think that California cuisine's already independent," said Mr. Morimoto.

Mr. Steingarten reflected, "I remember the Frenchman who really brought raw fish, French raw fish, to America was Gilbert LeCoze, from Paris. He had his two-star restaurant there, he wanted to open another one here, a two-star restaurant, he decided to close the one in Paris. I don't think a lot of people in that restaurant had ever tasted raw fish before. There was carpaccio, which he made, and there were tartares. And it was like being daring to eat his raw fish."

"Raw fish in France was very popular, it was starting to become a very fashionable thing," commented Mr. Boulud. "It still is."

In the French dining experience, part of the pleasure, as a customer, is the selection of the wine, and the pairing. Chef Morimoto, when you eat sushi, and you want to have something to drink with that, what would you suggest?

Mr. Morimoto replied with a twinkle, "I have a good idea, OK. When you come to my restaurant, you choose Morimoto beer. I have my own brand. And also I have my own sake. And shochu," the clear distilled spirit.

Choose a good restaurant and then trust the people who wait on you, he added. "I would ask the person in charge of service," Mr. Boulud agreed.

Mr. Steingarten said, "Given the fact that Morimoto is kind of fusion and the modern Japanese, and given the fact that his own sakes are extremely expensive, I find it convenient to order the cheapest one on the menu."

"That's another good idea," Mr. Morimoto declared.

What would be some other examples of ingredients from your Japanese suppliers that you would use in your own cooking?

"In the fish category of course they see hamachi, there is the toro, there is the tuna itself," responded Mr. Boulud. "I mean certain suppliers have better tuna than others, and do we want to serve it raw, do we want to cook a bit with it, and all that."

"Sea urchin, of course, is a very--and then, in the seaweed, also, I mean all fish suppliers can carry a lot of different seaweeds, and depends on what we're using," he added.

As an example, he cited a wine party the weekend before for 350 guests that hosted chef Michel Troisgros from Rouen, who has just opened a restaurant in Tokyo, Troisgros. Chef Troisgros wanted to do a dish with wakame, also a seaweed but quite different from kombu, and sea scallops.

"He used melba toast, brushed with Dijon mustard," on which he layered sea scallops and wakame, recounted Mr. Boulud. "That was seasoned with a little bit of yuzu and yuzu zest, and also some drops of, not Meyer lemon but sweet lemon, and then also some uni with that, on the plate, and so do you have this--and finished with olive oil and a little bit of tiny shiso leaf, baby shiso. And to me, the dish had more Japanese meaning than French meaning, to that. But Michel Troisgros is the most French chef we have in France."

Mr. Steingarten asked Ms. Andoh:

Japanese home cooking would be one example of the soul of Japanese cooking, is that right?

"It certainly--mother used to make it, I don't know that she still does, but the basic principles are pretty much the same" as those of the Japanese professional kitchen, Ms. Andoh replied.

"There's an awareness of time and place, primarily," she explained.

"The time has to do with seasonality, and certainly now is--wakame is a sea vegetable that is in season now, and it's the moment when it's going to taste the best, so you would use that. If you were looking for something more terrestrial, it might be bamboo shoots."

"So a sense of time. And then place, where are you. If you're in Japan, you're going to use local ingredients; if you're not, perhaps you want to utilize something that you're finding where you are at that moment, something that can characterize that.

"There's an attention to balance of flavors, sweet, sour, salty--all of those very basic sort of principles, you would see them as obvious in a home-cooked meal as you would in the most classic of the kaiseki meals. The interpretation would be different."

Mr. Boulud described a visit to an Osaka restaurant during his last trip to Japan: "I felt that I was walking into a home, and there was a very small dining room, and there was chrysanthemum season, and had maybe, I don't know, 20 courses on the theme of chrysanthemums, and every dish had a flower pattern of a chrysanthemum. And the chef, every month, changed into something else, another inspiration, another dish to serve that inspiration. I mean, it was really stunning, and something we don't have, we don't have this kind of culture of the focus into one ingredient and try to expand around it, and serve it in so many ways."

Ms. Andoh added, "The whole notion that fueled the Iron Chef originally was this notion of tsukusu, to use something in its entirety--all parts of the animal, all parts of the vegetable, and you created an entire meal out of a single ingredient--very classic, very well practiced, very traditional, but also an inspiration for people to take it and do something quite modern."

"If we're talking about food and culture, no culture is static, and certainly food culture is not static, it's changing in Japan as well," she said.

"There's a category if you will known as sosaku ryori, or innovative cuisine," Ms. Andoh noted. "At the heart of it is this classical Japanese training, but here are Japanese chefs in Japan, classically trained, but playing with it. And I think they've taken courage from people like Morimoto, who perhaps had to leave the homeland in order to have the elbowroom to experiment and play with those things."

Mr. Steingarten said, "Given the fact that sukiyaki was invented I guess in the last part of the 19th century, or maybe the beginning of the 20th century, and shabu-shabu after World War II, it would seem that the Japanese can invent all the time."

Ms. Andoh took up the point: "Invent, reinvent, ad infinitum. Tempura was originally a foreign food. The Portuguese taught them about batter frying, and the rest as they say is history."

--Katherine Hyde

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