Michel Bras on Japanese cuisine – 3

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It’s all about subtlety and elegance

I always feel uncomfortable whenever someone uses the word “bland” about Japanese food. To me, this could only be a false debate. The truth is that since the ingredient is always picked at the best moment, at the peak of its expression, and the role of cooking is to enhance its natural savor at its best.

This explains the subtlety of seasoning, which should become part of the ingredient, and not just be an addition to it. Taste not only depends on seasoning, but it also plays with texture and flavors too.

Tasting dashi, the stock that is the essence of Japanese cuisine, and that isn’t salty nor sweet, neither sour or bitter, takes you to a 5th dimension, far away from any familiar Western codes.08_出汁1.png

Dashi is prepared with kelp, smoked and fermented bonito that is shaved, with dried fish or dried mushrooms too.

Refinement and elegance in food presentation is another typical trait of Japanese cuisine. Visual expression is an important part of the culinary expression, playing with ingredients’ colors and architecture. Just like reading a text, reading a dish relies upon a whole philosophy. This cuisine is truly alive, lively, and beautiful to look at.

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(Left) A needlefish sushi wrapped in a bamboo leaf. (Right) Sakuramachi, a traditional sweet for cherry blossom season, wrapped in a pickled cherry leaf. 

This obsession with appearance begins on the store shelves, where respect for ingredient shows in the way they are wrapped, presented, displayed, sometimes to an obsessive degree, and with excessive wrapping too…

A wide range of expressions made of clearly categorized foods, each with its own history

The diversity of Japanese food is exctraordinary.  From street food to high cuisine, you have a plethora of preparations, each with a distinct tradition.

Take the street food, where food stalls of mochi – made with glutinous rice – that can be sweet with azuki red bean paste, or salty with soy sauce, or those of teriyaki – grilled meat with sweet soy sauce – or takoyaki – ball shaped snack with octopus – , all have a strong cultural identity.

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Each restaurant serves a very specific specialty such as deep-fried food like tempuras, boiled dishes like shabu-shabu, buckwheat noodles called Soba, sushis ans sashimi prepared with raw fish and served at the counter, or a delicious steamed and grilled eel dish called unagi, and so many others.

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Clockwise from top left: squid sashimi, sushi chef, shabu-shabu, Soba noodles, steamed and grilled eel.

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Not mentioning the multitude of local cuisines throughout the country, including that of Okinawa islands further South, that reflect the diversity of climates, flora and fauna on top of regional cultures.

Each time I visit Japan, I always look for a new “gourmand” surprise, in Tokyo or elsewhere, and am never disappointed. On my last trip, I had the occasion of beating glutinous rice using sticks to prepare mochi with my son Sébastien, and we had a wonderful experience. I suggest you do the same and venture off the beaten path to discover all these kept secrets.

Today too many restaurants around the world serve so-called Japanese food, and they  should actually go there and check what it’s really about!

As a conclusion of this series, I would say that in Japan more than anywhere else, Nature is the Key to all artistic expressions, and also to the art de vi­vre.

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