Thoughts on Japan: Flavors of Culture

November 8, 2010

Few of the chefs spoke English. Many had never before been in the United States. One closed his restaurant for the first time. Others came bearing Kyoto water, unwilling to trust the quality of their cuisine to the harder California sort. This was a group that left nothing to chance.

It was, by any measure, an extraordinary conference. But when 46 of Japan’s finest chefs came to the Napa Valley last week, they went a long way towards demonstrating how much we still have to learn about Japanese cuisine.

Highlights? I imagine that each of us took something different away from this conference, which packed an astonishing amount of information into three days. But I’ll tell you what the most memorable moments were for me.

It was a thrill to watch a number of famous kaiseki chefs assembling seasonal plates before our eyes. As they placed each ingredient they told us what they were doing, and why, which was like watching an artist explain each brushstroke as he splashed it across the canvas. The differences were fascinating: For one chef a lobster was the Golden Gate Bridge, for another a mountain. Finally, Kunio Tokuoka, third-generation owner of Kyotol Kitcho stepped onto the stage, where he constructed a dish so delicate, so poetic, so astonishingly beautiful that you instantly understood the difference between very good and great. He is a master. (His new book, incidentally, is gorgeous.)

The biggest crowd-pleaser of the event was Yoshinori Horii, who made soba from green buckwheat as we watched, rapt. His family has been making soba since 1789, and I am dying to go to Tokyo to taste it. Buckwheat has no gluten, but he somehow managed to take this cantankerous material, knead it into dough with nothing but water and a tiny amount of flour, and then roll it into a smooth sheet. The magic moment was when he turned the round sheet into a perfect square with four swift passes of his long rolling pin. Then he folded it up and cut it into fine noodles with a few quick snicks of the knife.

Another great moment? Eating Ivan Ramen. Ivan Orkin is a Long Island boy who has, improbably, opened a ramen shop in Tokyo. His springy noodles have a lively quality that nobody else at the conference could match; I snuck back into line for seconds, and I would have gone for thirds if they had not run out. (For the record, another restaurant I really want to try is Nombe in San Francisco; Nicolaus Balla gave a very fine demonstration – and he makes his own umeboshi.)

But it wasn’t all food – there was also a fair amount of food for thought. Yoshiki Tsuji kicked the conference off with a fascinating look at the history of Japanese cuisine, showing us how it has been affected by the politics of the nation. The most used word at this conference was surely “umami,” which virtually every chef mentioned when he spoke. But when Harold McGee got up to talk, he dropped what was, for me, a bombshell: he believes that umami is only the beginning, and that we will identify many more essential flavors in the next few years. It’s an exciting thought.

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  • Mona Nomura says:

    Our culture can be seen as quirky so it is an honor and privilege to read these words; especially coming from you! Makes me proud to be Japanese. Thank you for sharing on your blog!

  • Harold McGee’s ability to excite foodie thought in simple ways — It bowls me over what a genius he is. I can’t wait to see what people come up with just thinking about this idea.
    Japanese culinary quirk does the same for my palate memory. I would have loved to be a fly at the wall at this event. Thanks for sharing.