The Difficulty of Translating Japanese Food for Americans

So, I’m sitting here at the CIA Greystone after 2 days of their Worlds of Flavor conference on Japanese food, and I’m puzzled by what the takeaway will be for most people in the audience. Certainly, Japan is an inspiration for chefs around the world. This is as true today as it was in the 1960s, when the Japanese approach to dining inspired the Nouvelle Cuisine in France. Every time I hear of an innovation from the wildly creative Spanish chefs or the impressively local Nordic chefs, I can’t help but think, “Yeah, that’s interesting, but have you been to Japan?”

Still, I wonder if it wouldn’t be more useful for the evolution of American food culture if this were a conference about Japanese eating, rather than Japanese cooking, and if accordingly, the room were full of diners instead of cooks. I can’t help but think that it is American diners who need to learn how to eat, rather than American chefs who need to learn how to cook. Our chefs have proven time and again they are as good as the best in the world.

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We have seen some of the most respected Japanese chefs demonstrating the extreme attention to detail and pursuit of simplicity that are the hallmarks of Japanese cuisine. (Sometimes their demeanor and the simultaneously translation makes it feel like I’m in the middle of a Japanese episode of Iron Chef.) This morning I watched famed chef Kunio Tokuoka of Kyoto’s Michelin 3-star Kitcho salt chicken wings to remove their aku or “impurities” before simmering them in kombu dashi, prepared in a precise way with a particular kombu to maximize extraction of glutamate, of course, to make a broth with an impressive intensity and clarity of flavor. What strikes me is the Japanese eating culture that would be able to discern and appreciate this level of detail in the finished broth.

Watching the various techniques of these esteemed guest chefs is interesting, but even more fascinating to me is listening to the cultural narratives woven around why certain things are done certain ways. Removing impurities, searching for subtlety, trying to evoke a feeling or sensation in the diner, these are the building blocks of a food culture. There is always a “why” in the Japanese kitchen.

In contrast, Tokuoka was followed by Tim Cushman of Boston’s celebrated O Ya. A self-proclaimed lover of chilis, Chusman said he starts with a foundation of traditional Japanese food, and then keeps adding ingredient to fill up the holes in the flavor matrix of his dishes. One of the reasons he likes chilis so much, he said, is because they allow you to bump up all of the other flavors to fill in the holes. Clearly, he is also paying extreme attention to detail, but the focus is completely different. He proceeded to make a signature fried oyster sushi. In the breading of the oyster was parmesan cheese and garlic. He fries the oysters in fryer oil seasoned with old oil, which he said is a flavor he likes, akin to that of donuts. The “sushi rice,” which took him a year and a half to perfect, he shapes in a ring mold, not by hand, and then wraps the disk in a strip of nori. He makes a flavorful yuzu paste with dashi mayonnaise (the mayonnaise itself flavored with dry mustard and black pepper) to which he adds yuzu juice and yuzu kosho. He assembled the “sushi” and then he drizzled the fried oyster with a garlic-rosemary oil and sprinkled it with sesame brittle. He topped it with a froth of milk, olive oil, soy sauce, and sesame oil. He added a few drops of squid ink, some sliced Japanese scallion, a dab of wasabi. This plugging of flavor holes may have produced the most delicious sushi I’ve ever eaten, though we didn’t get to try it. But nothing about the approach is Japanese.

Of course, Cushman is an American chef, not a Japanese one. His restaurant is in America. His clientele is primarily American. By contrast to the approach of filling up the holes in flavor as a way to build a dish, it seems to me that Japanese cooking is all about the holes. It follows that Japanese discernment is about finding and appreciating the holes.

So far only chef David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos has brought up the idea of connoisseurship at this conference, a concept I believe is key to understanding the extreme and extremely articulated food culture that has evolved over centuries to produce the Japanese cuisine of today. Sadly, Kinch was only given 3 minutes to speak.

You cannot understand or appreciate attention to detail on the producer side if you do not have a similar attention to detail on the consumer side. We’ve learned how to produce fine chefs, and the CIA deserves as much credit for that as anyone or any institution. How we go about producing fine eaters I’m not quite sure.

One thing I do know, however. I wouldn’t want to eat anywhere in Japan this weekend. Every great chef from that food-obsessed country seems to be here.

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5 Comments

Filed under Food for Thought, Shop Talk, Taste Tidbits, Travel Log, Uncategorized

5 responses to “The Difficulty of Translating Japanese Food for Americans

  1. Pingback: Acquiring Culinary Fluency « Gherkins & Tomatoes

  2. So true! “I can’t help but think that it is American diners who need to learn how to eat, rather than American chefs who need to learn how to cook.”
    Part of this is being comfortable with variety (and having a food culture where everyone enjoys eating well, like in France). French children actually learn how to eat at school, both at the school cafeteria, where they are served three course hot lunches every day, and in the classroom, where food culture is part of the curriculum. We could easily apply lots of those ideas in North America. More about this on my blog: karenlebillon.com. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  3. Wow, this piece of writing is nice, my younger sister is analyzing such things, thus I am going to
    let know her.

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