What Americans Can Learn From Japanese Cuisine

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In a three-day conference featuring many of the world's great chefs of Japanese and Japanese-influenced cuisine, it was the humble mastery of a soba maker that stole the show.

Yoshinori Horii, the eighth-generation chef-owner of Sarashina Horii, a Tokyo noodle restaurant continuously operated since 1789, outshined the flashy knife skills, fancy ingredients, and metaphorical presentations of Masaharu Morimoto (of Iron Chef fame), David Chang (the Momofuku restaurants), and Douglas Keane (Cyrus), among others, by expertly using his hands.

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Horii blended buckwheat flour, udon flour, and water in a rapid, consistent motion. Moments later he packaged the flour into a ball that resembled a small wheel of light yellow parmesan cheese. Kneading it with powerful fingers, he quickly achieved another transformation, flattening it into the unmistakable shape of a deep-dish pizza crust. With a long wooden pin, Horii rolled the dough in each direction and made it a very thin square.

All this pummeling brought out a light green hue from the young buckwheat flour. He completed this effort by folding the dough and cutting it into long noodles an eighth of an inch thick. The crowd of 250 or so mostly chefs and food company executives were mesmerized by this simple magic, appreciating the speed, sheer physicality, and elegant simplicity required to make these non-extruded long noodles. He got a standing ovation.

Noodles are important in Japanese cuisine, but they are redolent of street food and home cooking. As such, they are far less associated with Japan in the U.S. than the theater of a sushi bar and its distant cousin, packages of cold supermarket sushi rolls.

A love of noodles isn't the only element of Japanese cuisine that hasn't crossed the Pacific.

What if we adopted a goal of eating 30 food varieties every day? What if we aspired to wabi-cha cuisine as a complete work of art?

Chef, author, and teacher Haruko Shimbo cited six elements about food that schoolchildren throughout Japan are taught about their cuisine and how to appreciate it: Eat until you are 80 percent full; Evoke nature and the seasons with food choices; Stimulate all five senses (not only taste and aroma); Cook by fire and water (not fire and oil); and eat 30 food varieties every day. (Thirty?!) Only the last item—chew food well—is also found in American teachings.

The Japanese must chuckle at our nascent attempts to bring back an ethic of regional and seasonal cuisine. They not only respect seasonality, but celebrate 36 "micro-seasons" occurring every 10 days. I asked a chef what fish I should seek out on an upcoming trip to Kyoto in early April and he was quick to say tai (snapper). Besides seasonality, Tokyo and Kyoto, 320 miles apart, focus on different fish. Each region has its own kombu (seaweed) preferences to flavor their all-important broths. Miso, a paste usually made with steamed and malted rice, soybeans, salt, and time, comes in three main types, but over 1,300 regional recipes are known.

Japanese cuisine has its shortcomings too—high sodium and pickling, almost no whole grains, and a fondness for threatened seafood species—but my point is not to laud or deride. Let's consider the elements that differ and imagine applying them to our own context. What if we adopted a goal of eating 30 food varieties every day? What if we aspired to wabi-cha cuisine as a complete work of art?

The chefs gathered for this conference, at The Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, were on display and they knew it. They cut razor-thin pieces of radish in their hands using guillotine-sharp blades. They smoked beef over a hay fire for effect. And they used obscene amounts of white truffles when asked to demonstrate "cross-cultural" influences. It was fun and the food was delicious. But it was the noodle-maker that the audience appreciated most. After we saw him demonstrate time-honored techniques without mechanization, the noodles were especially tasty that day. Imagine how our appreciation for food would rise if we saw that much love added to preparations more often.

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Helene York is the director of strategic initiatives for Bon-Appetit Management, an onsite restaurant company based in Palo Alto, California.

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