“I’ve found that if you sat at a table with eight or nine of the world’s best chefs – from France, Brazil, America, wherever – and you asked them where they would choose if they had to eat in one, and only one, country for the rest of their lives, they would ALL of them pick Japan without hesitation.”
– Anthony Bourdain, in his introduction to Rice, Noodle, Fish By Matt Goulding.
So much of what is considered trendy or even ‘normal’ in global dining these days is actually Japanese in origin. The recognition of umami as a basic taste may well be Japan’s biggest contribution to our sense of flavor. The use of panko breadcrumbs has revolutionized frying in the West. The current craze for fermentation is Japanese in origin.
Instant noodles is one Japanese contribution that most urban Americans are familiar with. Last year, an astonishing 100 billion servings of instant noodles were sold all over the world, so they may well be Japan’s – or instant noodles inventor Momofuku Ando’s — most important gift to the global food world. I could go on…
While some of these Japanese influences will strike you as obvious, others you may not have realized were actually Japanese in origin. Let’s look at them:
#1: RAW FOOD
In the West, our chefs hold up Steak Tartare as an example of their dedication to raw food. The minced raw steak, they say, came from the cuisine of the Tartars. This is nonsense. It’s a 20th Century dish, and the Tartare is a reference to the Tartare sauce that used to be served with it. Even Carpaccio was only invented in the 1950s by Harry’s Bar in Venice.
Western chefs have only mastered how to serve meat or fish (other than oysters) raw after watching the Japanese make sashimi. And yet, every great restaurant will now serve at least some of its dishes raw.
#2: FISH COOKERY
And anyway, almost every advance in fish cookery has come from Japan. Most chefs (including the Chinese) used to believe that fish was at its best when it was absolutely fresh. But it’s the Japanese who have taught chefs the world over that a fish tastes better a few days after it is killed and the muscles have relaxed.
They compare the process to the ageing of steak where enzymes convert the water and protein into amino acids over time, improving the flavor. A great Japanese sashimi chef is one who knows when each individual fish will taste the best (After three days in the fridge? Four? A week, even?)
#3: COUNTER SEATING
You may have noticed that more and more restaurants all over the world are breaking with the French tradition where chefs are the general in charge of his brigade in the kitchen, while managers run the dining room.
In many modern restaurants, they encourage you to sit at a counter and deal directly with the chef. This is a direct lift from the Japanese Kappo-style, where the chef cooks in front of you and serves you the food as it is ready. At its simplest level, the sushi bar operates on this principle. But so do many other more complex Japanese restaurants.
Such French chefs as Joel Robuchon have based whole restaurant concepts (L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon) around a variation of Kappo dining and it is catching on: Peter Gilmore, one of Australia’s best chefs, runs his top-rated Bennelong at the Sydney Opera House on Kappo lines. You will find similar high-end restaurants all over the world.
#4: TASTING MENUS
How often have you gone to a fancy restaurant and been encouraged to try the Tasting Menu because it contains all of the chef’s specials? Some great restaurants don’t even bother with a la carte menus anymore. You get a choice of two or three Tasting Menus. And that’s it.
The idea of the set menu is not Japanese. All over France, smaller restaurants will offer you set menus. But these will be advertised as good value, three or four-course options. (If you ordered each dish on the set menu individually from the a la carte, it would be much more expensive).
The Tasting Menu, however, is rarely less than six or eight courses (it can go up to 20 small courses) and is not supposed to be good value. Its popularity has spread in the last decade-and-a-half as chefs all over the world have tried to copy the Japanese concept of a kaiseki meal. Kaiseki meals are menus of many courses, left entirely to the chef. (The Japanese phrase is ‘omakase’, which roughly translates as “I leave it to the chef.”)
Because Tasting Menus are the mark of Michelin-starred European and American restaurants these days, we don’t realize that they are actually Japanese in origin.