I deeply respect Japanese cuisine, because I know that the Japanese have a deep respect for cuisine. And, obviously, I enjoy the spectacular results.
This deep appreciation for food manifests itself in many different ways in Japan- the multiplicity of television shows exploring different local cuisines, the sheer overwhelming number of restaurants (80,000- over 4 times the amount in New York), let alone Michelin-starred restaurants, and the inseparable eating and drinking culture. However, as someone interested in local and seasonal food, I most respect the obsessive featuring of seasonal ingredients.
It is fall in Japan, which means that every single sweet shop features 90% chestnuts, sweet potatoes, and persimmons. The remaining 10% of the sweets are regular traditional flavors, but they are shaped like pumpkins.
So many of my meals here include the fall fish that is only available for two weeks, this or that bitter herb only found in this mountain prefecture in the fall, or the fish eggs that are only sold every other year on the second Tuesday of August. There is an obsession with seasonality, with freshness.
In the grocery store, I am dazzled by the dozens of types of mushrooms, and the enormous tofu aisle. There are more varieties of greens than I ever knew existed. And despite how much I think I learn about seafood every time I visit, it only reminds me of how much there remains to learn.
Compared to other world cuisines, Japan’s dishes are subtle, with distinct flavors. There is rarely an overpowering spice or a stew of melding aromas. Rather, dishes more often feature obvious ingredients. And these high quality ingredients, usually fresh, within season, and from Japan, should not be hidden under layers of seasoning. This subtlety and separation of flavors respects the ingredients.
While visiting Mt. Fuji a few days ago, my sister and I shared a traditional Japanese meal, which nearly paralyzed me with its diversity and flavors. Notice that there are many, many small dishes, each with a few ingredients. There are all the flavors of Japanese cuisine, each appearing separately, each presented with precision.
This meal represents everything that I love about Japanese cuisine- seasonality, simplicity, distinction, clean presentation, and extraordinary seafood. All of these factors are part of a deep and rich culinary history of which I have only ever scratched the surface. Every time I visit Japan, I leave with a greater respect for its culture and people. I am so thankful for the time I spend here.
But, tomorrow, onto Hanoi!