Italian, American Southern and Latin American. Spanish, Mediterranean and French. And now Japanese. These cuisines have forever altered the world’s culinary topography. They create fusions that make cuisine a dynamic evolving force in world culture while staying true to its nationalistic underpinnings.
Washoku — the character, culture and social abstracts of Japanese cuisine — earned UNESCO World Heritage recognition in 2003, securing its place alongside meritorious contemporaries that include traditional French, Mexican and Italian cuisines, among others. Washoku has charmed its way into the day-to-day culinary habits of foodies worldwide, cementing Japanese fusion in the world’s culinary canon.
The French Connection
You’ll find no better melding of two diametrically opposed culinary styles than in Japanese-French fusion. Since the late 19th century, or the Meiji and Taisho Eras, Japanese chefs have undertook intensive training pilgrimages to France. They learned not only the finer points of the French technique, but the broader facets, as well.
For example, not only do Japanese chefs learn such region-specific techniques as gently smoking Charolais steaks with grapevine shoots, but they also learn the fundamentals of French cookery, such as how to use salt properly. That might sound basic. However, proper salting technique is misunderstood by many Western home cook. Much more so by the Japanese cook, for whom soy sauce commonly serves as the base seasoning.
Japanese, American and French chefs who’ve trained extensively in both styles — and played a paramount role in disseminating Washoku to the masses — reads like a who’s who of the Michelin Guide: Joël Robuchon (Yoshi), Jean-Georges Vongerichten (JG Tokyo), Ming Tsai (Blue Dragon), Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin) and Masaharu Morimoto (Morimoto) are just a few well-known chefs who’ve not only bridged the gap between Japanese and French cuisine, but mastered it in the truest sense of the term.
If you recognized the aforementioned chefs, you can thank the media that made them household names. Between print media, internet, film and television, Washoku’s reach covers a lot of ground. Take, for example, televised and serialized cooking competitions, such as MasterChef and Chopped among many others. They owe part of their success to Iron Chef Japan (ICJ) that was established in 1993. The show arguably started the food-competition genre and laid the groundwork for much of the food-based entertainment seen today.
The Competitive Edge
If the Food Network borne mainstream foodie entertainment in 1993, Iron Chef (Japan) introduced the world to cooking as competition. What gourmand of a certain age can forget the flamboyantly sartorial Chairman Kaga? Or the campy color commentary? Or the esoteric dishes like sea eel royale with truffle sauce, smoked asparagus salad and soft roe in sake with truffles? And how about the timeless quote from 18th-century epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, which appeared in the show opening —
“Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.”
The original Iron Chef jumpstarted the export of Japanese cuisine culture to the West. And America loved it. Fast-forward to 2017, where dishes like ramen and mochi are weeknight fare for folks who once thought of sushi as the be-all and end-all of Japanese food.
Japanese culture, and arguably its most prized export, washoku, has changed Western cuisine in ways both subtle and sensational, sublime and superb. Adopt washoku into your everyday cooking with Umami Insider or make it the star of a special night out at restaurants like these.