We in the West might consider that we know all about Japanese food and indeed all about Japan. It is, I guess, a consequence of globalisation. We see Japanese tourists on our streets, sushi fast food cafés are now common, and there are more Japanese restaurants in our larger cities. Yes, we know all about it …we think. But there must be more to it than that! Why would the United Nation’s cultural organisation add traditional Japanese food to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list?
The learned UNESCO Committee agreed that Washoku (the term for traditional Japanese cuisine) satisfies the criteria for inscription on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Washoku became Japan’s 22nd intangible cultural heritage, alongside Nogaku and Kabuki theatres, and Yuki-tsumugi, a silk fabric production technique. It was recognised as having the following qualities:
1. Transmitted from generation to generation, Washoku plays an important role in strengthening social cohesion among the Japanese people while providing them a sense of identity and belonging.
That sounds very grand, but any national food should be a source of national identity and pride.
2. Inscription of Washoku could raise awareness of the significance of the intangible cultural heritage in general, while encouraging dialogue and respect for human creativity and for the environment, and promoting healthy eating.
Anyone who has eaten good Japanese food will recognise its healthful qualities. Its presentation is also fundamental, as is seasonality.
3. Safeguarding measures to protect and promote Washoku in different regions of Japan, including research, recording and awareness-raising through education and cultural exchanges, will be implemented by civil society associations and the Government.
This will be an exciting initiative. Japanese cuisine is under threat from contemporary Western fast food, but raising awareness of its unique history and evolution in both Japan and overseas will ensure its future.
4. Communities, individuals, research institutions and local authorities participated in the nomination process in large numbers, and the communities provided free, prior and informed consent.
Japan should be commended for its pride and concern for the continued appreciation of Washoku. Perhaps it’s a lesson we could all learn. Every culture has elements worth preserving and celebrating. The Japanese, both in Japan and overseas, show real interest in their traditional dishes, and as time goes on more of us can understand why. Washoku is only the fifth food culture to have made it to the heritage list, the other four being: French cuisine, traditional Mexican food, the Mediterranean diet, and ‘keskek’, a Turkish or Iranian ceremonial dish of meat or chicken and wheat. Washoku isn’t an individual dish but a culinary concept and philosophy.
“We are truly happy,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said of the UNESCO recognition. “We would like to continue passing on Japanese food culture to the generations to come and would also like to work harder to let people overseas appreciate the benefits of washoku.” Ambassador Keiichi Hayashi remarked that “The number of Japanese restaurants is up to 680 in the UK alone, and we hope UNESCO’s recognition will lead to the further promotion of the cuisine here.”
Those aforementioned Japanese eateries in the West have introduced a new audience to sushi. Whilst those morsels of rice and fish or vegetables are fresher and lighter than the typical sandwich, it’s a shame that many people have the impression that sushi and sashimi form the basis of every Japanese meal. “Don’t these folks ever eat hot food?” we might ask.
The UNESCO status will hopefully encourage non-Japanese to find out about traditional home cooking as well as the refined kaiseki cuisine. A regular Japanese dinner might consist of separate bowls of rice, miso soup and pickles alongside the main dish. That doesn’t sound very much like sushi, does it? The key factors are seasonality and presentation – subtle flavours and aesthetic beauty. Japan has an extensive battery of recipes of which little is known outside its shores.
The Japanese government is evidently hoping that the UNESCO accolade will help ease safety concerns over the country’s food exports following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and the well-publicised Fukushima nuclear crisis. The UNESCO status was confirmed exactly 1,000 days after the disaster that eroded confidence in the safety of Japan’s foods.
We celebrated UNESCO’s accolade at the Japanese embassy in London. Chef Yoshihiro Murata, a multi-Michelined celebrity, took the rostrum with our own Heston Blumenthal. Chef Murata was able to give a Japanese perspective on Washoku. He has been playing an important part fighting for its registration as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. He is well qualified, being the third-generation owner/chef of Kikunoi, a traditional ryotei restaurant in Kyoto. Chef Murata is the director of the Japanese Culinary Academy, an organization founded to promote understanding of Japanese cuisine.
Chef Murata discussed umami which is present in certain ingredients. It’s that indefinable savoury element that one finds in dashi stock. We learned that one can replace oils and fats with umami flavours to produce healthy yet satisfying dishes.
Heston Blumenthal has long been a supporter of Japanese food and an enthusiastic student to his friend Chef Murata. Heston offered amusing anecdotes about his first visit to Japan and described the Japanese passion for fish and selecting tuna in the fish market in Tokyo. It’s evident that Western chefs are looking to Japan for inspiration, new cooking techniques and ingredients.
Washoku’s designation on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity is quite a mouthful but is evidently welcomed by the Japanese government, not only in terms of this unique cuisine’s public elevation, but also for the possible impact on the economy. This designation will surely boost tourism and food exports.
Washoku is prized for its healthful properties. Dishes emphasise the fresh flavours of vegetables and herbs, they showcase the tastes and textures of fish and seafood. Japanese food doesn’t rely on fat to provide flavour, so a Japanese diet will likely aid weight loss. Meat isn’t eaten in great quantities – a contrast to the UK which is also an island nation but which only recently started to see the advantages of fresh seasonal produce and exploring the bounty of the sea.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018