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Why are They Turning Back to Traditional Japanese Food? -1

CHIBA – At Italian restaurant Comesta in Chiba Prefecture, you will see some unique items on the menu. “Pescatore a la Edo,” “Pomodoro, Edomae Style,” “Soy Sauce Mash and Fine Strips of Leek on Kiln-fired Pizza” are just some of them. “Edo” refers to the Edo Period (1603-1868), which is often used in marketing to associate a product with old-fashioned but trustworthy craftsmanship.

On a sushi menu, you may see “Edomae Sushi” (or pronounced “Edomae Zushi). Conjuring Edo gives the impression that it is authentic nigiri sushi, hand-formed with a topping of fresh raw seafood. At Comesta, Japanese traditional condiments such as red vinegar, mirin Japanese sweet wine and soy sauce are used to make Italian food richer and more attractive. The umami taste experience extracted from those condiments is the result of the perfect harmony amongst the ingredients of a pasta or pizza dish.

Yuko Ose, a specialist chef who was involved in the planning of this restaurant, came up with these menu items. She is also a koji rice malt expert. Her creative cuisine became a unique selling point at this restaurant, enchanting customers who like experimental differences to their expectations. “I have been developing a menu using Japanese traditional condiments for 25 years. Among them, I have introduced bagna cauda using miso (soy bean paste) and marinated sauce using salt koji rice malt (fermented koji with salt and water), and pasta with salt koji,” said Yuko.

As a veteran cooking expert, Yuko has noticed a change in today’s Japanese sense of taste, physical conditions and eating habits. She believes that the change, however, was not a good one. “[Our habits] are obviously declining,” she said. While she noticed the downsides, she also discovered how traditional fermented food was used to support a healthy Japanese diet. She decided to do something good for today’s Japanese people’s eating habits by utilizing fermented ingredients.

But why are Japanese people’s eating habits declining? Japanese food was registered as part of Japan’s Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013. But aren’t the Japanese also well-known as healthy, long-lived people? How come the Japanese have lost their sensitive ability to taste subtle flavors?

Japanese food is a global fashion these days. Although the chefs may not necessarily be Japanese, there are many Japanese restaurants in almost every major city. You see a lot of Hollywood stars in movies using chopsticks very well and eating Japanese food. It is a fact that Japanese average longevity is 81 years old for men and 87 years old for women in 2017.*1 This is the highest in the world, after Hong Kong. But it would be misleading to say that a high life expectancy always means a healthy long life.

In fact, the Japanese do not necessarily eat washoku every day. Washoku is the name for Japanese cuisine in the Japanese language. When you hear “Japanese cuisine” you might think of popular dishes such as ramen, tempura, yakiniku (grilled meat) or rotating sushi bars. But, traditional Japanese cuisine is much more simple and plain, using koji rice malt.

After the war ended in 1945, traditional Japanese eating habits dramatically changed. Still, until the 1970s many Japanese people ate a significant amount of seafood and seaweed, and nutrition was balanced while the food diversified. Another drastic change occurred around the 1980s and the 1990s, when the consumption of bread and dairy food greatly increased and calorie intake rose as a result. In the 2000s, more meat, oils and fats were consumed. With this change continuing, the popularity of traditional Japanese cuisine declined. Those who were born after the 1980s grew up in this “new” Japanese food culture.

As eating habits dramatically altered over the past 30 years, weight increases and allergies also became more prevalent. According to a survey conducted three years ago, about 30% of Japanese men and 19% of Japanese women were diagnosed as “clinically corpulent,” or overweight. By 2000, the term “metabo,” which means metabolic syndrome, was being used to refer to obesity. The number of those people who suffered from atopic dermatitis (eczema) rose 456,000, or 0.5% of the total population, by 2014. Some statistics indicate this number could now be as high as 10% of the population. The term “atopic” was not heard in the 1970s.

More women started to work, and the number of nuclear families increased. With the change, eating habits were sacrificed. After the bubble economy burst in the early 1990s, many people were forced to refrain from eating at high-end restaurants; instead, low-price chain restaurants or fast food outlets gained more frequent visits from the general public. In addition, easy food and efficient cooking such as boil-in-bag and freeze-dried foods quickly became common household goods.

Countless varieties of instant western foods and supplements like soups, sauces and condiments are on the supermarket shelves. The prices of these products keep decreasing due to highly-advanced mass production. Once mass produced, the food has to be preserved for a longer term to undergo nation-wide distribution. It is often inevitable that chemical compounds are used, namely preservatives, additives and artificial colorants.

Continue to Part-2

Story by Motomi Takahashi

Photo: Eri Minouchi, Yuko Ose

Tableware: In collaboration with Tablelife;