Japan Food Festa: The taste of Washoku today

Washoku (Japanese cuisine) might be about to become a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. This got us thinking: What is “Japanese food”? Sushi is obviously included in this but what about curry rice? And Naporitan? And Aji Fry?

Well, the UNESCO recommendation is for traditional food culture, so probably the above examples wouldn’t make the cut. And yet if you think about it, Japanese food is pretty peculiar, having taken all sorts of cuisine from around the world and re-arranged them a little for Japanese tastes. So you seem to get traditional things like sushi and kaiseki existing in a different kind of layer to the “real” washoku that you might eat day-to-day. Japanese food continues to evolve. What direction is it heading in today?

It was with thoughts like this that we went along to the Japan Food Festa, a two-day culinary event held by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries on November 2nd and 3rd. The event aims to tell both people in Japan and abroad the value of the country’s food resources, farming and food industry. Happening annually, it brings together delicious dishes from all over Japan in order to enjoy the latest trends in washoku.

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Local Food

Well, our first idea to think about is “local food”. The Japan Food Festa also held the cuisine contests, the a href=”http://www.foodfestival.jp/jibamon/”>Jibamon Kokumin Taisho prize and the Umaimon Koshien (for high school students), both themed around cooking that utilizes local ingredients and regional dishes. When people outside Japan think of “Japanese food” they tend to think only of Kyoto, sushi or Edo, but the festival turned the spotlight on cooking and ingredients from other parts of the country. After all, there’s so much variety on the regions’ menus that if you wanted to visit Japan to eat “Japanese” food, you’re actually spoilt for choice about where to go.

japan-food-festa-01Yukinko Sushi from Oita Prefecture, making use of Oita’s famous shiitake mushrooms

japan-food-festa-02Crab butter from Fukui

japan-food-festa-03Pancakes from Miyazaki which use only Kyushu ingredients in the mix

japan-food-festa-04Visitors could vote for the dishes they wanted to win the Jibamon Kokumin Taisho.

Manga / Anime

Next up, if we’re going to talk about Japan, we can’t avoid mentioning manga and anime. These days, when you need to promote something, you just have to make a manga or anime character, right? And even actually, more and more comic books are being written themed around food, so we wanted to take a look at this collaboration.

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japan-food-festa-06Characters from ‘Silver Spoon’, a new manga by Hiromu Arakawa, best known for ‘Fullmetal Alchemist’, were being used for promotional purposes.

japan-food-festa-07Exhibits featuring food and ‘Oishinbo’, which revolutionized the genre of the cooking manga.

Traditional Japanese Food Today

Of course, there were also plenty of booths with traditional Japanese food as well. We want to focus on what we could call the nucleus of Japanese cuisine and what really gives a dish that “Japanese” taste — condiments and seasoning like soy sauce and miso.

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The people behind this soy sauce booth are the Soy Sauce Information Center. Soy sauce is ultimately something that is made from fermenting and maturing soy beans and wheat. There is a huge amount of variety, though, depending on the ratio of ingredients you use and the method of fermentation. At the booth visitors could compare five different kinds of soy sauce. We spoke to one of the staff. “Recently, soy sauce consumption has been falling. This is probably influenced by the drop in rice consumption,” they told us. So they have been making efforts to educate elementary school children, though it’s a sign of the times that now Japanese people need to “study” soy sauce!

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At the miso booth, Mr Suzuki (in the red happi) of the Japan Miso Promotion Board, told us that like soy sauce, miso consumption is also falling domestically and they are putting their energies into educating children about the food. Personally, if we’re abroad for a long time, though, the thing we miss most is miso soup. Forget sushi. It’s miso soup that can really gets the Japanese all emotional!

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These lovely ladies are the Miso Girls, helping promote the ingredient that is so central to Japanese cooking. But they weren’t recruited by people in the miso industry. Apparently they just loved miso so much they created the team on their own free will!

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Since we were thinking about traditional ingredients, we also went to see how an actual tofu seller was doing. We were in for a surprise: Tofu consumption is increasing. How so, when both soy sauce and miso are falling? Saying that, though, the tofu sellers told us that since the tofu industry has been cutting prices more and more, the number of small tofu shops has been declining.

Tohoku

And if we’re talking about food culture today, we mustn’t forget about Tohoku in northeast Japan. Japan Food Festa featured lots of booths from places in Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi. Tohoku was originally not just a region for growing rice but also produced lots of other crops, forming a kind of foundation for Japan’s gastronomic culture. If we neglect this, then there’s no future for Japanese cuisine.

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japan-food-festa-14A booth with lots of specialties from Miyagi Prefecture

In our quick tour around the state of washoku today, on the one hand we can see frustrating problems in the cornerstones like soy sauce and miso, but then there is also a wealth of emerging local food. What was common for all of them was the sense of rediscovering Japanese cuisine, of re-examining the roots and then evolving by adding new things on top of them. At the Japan Food Festa, the washoku we encountered wasn’t a “world heritage” that might be found

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exhibited in a museum, but a living culinary culture that was rapidly seeking to evolve in order to survive.