How Japan Changed Me as an Eater

I’ve always fancied myself as an authority on food—ever since I discovered there was a channel dedicated to it when I was eight years old which I would flip to occasionally when the viewing on Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network got a bit dry. I let myself absorb the teachings of Emeril, Mario, and Alton, and convinced myself up through my college years that I fundamentally understood more than those around me about what makes things taste good. If I’m honest, I still think that way sometimes (in the most humble way possible), but at least a man can admit when he knows nothing, and boy did I really know nothing back then.

I’d love to ease you into this sentiment with tender sympathy, but it’s best not to belabor the point: Americans on average have alarmingly underdeveloped palettes. There’s an entire dissertation that can be dedicated to why this may be, but it’s a conclusion I’ve come to accept through my own journey as an eater. If I’ve offended you, please, understand that it’s coming from a place of love. I’m not suggesting that you should stop eating the things that you like to eat, but rather making you aware that there’s an entire cosmos of flavor, food and culture to behold outside of our own narrow contexts.

People often say that the reason you should travel the world is to experience new cultures and see how other people live to broaden your own outlook on life and humanity. Well, I’ve always wondered how much there really is to that in the 21st century. Before going to Japan, I had done extensive research on their way of life and prepared myself for the adaptation necessary to transition into full-time life there. People often ask me about “culture shock” that I must have felt after moving there, but there weren’t many genuine moments of it outside of the unavoidable language barrier. Everything that I needed to know, I had watched or read about on the internet, which any savvy traveler would do before embarking to a new place nowadays.

I’d like to amend the cliché about traveling “to experience other cultures” to traveling “to awaken your senses.” The internet affords us invaluable access to information and visuals, so that we may educate ourselves on any country and its people/culture to the fullest extent of our curiosity, but it deprives us of the opportunity to hear the clamor of a foreign train station, take in the smell of the Sistine Chapel, or taste sushi made by hundreds of years of tradition. No matter how many episodes of “Iron Chef” I watched, or how many times Gordon Ramsay flayed amateur chefs alive on my computer screen, there is no food education like your own sense of taste.

I’m not going to assume that everybody reading this will have had the same eating experiences as me growing up, but undoubtedly, you’ll be able to find some common overlap as I break down the ways in which my stomach evolved from single-cell amoeba to Indominus Rex. It was five years that I lived in Japan, a period over which I ate as much of the country as my time and money could afford. Sit back, as I make the case for why you might still be plugged into the bland American flavor matrix.

I. A World Without

As far as luck goes, I fully acknowledge how awesome it is that I grew up in California. I’ve never not been able to go to a grocery store and find exactly the produce I was looking for, thanks equally to our ability to grow efficiently and the farming industry’s development of high-yield strains of produce. This blessed state, among a few others, is what allows someone in the dead of winter in Minnesota to go to the store and buy affordable artichokes, oranges, or almonds—and that’s a beautiful thing! The sooner one realizes this, the sooner one understands how much this simple fact of life is taken for granted.

Japan, being basically one continuous mountain range plonked off the cost of Asia, has just a fraction of arable land conducive to farming. Whatever they manage to grow, harvest, forage, or catch domestically during specific seasons is what the people are able to consume. Seasonality has, therefore, remained a significant part of Japanese cuisine, not just due to their agricultural circumstance but as a defining cultural touchstone. As I mentioned before in my last meal breakdown with the peach café that only operates during the summer, this embrace of seasonal ingredients can lead to food tasting remarkably more delicious, because the farmers can grow the produce for taste, not for yields.

My knee-jerk reaction after moving back to America was to compare every fruit or vegetable I ate to what my taste buds had become accustomed to in Japan. Store bought tomatoes lacked a sour kick, apples tasted like crunchy water, and don’t even get me started on the strawberries. But, as I stepped back and saw the whole elephant, I came to realize that it was a fruitless effort (zing!) to chase the memory of Japanese produce. There is an entire world of incredible fruits and vegetables out there for us even here in America. The good stuff hasn’t been bred out completely! Seek out the small farmer’s markets in your city. Throw down that extra money for those locally grown berries. Train your palette to recognize the deep, rich flavors that can exist out in nature if you just look.

In just my second, or third week in Japan, my co-teacher and I were treated to a dinner at what we would call a “farm to table” restaurant in modern dining vernacular. My dinner that night was a plate of vegetable-forward Japanese curry, with an array of roasted local veggies including carrots, onions, tomatoes, and winter radishes; my entire perspective on vegetables changed that night. Every bite of food I ate that night was grown within twenty miles, and as I progressed through the meal, I wondered more and more how it was possible I had never tasted produce that good before. I would still never go full vegetarian, but I just might consider it if Koike-san were the one preparing my food for me every night, which segues us into the next thing Japan taught me about food…

II. Natural Flavor

The vegetables I was served that night were born tasty. If I were inclined to eat them raw, or heaven forbid, boiled, it’s pretty likely I would have still enjoyed their natural flavors; but, there are always ways to go deeper—past a three-headed dog, homicidal plants, and an enchanted chess board. For that assortment of produce, it was just salt and heat. For sushi, it’s the slightest smear of wasabi and a gentle seasoning of soy sauce. For miso soup, it’s literally just dashi that takes ten minutes to make mixed with [insert your favorite kind of miso here]. I’ll touch more on technique later but suffice it to say that many of Japan’s most iconic foods are outwardly simple expressions of natural flavor.

Building off the miso soup example, let me break down what I mean further by looking closely at the two ingredients that make up this ubiquitous staple. First, let’s look at miso itself. What is it? Basically, it’s an edible paste composed of some combination of rice, soybeans, barley, water, salt, and a special mold called koji to kickstart the whole thing into fermentation mode. In the end, you’re left with something so vital to Japanese food history that it predates the Imperial family (we’re talkin’ BCE). What about dashi? The one most foreigners are familiar with is the dashi made from boiled kombu kelp and shredded bonito, which is a member of the tuna family that is dried, aged, and smoked. So, once you’ve got your dashi prepared just ladle in some miso paste, mix until it’s dissolved, throw in some accompanying ingredients of your choice like mushrooms, tofu, seaweed, or even pumpkin and voila! And I wasn’t kidding before when I said the whole thing can be done in just about ten minutes, even if you make the dashi from scratch.

Even though most people probably associate this soup as that thing you drink at a Japanese restaurant before your entrée comes, I would argue that this humble brew is a top three food in Japan’s entire culinary arsenal. It showcases four of the country’s most emblematic flavors: the sea, seasonal produce, salt, and umami. Hell, you’re just as likely to find it in a 3-star Michelin restaurant as you are the local convenience store. When done right, it is as simple as something like bread and butter, as subtle as chicken noodle soup, and as flavorful as anything you’re likely to eat in this world, and that’s because even though it only takes ten minutes to cook, it takes potentially multitudes of years for its ingredients to be cultivated.

Well, so what? Why is this important? Because great flavor takes time. There’s no substitute for it. Bonito, the fish whose smoky essence informs the flavor of the soup, is aged for a month. Miso is aged from months to years, and the kelp that goes into the dashi may take years to grow, not accounting for the time spent harvesting and drying. All of these processes are the real secret behind the ethereal quality of miso soup, and it took me quite a bit of curiosity, research, and a whole lot of bowls of the stuff to make me understand that natural flavors are worth seeking out. They are infinitely more interesting because they are plain. Don’t be afraid to embrace simplicity!

III. Flavor-Flavor

Now, let’s get into what I think was the most significant evolution for me in my Japanese culinary awakening. Flavor. Seasoning. Balance. Umami. BAM! This is what separates the men from the boys (or the women from the girls). I just waxed poetic about the aching beauty of natural flavors, but let’s not forget, even the greatest, most expensive piece of protein whether it’s fatty tuna, Kobe ribeye, or pangolin, needs some kind of seasoning to really shine through. But how much? Where do you draw the line? At what point are you taking away from the food by adding too much, and at what point are you just feeding someone edible disappointment because you’re afraid of a little salt?

Let me go into a little bit of depth now about how each of my five tastes were evolved from plain little eevees into kickass elemental felines (canines?).

  1. Salty – For a cuisine that relies heavily on things like soy sauce and miso for flavoring, you would think that everything that you ate in Japan would be a hypertension-inducing nightmare, but that’s the true beauty of it all, most things that you eat there are pretty well balanced. Salt makes things taste great, this is no secret, but for the home cooks especially I implore you to push to try and find the limits to where you can take it. Of course, if you need to be extra cautious about sodium for health reasons, do so, but when you’re aiming for the best possible flavor, be generous with the salt. Taste while you cook, and for the sake of the Old Gods and the New, don’t just give up and add hot sauce to it at the end because you weren’t satisfied with the final result.

Recommended Food: Yakitori

  • Sweet – Holy moly I could go on for an entire article about how transformative Japanese sweets were for my entire outlook on life (spoiler alert I probably will). I went from a guy who could care less about cakes, donuts, muffins, or candy, to eating and craving them at a mildly alarming rate. This sentiment will no doubt be a theme I will harp on relentlessly throughout the lifetime of this blog, so if you’re sick of it already, I’M SORRY. But trust me when I say, the sweets you may be used to eating in the U.S., you don’t it know yet, but you’re sick of them, too. Luckily, there is no shortage of bakeries, patisseries, or dessert shops in Japan, so if you’re able to visit, please treat yourself.

Recommended Food: Cream pan

  • Sour – I don’t want to talk about sour like citrus-sour, but rather about that sour funk you get from fermentation because this was something my palate was not used to at all. Let me start with one of the most basic examples: pickles. All cultures have their own varieties of pickles since refrigeration is a very new luxury in the scale of civilization. I, on the other hand, don’t know what life is like without refrigeration, so I never had to eat pickled foods on a routine basis. In fact, I actively avoided it for twenty years. Little by little, though, I would feel frisky at the supermarket and buy a pickled vegetable here, or a fermented soy bean there, until I managed to beat my taste buds into submission and actually start enjoying sour foods. I can honestly say, now, that umeboshi is one of my favorite things to eat, and I look forward to when my mother-in-law sends my wife and I a homemade batch once a year.

Recommended Food: Umeboshi

  • Bitter – Ahh the black sheep of the taste siblings. I can’t lie to you and claim that I had any super transformative experiences in the realm of bitters, but I definitely blunted my aversion to it in a not insignificant way. I think I can attribute it to my uptick in tea consumption while living there, because I’m definitely less squeamish about drinking bitter liquids (looking at you, coffee). Overall, though, it’s not a flavor I actively strive for when I cook or eat out. That being said, I can appreciate what it brings to the dinner table and am much more willing to explore it in certain contexts. Food that can strike a delightful balance between multiple flavors when bitterness is present can be an absolute game changer.

Recommended Food: Goya Champuru

  • Umami – Don’t worry, I’m still just as unsure about umami as you are, and I’m very much aware about its function as a buzzword for food experts to make you think they know what they’re talking about. Well, if there’s one thing I’m sure of now, it’s that umami is a treasured component of Japanese cuisine. It is damn near ubiquitous. When you tell a butcher that you want to make chicken stock, he gives you the parts of the chicken that are richest in umami. When you go looking for a nice blend of green tea, the salesperson will point you in the direction of the best umami. When you make freaking tamagoyaki, most folks will recommend you add dashi because it gives umami. If I learned anything about umami, it’s that it is the unsung hero of the meal. It’s the guy on the team that does all the little things that don’t get recorded on the stat sheets, including losing his shit on the bench when the more important players get all the glory because it’s good for team morale. You might forget that guy is on the team, but he quietly makes the team better by just being there.

Recommended Food: Ramen

IV. Craftsmanship

I think the Japanese expression of culinary craftsmanship boils down to one word: science. I don’t mean science like molecular gastronomy, but more in the sense that no matter what the ingredient or dish, there is always an optimal way to prepare it with scientific-like reasoning to back it up. If you ever do a YouTube deep dive into Japanese people making awesome stuff, you’ll notice this motif come up a lot across the whole spectrum of artistry and craftsmanship in their society. And although rigidity and tradition quite often come part and parcel with cooking, it’s easy to see why.

Consider this clip, in which world-renowned sushi-Yoda, Jiro Ono, offers his insights on innovation vs. tradition to arguably the greatest food innovator of this generation, René Redzepi. He says that “innovation is good if what it creates is tastier,” which if you apply that to something like sushi, it explains the glacial pace at which true innovation catches on across the board. Calling Jiro a veteran of the game is a gross understatement. The man is in his 90s. He’s been doing one thing since he was a young man, and I would hazard a guess that in all that time not that much has changed in his corner of the food world. The sushi that he serves in his restaurant, if sent back in a time machine, would likely be 90% identical to what it was when he was first starting out.

Take another popular example of haut Japanese cuisine: Kaiseki. I’ve been to museums in Kyoto with recipe books displayed from hundreds of years ago that directly explain the same things you can order just down the street in an upscale establishment. Long ago, that stuff was made for the wealthy, the elite, and royalty, but now it’s available for the masses (but still mostly the wealthy). Agricultural technology coupled with the fact that a middle class exists has made this all possible, but not at the expense of technique or craft. That still and will always be there. The Japanese fundamentally understand that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Time is the great distiller, and Japan is lucky to have had thousands of years of isolated cultural development to work out all the kinks in everything they do.

So how has this changed my palate, you may be wondering? Well, I think it’s helped to raise my standard for what to expect when you’re paying for a meal. You can tell when food is prepared with care. It’s honestly a cringe-inducing cliché to say when something is made with love, but it’s a cliché for a reason. Those are the kinds of foods worth paying for, and those are the exact people we should be happy to throw down an extra bunch of money for. If you watched through the Jiro clip, you saw him talk about his methodology of his octopus preparation. It seems mundane, it really does, but that’s the little stuff that matters. When you pay $300 for a dinner there, you’re not just paying to eat and be full. That needs to be the farthest thing from your mind. Just remember, some poor bastard had to massage a dead octopus for almost an hour JUST FOR YOU. That’s craftsmanship.

V. Temperature

Given the name of this blog, you didn’t think I wasn’t going to include temperature on this list, did you? This one is often overlooked, but it’s essential. I have fond memories of me and my brother’s throwing our poor mother all kinds of shade whenever she would microwave her food to an obscene amount just achieve a temperature on par with that of the sun. It didn’t matter if it was leftover takeout or spaghetti, if you took a bite of something she re-heated, you were going to damage the inside of your mouth.

All throughout childhood, I assumed this was a form of masochistic compensation for a traumatic event from her past where she got sick from cold food, but I can appreciate much more now what she was going for. Because, you see, I was always okay with lukewarm food. I never saw the point in burning yourself while you’re trying to eat. It’s probably due to my inner fat boy that I placed a higher premium on getting the food into my stomach as fast as possible that temperature was never a big deal to me. Well, Japan taught me that you can have it both ways, thus vindicating my mom’s weird obsession for eating food hotter than the Earth’s mantle.

Food has energy. That energy exists for a small moment in time directly following its preparation. When a line cook ladles some soup into a bowl to be served to you, the clock is immediately ticking against you to be able to enjoy the soup at its full potential. The perfect example for this is ramen, something considered to be fast food in Japan because of how fast customers are conditioned to eat it. As a matter of fact, have you ever wondered why they obscenely slurp over there? It’s not just to “show appreciation for the food” as many would have you think, but because ramen is REALLY, REALLY, REALLY HOT. The laws of thermodynamics dictate that we mere mortals suck in cool air in conjunction with insanely hot noodles so that we don’t scald the inside of our esophagi when they slide down into our stomachs.

It’s imperative that this dogma be adhered to not only when eating hot foods, but in all aspects of cuisine. If something is supposed to be ice-cold, let it be so. If tea flavor is extracted more effectively at 80° C, do it that way. If for whatever reason something is best when it’s lukewarm, then expect to receive it that way! How the food arrives to you in a restaurant is a direct reflection of the care put into it. A cook who has true pride in what he or she is serving would not let a customer eat something that wasn’t in its final form. But never forget, even when the greatest chef in the world places a perfect plate of freshly prepared food in front of you, it’s still on you to eat it when it’s hot…or cold…or however it was intended to be!

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