Features

Published: Thursday May 15, 2014 MYT 11:00:00 AM
Updated: Friday May 16, 2014 MYT 1:32:58 PM

Michelin-starred Japanese chef fears loss of traditional food

At his three-star Michelin restaurant in Tokyo, Yoshihiro Murata serves elaborate 12-course meals of delicate Japanese food. But his real passion is to make sure simple, traditional food is passed on to the next generation.

Japanese food is now widely available around the world, and washoku – traditional cooking – was declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO last year. But Murata fears that even though sushi has become near-universal, appreciation for Japanese food is declining in its homeland.

“Japanese cuisine is becoming extinct”, Murata said, seated in a quiet tatami mat room in his Kikunoi restaurant in Tokyo’s Akasaka business district. “The fact that it has become a ‘cultural heritage’ means it’s fading so it needs to be protected.”

Murata, 62, is the third generation of his family to run the restaurant established in 1912. He lived in France to learn French cuisine in his younger days and now runs three restaurants in Kyoto and Tokyo, one of which has three stars from Michelin and the others two stars.

His big concern, though, is that many Japanese have drifted away from their own national cuisine.

“Japanese people rely too much on Western food every day,” Murata said. When he asks school children what their favorite dish is, the most popular item is hamburger steak – essentially a hamburger minus the bun, followed by curry and rice and spaghetti. At many schools in Japan, bread is served more often for lunch than rice.

“They have lost their identity when it comes to the food they eat every day,” Murata said.

Household spending on the basic ingredients of Japanese daily food is falling. The purchased amount of miso paste, the main ingredient for miso soup, was down 39% last year compared with 1990, while purchases of rice were down 40% over the same period, government statistics show. Meanwhile, sales of bread and cheese rose 15% and 67% respectively over the same period.

Star chef: World-renowned Japanese chef Yoshihiro Murata, who founded Kikunoi, a three-starred Michelin restaurant in Kyoto. His two other restaurants Akasaka Kikunoi, in Tokyo, and Roan Kikunoi, in Kyoto, have been awarded two stars. In 2012, he also opened his first restaurant outside of Japan, Chrysan, in London. Murata has also authored two cookbooks, the highbrow Kaiseki and middlebrow Japanese Home Cooking

Murata believes that the beauty of Japanese cuisine lies not only in kaiseki, a course of dishes made from seasonal vegetables and fish, but also in more everyday food.

Through a Kyoto-based non-profit organisation called the Japanese Culinary Academy, Murata visits local elementary schools and lets students taste dashi, or Japanese soup stock, a base for most Japanese dishes, made from dried kelp and dried bonito flakes.

“I want children to know how good dashi tastes,” Murata said. “If they appreciate it, they ask their mother to make dashi for them, which is why I approach children first, rather than mothers.”

Murata also said he wants to promote Japanese food overseas because he thinks people’s understanding of it around the world is not very developed. ”Many people still do not know what real sushi is. They think anything rolled in rice with seaweed is sushi, but that is not true,” Murata said.

The Japanese Culinary Academy is now preparing a 200-page book on Japanese cuisine in English, Italian and Japanese, which will be ready for sale by the time of the World Exposition in Milan next year.

In the meantime, though, Murata welcomes even “fake” Japanese food overseas as it does at least make Japanese food familiar to people.

“Japanese cuisine is still a nursery tree and a lot of unnecessary leaves grow out of it,” he said. “But I will let them grow as it is and just focus on making the trunk bigger. Because if we say too much now, Japanese cuisine will become an artificial tree like bonsai.”

RECIPE

Kikunoi Ichiban Dashi (Kikunoi Virgin Dashi)

Ingredients

Water 1800cc

Kelp (Kombu) 30g

Dried Bonito flakes 50g

Put kelp in water and heat it up to 60 degrees Celsius. Leave it simmering for an hour and keep the temperature at 60 degrees.

Take out the kelp and heat the water up to 85 degrees Celsius. Put dried bonito flakes in all at once, then within 10 seconds take the pan off the heat and pour the dashi out through a strainer with a cloth or paper towel over it.

– Reuters

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Food, News, Lifestyle, Food, News, Yoshihiro Murata, Japan, Japanese, chef, cuisine, fears, loss, kaiseki, washoku, Kikunoi, Michelin

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