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[Photographs: Jay Friedman]

The 39 Japanese chefs who traveled to the Culinary Institute of America's Napa Valley campus joined other culinary experts and 800 attendees to share their love of Japanese food at the 13th Annual Worlds of Flavor International Conference & Festival.. The conference combined chef demos and breakout tasting sessions.

This Japanese passion for food and the benefits of the diet are part of why so many people crowded the conference, only the second in 13 years to focus on a specific country's cuisine. Chefs (from Alabama to Jamaica, Vermont to Durango), suppliers, and food writers traveled from all over. Even college and university foodservice people attended, from Schenectady County Community College to Stanford University, which is already packing crowds into dining halls with late-night service featuring Japanese street food like okonomiyaki.

A Little Background on Japan's Cuisine

While the Michelin currently awards three-star ratings to ten Paris restaurants, Tokyo stunned many in the culinary world by earning eleven in 2009, while the newly released Michelin guide for the Kansai area (Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto) bestows that honor to 12 restaurants. Japan was actually ranking restaurants before Michelin guides even existed, using sumo terminology like yokozuna to denote the champion restaurant. Recent research has shown that while New York City had 18,696 restaurants, Tokyo had 160,000. While the number of restaurants in Tokyo is more than eight times the number in New York, from 1996 to 2006, the number of Japanese restaurants in the United States has doubled.

Food is clearly serious business in Japan, particularly seafood. We learned that while Japan is smaller than California, due to its coastal jaggedness, it has fifty percent more coastline than the entire United States. Japanese people tend to be aware of geography, relating it to the source of their food. Seasonality is important, as there are said to be 24 divisions of seasons (two per month), with focus on seasonal shifts playing a part in food preparation. Vessels are also important in food presentation.

Highlights from the Talks and Tastings

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Ivan Orkin of Ivan Ramen.

Hiroshi Inomata, consul general of Japan (in San Francisco) kicked off the conference by saying "Japanese cuisine is our culture." We can certainly benefit from a bit more of that. Just as the Japanese borrowed from Chinese culture (tea, ramen, sushi, and the notion of kaiseki), we are clearly borrowing from Japan.

Ruth Reichl walked through the history of Japanese food in the United States. She predicted that while umami is in the spotlight now, texture will be the next phenomenon. Americans consider only crunchiness as a desired texture, while the Japanese embrace many, "some (of which) are positively frightening to Americans," she said. Case in point is natto, the fermented soybeans that the Japanese call slippery, but we call slimy. (Not only was I the only white guy who seemed to be eating it, but most Japanese shied away as well.)

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Throughout the conference, one of the ongoing messages was that Japanese food appeals to all the senses. Chef Kunio Tokuoka, third-generation owner of Kitcho, a Michelin-rated three-star kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto, asserted that food presentation should be "visually arresting" to be inspirational. He plates his food in a way that engages his diners.

New York Times food science columnist Harold McGee [Ed. note: He'll be answering your Thanksgiving questions tomorrow on our live webcast!] said flavor is complicated, mentioning sensations like the sound food makes, but arguing that aroma is the foundation of taste. While the tongue's taste receptors help determine the food's pleasure, the aroma receptors of the nose typically "taste" the food first—and Japanese food is definitely aromatic. For three days I could smell katsuobushi creating dashi, matsutake sautéing in a pan, yakitori grilling over hot coals.

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David Chang cooking in a closing Iron Chef session.

Speaking of smells, I asked Momofuku's David Chang and Iron Chef's Masaharu Morimoto, about their opinions of the most sexy food (hey, I'm a sex educator in addition to a food writer for Seattle Weekly), and both talked about the alluring aroma of white truffles.

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Many Japanese culinary legends, young and old alike, were in attendance. Masayasu Yonemura, executive chef of his own namesake restaurant in Kyoto (awarded one Michelin star), demonstrated modern Japanese cuisine, and his sea urchin with basil seed and wasabi was one of my favorite dishes of the event.

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Yukio Hattori, one of the original Iron Chef judges, samples Masayasu Yonemura's cooking.

Yousuke Imada, chef-owner at Kyubey, showed us a thing or two about sushi, as he's been making it for 47 years. (He also called wasabi "finest condiment in the world," especially when mixed with soy sauce.) Shirou Komaki, executive chef of the Osaka-based Sushiman with 21 locations and a 350-year history (he's been with Sushiman for 45 years), demonstrated hako-zushi, impressing the audience with how fast he could flip and turn the box when making the special form of pressed sushi.

But the biggest ovation went to soba maker Yoshinori Horii, the eight-generation chef-owner of Sarashina Horii in Tokyo (founded in 1789, and now known as Horii). He thrilled the audience with his speed, endurance, and precision in making soba noodles. Applying the little Japanese I know, I struggled to say subarashii (splendid!) and oishii (delicious!) and gochisosama deshita (you were an honorable host, but more casually, thanks for the meal!) to him and others.

Medical researcher Lawrence Kushi offered one of the most challenging moments of the conference. (The event largely, and not surprisingly, avoided discussion of blue-fin tuna other than American-based chefs Morimoto and Hiro Sono of Terra near the CIA and Ame in San Francisco mentioning the tuna in their demos being sustainable.) He graphically illustrated the negative impact of the Westernization (and saltiness) of Japanese foods—but also talked about the health benefits (including longevity) of adhering to a more traditional Japanese diet.

Fermented foods play a role (hence my natto breakfast, but also things like miso soup, soy sauce, and pickled products); cookbook author and Japanese cuisine authority Hiroko Shimbo pointed out that cooking by fire and water rather than fire and oil helps, and also outlined five Japanese concepts for better eating:

  • Hara hachi bu: eat until you are 80% full
  • Yoku kamu: chew your food well
  • Shizen ni kansha suru: appreciate nature
  • Mainichi san-ju hinmoku: eat 30 food varieties every day
  • Gokan wo tsukau: use/stimulate the senses

Tokuoka perhaps summed up best why Japanese food leads to longevity: "How good something tastes gives you the energy to live."

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Kunio Tokuoka teaching a class—and some colleagues.

Bonus Video

About the author: Jay Friedman is a freelance food writer in Seattle and a full-time sex educator. Watch for him to explore the connections between sex and food at his Gastrolust blog.

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