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Interest in Japan’s traditional cuisine has grown globally

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  • JAPAN NEWS
                                Vincent Pham, left, learns about the spirit of hospitality and how to arrange beautiful dishware from his trainer at Akasaka Asada in Minato ward, Tokyo.

    JAPAN NEWS

    Vincent Pham, left, learns about the spirit of hospitality and how to arrange beautiful dishware from his trainer at Akasaka Asada in Minato ward, Tokyo.

TOKYO >> More than 10 years have passed since washoku — Japanese cuisine — was registered as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage in December 2013. Yet while washoku has gained popularity overseas, the Japanese have fewer opportunities to cook it amid the diversification of food in the country.

The number of Japanese restaurants overseas more than tripled from about 55,000 in 2013 to 187,000 in 2023. Foreigners have increasingly traveled to Japan to gain traditional culinary knowledge — that means both cooking skills and the spirit of hospitality. They then return to their native countries to pursue their culinary careers.

Vincent Pham, a 24-year-old Canadian, is currently training at Akasaka Asada, a Tokyo restaurant that highlights Kaga- style cuisine, which features the seafood, vegetables and other ingredients of the Kanazawa area, served on beautiful dishware.

Details matter. One of Pham’s teachers told him, “Make sure you put the lid on the bowl so both the design on the bowl and the lid face the customer when they open the lid.”

That type of instruction conveyed the spirit of hospitality inherent in Japanese cuisine: that something as small as how a bowl is placed on the table shows respect for the customer.

Though he had two years of experience working at a Japanese restaurant in Canada, Pham is now starting from scratch, from learning how to prepare vegetables and serve dishes to cleaning the kitchen. His training is set for six months.

As of 2023, there were 2,610 Japanese restaurants in Canada.

Pham said that with public interest in washoku growing, there has been a growing demand for restaurants that serve traditional Japanese cuisine. He wants to promote other aspects of washoku as well, such as tableware and dish arrangement.

“Foreign trainees are eager to learn, so chefs at restaurants are also inspired by them,” said Shota Asada, owner of Akasaka Asada. “As they spread the knowledge and techniques of Japanese cuisine in their native countries, that leads to an increase in the value of Japanese cuisine.”

The Japanese Cuisine and Food Culture Human Resource Development Committee has conducted a training program for chefs since fiscal 2016, subsidized by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry. A total of 274 people have received training.

In the same fiscal year, the committee also drew up guidelines for a certification system, under which private organizations certify foreign chefs who have reached a specific level of culinary skill.

Foreign nationals working at Japanese restaurants overseas have also improved their washoku skills.

In February 2023, the agriculture ministry held the 10th Washoku World Challenge, a competition for foreign chefs.

“This is the first time I saw contestants with such impressively high skills,” said head judge Yoshihiro Murata, the owner and chef of the restaurant Kikunoi. “All the contestants were able to make dashi well. They are all great chefs with individuality.”

The final had the contestants creating nimonowan, a simmered dish, along with five appetizers. Jakub Horak, 27, who worked at a Japanese restaurant in the Czech Republic for 10 years, won first place. Murata described Horak’s nimonowan as “fragrant with yuzu citrus made like mochi puffs.”

Horak aspired to become a chef when he was 17 and worked at a Japanese restaurant run by his parents’ friend. Attracted by the creativity in washoku and its use of fresh ingredients, he has honed his culinary skills.

“From now on, I want to become a Japanese food ambassador and introduce people in my home country to a wide variety of great Japanese food that exists beyond sushi, ramen and tempura,” he said.

Last summer, he began offering Japanese cooking classes in the Czech Republic.

“The level of Japanese cuisine (offered overseas) has improved not only in taste but also in aesthetics, such as the arrangement of dishes,” said one of the judges, Naoyuki Yanagihara, the leading expert in traditional Kinsaryu-style Edo kaiseki cuisine.

“An increase in the number of Japanese restaurants overseas and improved levels of culinary skills will encourage the younger generation in Japan, who are said to shy away from Japanese food, to take interest in washoku.”

UNESCO REGISTRATION

Washoku, as recognized by UNESCO, does not refer to individual dishes; rather, it encompasses Japan’s traditional food culture.

It is characterized by four main features: respect for fresh and diverse ingredients and their distinctive flavors, a healthy diet with excellent nutritional balance, expression of the beauty of nature and the changing seasons, and a close relationship with annual events.

The registration has encouraged the Japanese government to boost their efforts to protect washoku.

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