The Graceful Orchestration of Japanese Cuisine

This article originally appeared on Frontdoors.

By Chef Joshua Hebert

Umami factor aside, the fresh, top quality, pure simplicity of Japanese cuisine, makes even the most seemingly boring ingredients incredibly exciting. No culture relishes in pure perfection like the Japanese, and in the culinary world they have mastered the delicate balancing act of allowing nature’s perfections and imperfections to guide the cuisine.

They are an attention-to-detail, food-obsessed culture. Everything from their street food, to their execution, raw ingredients, and kaiseki multi-course dining experiences are all top notch.

Japanese staples
The Japanese have long followed a practice that only recently became a popular term in the U.S. – farm-to-table. The only difference is the ingredients coming from their farms are a little different. There are various types of ginger we’ve never had in America, varieties of edible bamboo, sea plants, and exotic, flavorful fish we often cast aside.

Vegetables and seafood have traditionally played major roles in Japanese eating with meat taking a back seat. In fact, for most of its history, it was considered taboo to eat meat in Japan.

Their coastal proximity made for easy access to some of the freshest fish available and they developed a palate for some of the world’s most exotic fish – everything from eels to potentially deadly blowfish. They relish in the oiliest of fish like mackerels and bluefin tuna that we tend to steer clear of. They also utilize every part of the fish from the bones to the skin and guts.

As for seasoning, the Japanese prefer to keep things as close to natural as possible. They do, however, commonly use miso (soybean paste), sho yu (soy sauce), mirin (saki), dashi (broth), konbu (seaweed) and dried bonito (dried fish) to flavor their dishes – all components of umami.

Tradition at the table
Traditionally meals in Japan were served on zen, individual portable tables, chairs weren’t used, and chopsticks were the utensil of choice. While certain traditions have been displaced by modern society, much of it remains today.

With the exception of street food, people take time to enjoy their meals, even if it’s only for 20 minutes. It’s a moment. It’s a place in time. And it’s a sign of their respect for the food.

This respect is also seen in the presentation of the food, which reflects their view of nature and not adding anything artificial to the plate. The way the ingredients are displayed on the dish represents how they might be seen in nature, the season, and even the imperfections of nature, which leads me to the art of kaiseki-ryo¯ri.

Orchestrating kaiseki
Kaiseki is a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner that evolved from the Japanese tea ceremony. It is like a ballet. There is a very precise order to it and it is served bite by bite with each building upon the next.

In a kaiseki meal, the first course might be a raw vegetable, the second a cooked vegetable, the third a raw piece of fish, the fourth cooked fish, the fifth cooked fish with a vegetable, and so on. There is a very deliberate progression through the most delicate flavors to the most extreme, and everything from the dinnerware used to the position of the food on the plate has meaning.

It embraces the notion of wabi-sabi, in which the imperfections of say an heirloom tomato are preferred over a perfectly shaped hothouse tomato that has been genetically altered. It’s all arranged based on how it might look in nature, or how it looks by season. There’s a lot of the thought that goes into it and it’s very gracefully orchestrated.

Next time you plan, prepare or sit down for a meal, why not take an extra few minutes to savor it and think about where, why and how your ingredients came to be. Better yet, if you have the opportunity, take part in a kaiseki dinner.

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