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Chef Yoshinori Horii prepares fresh soba noodles, a staple in Japanese cuisine. In Tokyo alone, 35,000 restaurants specialize in this buckwheat-based pasta. Photo courtesy of photos courtesy of culinary institute of america.
A three-day flavor immersion reveals exciting ways to translate Japanese cuisine onto American menus

By Gerry Ludwig

For only the second time in its 13-year run, the Culinary Institute of America’s recent Worlds of Flavor International Conference and Festival focused on the cuisine of a single country. The event is held every November at the CIA’s Greystone campus in Napa Valley, Calif.

“Japan: Flavors of Culture” brought together 70 international chefs, presenting to 700 foodservice educators, operators, executives and chefs eager to expand their knowledge of this increasingly popular cuisine and discover new ideas for incorporating Japanese ingredients and flavors into mainstream menus.

In his general session speech, CIA President Tim Ryan proclaimed Japanese cuisine in America to be a “white hot” trend, noting that the number of Japanese restaurants in the United States has doubled over the past decade to over 10,000.

He then provided a historic perspective of the past few decades of Japanese influence on world cuisine, from the Troisgros brothers in 1970s France, whose Nouvelle Cuisine was framed around the Japanese culinary principles of lightness, austerity and purity of flavor, to the mainstream emergence of sushi in the U.S. in the 1980s, to the current broadening interest in and perception of Japanese cuisine resulting from the popularity of the Iron Chef competitions.

Ryan concluded with some revealing figures regarding the state of fine dining in major world cities, based on the number of restaurants currently awarded three stars by the Michelin guide. Japan’s Kansai region (Kyoto and Osaka) has the highest number with 12, followed by Tokyo with 11, Paris with 10, and New York City with four.

Fittingly, the early segments of the conference examined Japan’s prominence in haute cuisine, particularly the art and tradition of kaiseki, the elaborate, multi-course tasting meal whose service style has served as the blueprint for such revered American restaurants as The French Laundry and Alinea.

Nimono-wan, a traditional kaiseki course loosely translated as “simmered delicacy in a bowl,” was ably demonstrated by Yoshihiro Takahashi, a 15th generation chef whose family’s restaurant, Hyotei, in Kyoto has been in operation for nearly 400 years. The dish conveyed aspects of austerity, seasonality and tradition, as Takahashi cut three small slices of sea bream, poached them lightly in broth and presented them simply in a small bowl topped with pieces of mushroom, long beans, pumpkin tofu, carrots cut in the shape of autumn leaves and yuzu skin cut in the shape of pine needles, which the chef explained represents long life.

Meat-and-veggie yakitori grilled over binchotan charcoal are ideal for appetizers and shared plates.
Fellow Kyoto-based kaiseki chef Kunio Tokuoka presented a host of kaiseki dishes, including salt-grilled butterfish with white miso, seared toro tuna belly, trout caviar in kumquat cups, konbu-simmered beef and ginkgo nuts on pine-needle skewers. Many of the dishes were garnished with plant elements, such as leaves, twigs, flowers and fronds, which Tokuoka said are meant to “connect the dish with the earth” and, in the case of larger plate presentations, “create a sense of landscape.”

Considering the high level of devotion to quality and detail that is part of Japanese culture, one probably wouldn’t be surprised that the sushi chefs presenting at the conference shipped in their own rice from Tokyo. In fact, they also shipped in the water for making the sushi rice, insisting on using only unsoftened water from Osaka with a very specific mineral content.

“California water is much too hard,” sushi master Yousuke Imada told the crowd, as he demonstrated the technique for preparing nigiri sushi, hand pressing small oblong mounds of rice into slices of toro tuna, “and softened water makes low-quality sushi rice.” While he spoke, Imada produced perfectly symmetrical pieces of sushi, one every five seconds or so, laying them in an elegant saw-tooth pattern on a platter without ever taking his eyes off of the audience.

The segment devoted to Japanese casual cuisine was perhaps the most compelling for attendees seeking mainstream menu ideas. Yukio Hattori, director of the Ecole de Cuisine et Nutrition Hattori cooking school in Tokyo, gave an overview of casual dining in Japan, providing a detailed account of the vast number of restaurants that specialize in a single menu item.

While the emergence of American restaurants that focus on one menu item, such as meatballs, meatloaf, fried chicken or macaroni and cheese, is a rather recent phenomenon, Hattori noted that in Tokyo alone there are 20,000 restaurants serving only okonomiyaki, 35,000 specializing in soba or udon noodles, 25,000 serving yakitori and 26,000 devoted to ramen noodles.

Japanese noodle bowls may someday eclipse macaroni and cheese as classic American comfort food, and their many variations were given particular emphasis. Udon master Yoshihiro Maeda demonstrated the traditional method for kneading udon noodle dough, repeatedly folding a large slab, wrapping it in thick sheets of plastic, placing it on the floor and walking on it. He then prepared and presented a bowl of classic kake udon, whose two ingredients are freshly boiled noodles and dashi broth.

Ivan Orkin, an American chef with two noodle shops in Tokyo, demonstrated his “maverick noodle bowls,” unconventionally garnished ramen dishes that have won raves from Japanese diners. For instance, his version of ramen shio, noodles in salty meat broth, was garnished with grilled pork belly, pickled bamboo shoots, coriander, beer hops and an egg boiled exactly 6 minutes and 10 seconds.

Assorted maki rolls are a good choice for full-serve kitchens looking to add sushi to the menu, as they can be made ahead.
The session was a prelude to an idea-filled, walk-around lunch featuring a wide variety of Japanese casual cuisine. Skewered meats and vegetables were prepared several ways. In the outdoor wood-fired kitchen, Tokyo chef Katsunori Yashima char-grilled yakitori skewers stacked with marinated beef strips rolled around napa cabbage and green onions, serving them with an egg yolk for dipping. Kushiage master Ikuro Mizuno prepared his crunchy and delicious deep-fried skewers with soy-and-mirin-marinated pork cutlets dipped in a light wet batter and rolled in panko before frying.

Simple and satisfying noodle dishes were in abundance, as Chicago-based chef Takashi Yagihashi served a brightly flavored version of yakisoba, ramen noodles stir fried in thickened Worcestershire sauce with bits of pork, onion, carrots and cabbage. Chef Maeda tossed a spicy curry udon, bathing the noodles in a thick, yellow curry sauce with diced sweet potato and scallion.

Standing at a large teppan grill, chef Katsumi Kashihara demonstrated and served the classic comfort dish soba meshi, fried rice and noodles griddled with strips of beef, scallions and cabbage, tossed with dashi and shoyu.

Dining events in the World Marketplace also provided attendees with ample opportunities for new menu ideation. During each session, chef Kashihara served a different variation of okonomiyaki. These craveable savory cabbage griddle cakes, studded with bits of pork and seafood and coated with Japanese mayonnaise and dark, sweet okonomi sauce, are only beginning to find their way onto mainstream menus in the United States. Kashihara clearly demonstrated the potential for customization, mixing and matching filling ingredients such as pork shoulder, belly, bacon, shrimp, squid, crab and, in his “original yaki” version, griddled ramen noodles.

Highlighting the power of umami, “the fifth taste,” Kiyomi Mikuni, a Tokyo-based chef famous for his French-influenced cuisine, served grilled steak coated with umami paste, a complex flavor combination of tomato paste, wasabi, mirin, shoyu, miso, pecorino cheese and fresh basil.

David Chang, chef/owner of the Momofuku restaurants in New York, demonstrated the potential in combining Eastern and Western flavors, serving ramen noodles in bacon dashi, flavoring the broth with thinly shaved smoked and cured pork loin in place of the traditional bonito tuna flakes.

In her closing presentation, author/educator Hiroko Shimbo noted that all of the dishes enjoyed during the conference were prepared without the strong, pungent or hot spices found in so many world cuisines; at the heart of Japanese cooking is a desire to produce dishes with a “fresh, clean taste.”

One fact made clear was that as Americans expand their understanding and appreciation of the many aspects of Japanese cuisine, particularly the more-casual home-style dishes, its influence on mainstream menus in the United States will continue to grow.


About The Author

Gerry Ludwig

Chef Gerry Ludwig is a nationally recognized food writer, speaker and trend tracker, and leads the Culinary R&D department for Gordon Food Service, based in Grand Rapids, Mich.