Five Things To Learn from Japanese Gastronomy

Working a lot in Japan, and writing about the culture, its diversification and trends and changes, has led to increased understanding of how, in a broad sense, a Japanese approach to gastronomy differs from that of other regions and cultures.  This approach can inform and shape the cooking of those who come into sustained contact with it.

  1. Texture.  The texture of a food in Japan is paramount.  So, for example, slicing pressed tofu into thinner strips before frying can seem to improve its flavor.  Actually, it is the sensory perception of texture on the tongue that alters the experience.  Stewing turnips or poaching an egg.  Many examples introduced into many unlikely dishes.
  2. Heat.  The narrow range of flavors in most Japanese food means that the experience of  eating must be enhanced or heightened in other ways.  Temperature is key, with raw fish the most obvious example, but the warmth of grilled freshwater eel or the heat of a broth are other examples.
  3. Presentation.  The colors, timing, and plating of dishes adds a great deal to what is served.  Dishes are presented in succession with a timing that is established between the server or cook and the person eating.  This becomes ritualistic in high end or kaiseki dining,  but is also seen even when a Western breakfast is presented.
  4. Small Plates.  So much of the food in Japan comes to the table in bite-sized portions, whether it is a stick of grilled chicken or a piece of raw fish.  Savoring the small thing, which can be seen as representative of a larger or longer narrative, is symbolic, cultural, and in tune with how people eat ideally.
  5. The Thing Itself.  Food items are presented and prepared with a singularity that emphasizes the thing itself.  While sauces are part of the cuisine, and certain foods combined (like seaweed, rice, yuzu, and fish), the focus is on the thing itself.  There is no disguising what is on the plate, and there is an intensity, potentially, of flavor.

These are five things that appear to be true about Japanese gastronomy.

Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji: A huge, sprawling number of buildings and open lots in downtown Tokyo, near Shiodome, where everything edible from the sea is sold.  It’s been there a little over a century or so, and day after day, foreign guests arrive early in the day to snap photos and, if allowed in, to watch the blue fin tuna auction.

But what’s odd is: Why?

What’s the attraction?

Tsukiji is a slaughterhouse, and if this is an attraction, why not visit the abattoirs of Chicago to watch cows and pigs and lambs meet their end?

The living things at Tsukiji are penned in, boxed in, laid out flat in styrofoam containers holding ice.  Space is at a premium, and animal welfare is not a consideration.

Nor is sustainability.  The enormous blue fin tuna sold at auction are an endangered species.  So are many varieties of the animals sold at Tsukiji.

There isn’t a priority for the future, and that’s due, in part, to another feature of Tsukiji: It’s based on cartels.  Families and syndicates going back there of four generations who control the trade and set the prices.

The great anthropologist Ted Bestor described the Tsukiji families in his wonderful, long book, “Tsukiji.”

So if you’re a person who wants to get involved in Tsukiji as a vendor?  Not happening.  The system isn’t based on merit nor on providing consumers with value.  It’s about maintaining a closed system.

So with all that–a slaughterhouse atmosphere, inhumane conditions, little or no sustainability, and cartel control–what’s the appeal?  Why the glorification?

Why, it must be a cultural experience.

For foreign visitors who want an experience, however, that’s more pleasurable and satisfying, it would be better to visit the sprawling Ohta Market.  That’s where all the fruits and vegetables arrive in Tokyo.  It’s colorful and lively, and rather pleasant, all in all.


Return from Philadelphia

Just across the street from the hotel in University City was a really terrific, Montreal-style bagel place called Smear’s, and block after block there were food trucks with food inspired by the cuisines of Vietnam and regions of the Middle East on offer.

The diversity of flavors, and the enthusiasm of vendors, all that made matters appetizing.  Even without eating, the pleasure of seeing good food, and watching the enjoyment of people eating, all that added a lot.

Like walking through Reading Terminal on Sunday: People lining up, laughing and talking, for what some call subs and others call hoagies, plates of fried chicken, pastrami, meatloaf, and so on.  This town loves meat.

But there is an abundance of other things.  Like Pearl’s Oyster Bar.  In NYC, now in Philly, this joint is killer.

Meanwhile, back home, it’s a homemade turkey cheeseburger, the latest episode of, “Homeland,” and a short walk for a brioche stuffed with salty, minced ham, leeks that were MIA, and some nondescript cheese that was also MIA, all for $5.50.  And this at “Boston’s best bakery.”  Puh-leeze.

Give me Philly, any day.

On a separate note:


Philadelphia: Food, and almost nothing but Food

Here is why I am in Philadelphia:

10:45-11:45 a.m.


Academic Bistro (6th Floor)

Scott Haas, PhD, psychologist and author of “Back of the House: The Secret Life of a Restaurant,” interviews Daniel Giusti, former head chef of Noma and current head chef of Brigaid.

2-2:45 p.m.


Academic Bistro (6th Floor)

Scott Haas, PhD, psychologist and author of “Back of the House: The Secret Life of a Restaurant”
Karen Stabiner, Columbia Graduate, School of Journalism, author of “Generation Chef”, and journalist for Saveur and theNew York Times
Lisa Abend, author of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentices” and food journalist for Saveur and The Guardian

DREXEL UNIVERSITY’s 3rd Annual Chefs’ Conference, and I’m honored to have been invited as a guest speaker to talk about my book, “Back of the House,” and to interview the very estimable Chef Dan Giusti.

I met Dan two years ago in Kyoto; he was then executive chef with NOMA, and I had helped to arrange that entire restaurant’s three day stay at Hyatt Regency.

Being in Philadelphia is a real pleasure.

It’s been about four or five years since I was last here.  Then it was to do a video with Chef Marc Vetri for the Breville food site.  Marc is a very cool guy.

I know the city pretty well, been here a lot since childhood, we used to go on school trips, had relatives outside the city, and wife grew up in Cherry Hill.

So yesterday walked from the Sheraton in University City all the way to 2nd & Market.  Hung out in Reading Terminal, which was a Sunday madhouse, and minus the best thing about it, which are the Amish farmers who sell buttery, salted chickens.

Wound up at Sonny’s: A terrific Philly cheesesteak joint: “With whiz,” and I was good to go.

That night, a lively cocktail reception for guests and sponsors.

Then dinner at Amis, a Vetri place, with D, a college housemate I had not seen in years, and she was as lovely as before.

This morning, it was Spread’s, a Montreal-style bagel place.  Poppy and lox spread!

The food in town is big, a lot of it is salty, and I drank a lot of water.  The food scene is really stunning, easily in the top two on the East Coast, with only NYC better, and flavors are gutsy, influenced by Italy, driven by ingredients, and not about the chef, but rather what’s on the plate.

Philadelphia this visit seems friendlier, more diverse than ever, the geezers who made it unpleasant are either dead, in nursing homes, or in Florida.  The folks I have been talking to have open faces.

Big Nights Out

Is there any place better in all of Cambridge, Massachusetts than Night Market in Harvard Square?  Nope.  You might as well be in an izakaya in Japan–what’s on offer are small plates and bites of yakitori, noodles, rice dishes, and delicious, seasonal vegetables.

It’s a pan-Asian scene, the chef is said to be Taiwanese-American, young guy, gleeful, and energetic.

Staff are wiry, some head to fingers tat covered, and there’s humor and alacrity in service.

Wish they had beer on draft and big bottles of good sake, but, hey, it’s fine as is, and with Park across the street, a very good pub, all is good.

And the prices are great: $40-50, dinner for two, tax and tip.

Thinly Sliced, Fried Tofu

Why the thinly sliced, fried tofu I brought back from Kyoto tastes better than what I buy here, which also is made in Japan, is not anyone’s guess.

The tofu I bought is fresher, made each morning, no doubt, and when you toast it, it gets crispier.  And when you add pickled vegetables, like radish, the savory taste is accentuated.

I also brought back kombu and bonita flakes from a shop in Nishiki market belonging to a friend’s cousin.  Talk about dashi!

All this leads to indoor living.

Spring is Here!

European starlings are noisy beginning early in the day.  Green shoots are bursting through the soil.  It is light around 615 AM until about 6 PM.

In February, we ate more meat in one month than we do in four months.  Maybe five or six dinners with beef.  It must have been the cold and darkness.  The protein and fat made up for that.

Now with Spring, food served here is lighter.

Pasta, scallops, fish, shrimp.  Lettuces from the Veneto.

Soon there will be the first mushrooms of the season.

Each day brings news of days to come.

I empty the house of dozens and dozens of books.  Put them out curbside, books I will never read, books I do not remember buying.

Papers from almost forty years ago: Rejections from publishers, acceptances from publishers, bank books, expired passports.

Then before you know it, summer.

Boston, Nearly Spring

It’s been less than 24 hours since returning to Boston from being in Japan.  Jarring as the places differ so much and in ways so specific.  Unsettling, too, pleasantly, as the possibilities for observation are there.

Meanwhile though: I returned with fresh udon noodles, black Kyoto spices, rice crackers wrapped in dried seaweed, two bottles of sake from Kyoto and Niigata, cured mackerel, dried unagi, and lots of polished rice.

So the vinegary flavors and tastes evoke what are apparently now memories.

Kyoto until Next Time

Is there any city more beautiful or fascinating than Kyoto?  Such a mix of ancient and forward thinking principles, architecture, and urban rhythms.  Always sorry to leave here, always eager to come back.

Yesterday with my friend I, a Kyoto-ite with hundreds of years legacy in  family history here, we walked through the newer part of the city away from Gion.  She is such good company: Outspoken, genuine, able to improvise conversation.

To a center of Kyoto artisanal works that aims to introduce ateliers to foreign guests.  A lacquerware shop with museum-quality goods, Japanese owned stores that have clothing both affordable as well as textured and in earth tones  as to seem to be part of nature.

Through Nishiki market: Dried unagi that you then place atop rice with green tea and ground up spices.  Kyoto rice: 690 Yen for a kilo.  Beautiful tofu and cured saba.

In a department store, hidden away, a seven seater that is a satellite of a beef restaurant I read about.  Next to it, a long, chilled display case of Japanese beef.

Long walks through the city.

Faces showing a range of emotions, more narrow than what can be observed in the U.S., but more intense and deliberate.

In the evening, dinner with A. and A., two lovely people I’ve known some years.  At Hitomi, a yakitoi restaurant ordinarily impossible to get into.  Three hours of talking and laughter.

Kyoto: Weekend Begins, Time Soon To Return Home

Yamanaka is a small Mom & Pop tonkatsu shop near City Hall, and my friend and mentor K took me there yesterday for lunch.  Delicious fried pork in panko served in tiny rooms by two, sweet, hunched over old people.  Maybe it was their son cooking.  What will be the fate of such wonderful places in the future?

Then a long, much needed walk to the train station to purchase tickets for ride home via Tokyo.

In the evening, Kushikura with friends.  Also near City Hall.  Wonderful, old school yakitori place with private room.  Conversations about books, Kyoto, and politics.  One person is a translator of Murakami into French, and she has a very lively, deeply informed sensibility.  So good to be away from stifling academics.

Memorable, I think.