The Lost Art of Japanese Cuisine

At the Tokyo College of Culinary Arts, Yukio Hattori is striving to restore respect for Japan's traditional food.

TOKYO - To a certain extent, Japanese national pride has come to be embodied by cars, TV sets and food during the last few years. But as Toyota became the world's largest manufacturer of cars and Sony took control of Columbia Pictures, Japanese cuisine regressed. While their elders ate healthy food in the past, Japan's younger generation "prefers hamburgers to sushi," confesses Dr. Yukio Hattori with shame.

Hattori, 61, who is described by local media as one of the busiest men in Japan, always wears the same black suit, bearing a Chinese collar. Hattori leads the highly successful College of Culinary Arts in Tokyo, but he is best known in the West as a member of the panel of judges on the popular "Iron Chef" television program.

"I hope traditional Japanese cuisine will survive," he tells Haaretz at the college in Tokyo, openly expressing his concern. "Our cuisine has been influenced by the United States for 30 years. First, it was influenced by French cooking and now there are elements of Italian and Spanish cuisine as well. But the American influence is clearly the strongest."

The victory of hamburgers and pizza can be discerned by the dwindling clientele that frequents traditional restaurants, but also in the increase in diseases that were once rare among the Japanese population. The number of people suffering from diabetes and heart attacks continues to climb, 30 percent of adults aged between 30 to 60 are overweight, and it is no longer unusual to see obese Japanese even in the nation's countryside. Local chefs complain that their brethren have lost their sense of taste and demand that kitchen workers add excessive amounts of salt and spices to every dish. Even the Japanese life span, a source of national pride in the past, has begun to plummet: Japan is still ranked third among nations when it comes to life expectancy, with an average life span of 82.02 years (as of the end of 2006) but the government admits that Japanese longevity is eroding.

"I believe that the food you eat when you are young will influence you throughout life," Hattori posits. "When I was young, everyone ate only Japanese food. But people my age and I, in particular, played a significant role in introducing international cuisine to Japan. People who mainly consume Japanese food until they are 20 years old are healthier, and our goal is to educate people to adhere to that lifestyle."

And so the celebrated food critic agreed to coordinate a government program to promote nutritious food in schools. Hattori's unique approach to nutrition is called Shukuiku. His dietary pyramid is based on a copious intake of fluids (he recommends water or unsweetened green tea), grains (rice, rice, and still more rice), vegetables (don't forget the miso soup), meat and fish (in moderation), and limited quantities of dairy products and fruit. He invests additional effort in the culture of dining. "In the past, grandparents taught children how to eat. Now, people have forgotten the simplest things: 40 percent of youngsters don't know how to hold chopsticks properly."

This year, 1,400 students have enrolled in Hattori's college. Annual tuition costs 1.3 million yen (about NIS 46,000); 80 percent of the students are male, and 100 of them come from neighboring nations (mainly China, Taiwan and South Korea). A third of the two-year course is devoted to the practical application of cooking skills in the campus' 14 enormous kitchens. The instructors are committed to training the next generation of Japanese chefs in their own nation and in the West.

Hattori frequently derides the quality of Japanese cuisine outside the nation's borders. "There are now 24,000 Japanese restaurants outside Japan and about 60 percent serve sushi. Japanese people are involved in only 10 percent of those restaurants. Most of the Japanese food in the West is prepared by people who have never been to Japan and don't know the country. I believe that only the Japanese know how to serve Japanese food."

The freshness of food served in those restaurants also fails to meet Hattori's standards. "As far as sushi is concerned, there is a system of handling fresh fish that has worked for 700 years. In the West, they serve fish that was killed four days ago. Some even serve it with a bad smell."

In order to grapple with the problem, international chefs will soon be invited to Japan to learn about local food culture first hand. Hattori nonetheless advises those who really want to enjoy Japanese food to hop on a plane to his homeland. But he warns that, "If you want to eat well, you'll have to pay accordingly: 20,000 yen (about NIS 700) per person is a fair price."

What is the best restaurant in Tokyo, in your opinion?

"I recommend Mibu in the Ginza area. You have to make reservations for that restaurant half a year in advance. They don't have a telephone, and a member who eats in the restaurant must register you. There are only 250 members and they don't enroll new ones. You can only join this closed club if someone dies. Now, I am inside and I am just now planning a dinner with friends."