Michelin-starred Japanese chef fears loss of simple, traditional food

Tue May 13, 2014 4:00am EDT

By Junko Fujita
    TOKYO, May 13 (Reuters) - At his three-star Michelin
restaurant in Tokyo, Yoshihiro Murata serves elaborate 12-course
meals of delicate Japanese food. But his real passion is to make
sure simple, traditional food is passed on to the next
generation.
    Japanese food is now widely available around the world, and
"washoku" - traditional cooking - was declared an Intangible
Cultural Heritage by UNESCO last year. But Murata fears that
even though sushi has become universal, appreciation for
Japanese food is declining in its homeland.
    "Japanese cuisine is becoming extinct", Murata said, seated
in a quiet tatami mat room in his Kikunoi restaurant in
Tokyo's Akasaka business district. 
    "The fact that it has become a 'cultural heritage' means it
is fading so it needs to be protected."
    Murata, 62, is the third generation of his family to run the
restaurant established in 1912. He lived in France to learn
French cuisine in his younger days and now runs three
restaurants in Kyoto and Tokyo, one of which has three stars
from Michelin and the others two stars. 
    His big concern, though, is that many Japanese have drifted
away from their own national cuisine.
    "Japanese people rely too much on Western food every day,"
Murata said. When he asks school children what their favorite
dish is, the most popular item is hamburger steak - essentially
a hamburger minus the bun, followed by curry & rice and
spaghetti. At many schools in Japan, bread is served more often
for lunch than rice.
    "They have lost their identity when it comes to the food
they eat every day," Murata said.
    Household spending on the basic ingredients of Japanese
daily food is falling. The purchased amount of miso paste, the
main ingredient for miso soup, was down 39 percent last year
compared with 1990, while purchases of rice were down 40 percent
over the same period, government statistics show.
    Sales of bread rose 15 percent over the same period and
purchases of cheese rose 67 percent.
    Murata believes that the beauty of Japanese cuisine lies 
not only in "kaiseki", a course of dishes made from seasonal
vegetables and fish, but also in more everyday food. 
    Through a Kyoto-based non-profit organization called the
Japanese Culinary Academy, Murata visits local elementary
schools and lets students taste dashi, or Japanese soup stock, a
base for most Japanese dishes, made from dried kelp and dried
bonito flakes. 
    "I want children to know how good dashi tastes," Murata
said. "If they appreciate it, they ask their mother to make
dashi for them, which is why I approach children first, rather
than mothers."
    Murata also said he wants to promote Japanese food overseas
because he thinks people's understanding of it around the world
is not very developed.
    "Many people still do not know what real sushi is. They
think anything rolled in rice with seaweed is sushi, but that is
not true," Murata said.
    The Japanese Culinary Academy is now preparing a 200-page
book on Japanese cuisine in English, Italian and Japanese, which
will be ready for sale by the time of the World Exposition in
Milan next year.
    In the meantime, though, Murata welcomes even "fake"
Japanese food overseas as it does at least make Japanese food
familiar to people.
    "Japanese cuisine is still a nursery tree and a lot of
unnecessary leaves grow out of it," he said.
    "But I will let them grow as it is and just focus on making
the trunk bigger. Because if we say too much now, Japanese
cuisine will become an artificial tree like bonsai."
    
    RECIPE
    Kikunoi Ichiban Dashi (Kikunoi Virgin Dashi)
    
    Ingredients
    Water              1800 cc  (7.608  US cups)
    Kelp (Kombu)         30 g   (1.0583oz)
    Dried Bonito flakes  50 g   (1.7637 oz)
    
    Put kelp in water and heat it up to 60 degrees Celsius (140
degree Fahrenheit). Leave it simmering for an hour and keep the
temperature at 60 degrees.
    Take out the kelp and heat the water up to 85 C (185 F). Put
dried bonito flakes in all at once, then within 10 seconds take
the pan off the heat and pour the dashi out through a strainer
with a cloth or paper towel over it.

 (Reporting by Junko Fujita; Editing by Michael Roddy and Hugh
Lawson)