Washoku, the traditional cuisine of Japan, is being considered for designation as part of the world’s priceless cultural heritage by the UN this week.
However, even as sushi and sake booms worldwide, purists say its finer points are candidates for the endangered list at home. The younger generation is increasingly eating Krispy Kreme donuts and McDonald’s, not rice.
Among cuisines, only French cooking has been distinguished as a national culinary tradition. Other picks by UNESCO for its World Heritage list, such as food from Mexico and Turkey, are more specific dishes.
Washoku embraces seasonal ingredients, a unique taste, time consuming preparation and a style of eating steeped in centuries of tradition.
At its heart is savory umami, recognized as a fundamental taste along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter.
“That’s a delicate subtle taste. But younger people can’t even taste it anymore because they’re too used to spicy oily food,” said Isao Kumakura, president of Shizuoka University of Art and Culture, who is leading the drive to get washoku recognized.
Kumakura believes UNESCO recognition will send a global message and boost efforts to save washoku, a fight that faces serious challenges.
Annual rice consumption in Japan has fallen 17 percent over the last 15 years to 779 tonnes from 944 tonnes, according to government data.
Fast-food chains have become ubiquitous in Japan, including Krispy Kreme, Domino’s Pizza and the perennial favorite McDonald’s.
As washoku dims in popularity, fears are growing the community ties it historically stood for may be withering, such as cooking together for New Year’s and other festivals.
Yasuko Hiramatsu, mother, housewife and part-time translator, learned how to cook from her mother and grandmother, although she also relies on several cookbooks and watches TV shows to beef up her repertoire.
One of her favorite dishes is ground beef and potatoes cooked in soy sauce, sake and sugar, that she says has a reputation as the way to grab a man’s stomach, and thereby his heart.
Both her husband and son love her nikujaga. However, it is a close call whether that recipe fits the strictest definitions of washoku, which is generally more about fish than meat.
Hiramatsu is old-style in making tsukemono from scratch, using nuka, or fermented rice bran, from her grandmother’s recipe to replicate the taste that runs in her family. She sometimes does not have time and resorts to packaged stuff from the supermarket.
However, that is not the ideal, she said.
Washoku is always about rice, miso or soy-bean-paste soup, tsukemono pickles, and usually three dishes — perhaps a slice of grilled salmon, broth-stewed nimono vegetables and boiled greens. Umami is based on flavor from dried bonito flakes and seaweed, Japan’s equivalent of soup stock.
Washoku is also about design. Fancy ceramic and lacquer-ware come in varying sizes, textures and shapes. Food is placed in a decorative fashion, sometimes with inedible items for effect like an autumn leaf.
Kenji Uda, 47, the chief chef at Tokyo restaurant Irimoya Bettei, where he makes blowfish sashimi and crab cooked in rice, says he was 17 when he decided to devote his life to washoku.
“Japanese food is so beautiful to look at,” he said. “But it takes a lot of time. People are working and busy, and no longer have that kind of time.”