December 17, 2015

Talking Japanese School Lunches on Heritage Radio Network

At Heritage Radio Network's East Williamsburg, Brooklyn studios.
Earlier this week, I had the fun experience of being a guest on host Laura Stanley's Heritage Radio show and podcast "Inside School Food," along with Japanese documentary filmmaker Atsuko Quirk. Laura does a great job covering the nuances of the topic, and I recommend it to you. The school lunch plate, her show demonstrates, is where our beliefs about food justice, public health, childhood nutrition and education and sustainability all converge.

Laura occasionally widens her focus on the American school lunch to examine the noontime repast of kids around the world. On our visit the show, the topic was the Japanese school lunch. Atsuko spoke about the making of her wonderful film titled School Lunch in Japan: It's Not Just About Eating! I added my two cents by describing the delightful experience of dropping in on a fifth-grade school lunch at Sanya Elementary School in Tokyo (part of a Foreign Press Center Japan fellowship tour earlier this year focusing on food, nutrition and Japanese cuisine).

Lunch at Sanya Elementary School, Tokyo.

In sanitary white coats, caps and masks, Sanya
fifth graders bring lunch food from kitchen to class. 

Atsuko decided she needed to introduce the Japanese school lunch to westerners after visiting her child's elementary public school lunchroom in New York City. She was appalled at what she saw: chicken nuggets strewn across the floor, indiscriminate food waste, zero clean-up effort on the part of of students, no discernable recycling measures and worst of all, a lack of gratitude toward the cafeteria lunch ladies.

The lunch line; students serving their peers.

Miso soup week: student reports on regional styles,
illustrated with photos of what they made at home.
By contrast, what she depicts in her film, and what I saw at Sanya, was the midday class period when kids take the lead, hauling large pots of miso soup and accompany dishes from school kitchen to classroom on carts, setting up a buffet line, serving fellow students, listening to a description of where their lunchtime foods were sourced, and a mini history lesson on the traditions behind those foods. Student-led chants of appreciation and gratitude began and ended each meal. They even clean up after themselves, too, and at the end of the lunch period there are no leftovers!

On our visit to Sanya, we had our pants practically charmed off us by these adorable and enthusiastic kids, and were also suitably impressed with how the lunch period is handled. We learned that the Japanese government has been concerned in recent years at the rise in obesity and lifestyle-related diseases, thinness obsession among young women, the loss of traditional Japanese food culture and a series of food safety incidents that have highlighted an over-dependence on food from abroad.

The Sanya garden, tended by students, parents and community volunteers;
20 different kinds of vegetables are grown here.
The Tohoku earthquake and nuclear disaster of 2011 shook the entire country up, explained school principal Ryoichi Yamagishi, and underscored concerns about food safety and sustainability. "Everyone is more aware of the importance of life," he said, the food they eat and where it comes from and the need for energy self-sufficiency. Since the disaster, Yamagishi noted, Sanya has cut its electricity use by half.

Even before the earthquake disaster, though, the shokuiku (food and nutrition education) movement was gaining steam in Japan. The goal of shokuiku is to increase food and nutrition knowledge, food choice skills and healthy eating habits, not to mention its emphasis on gratitude, table etiquette and local food production. The government passed the Shokuiku Basic Act in 2005; in 2010, the law was amended to require that at least 30 percent of school lunch ingredients be sourced locally. Last year Sanya won the coveted designation of "Super Shokuiku" school for the excellence of its food and nutrition education program.

Another aspect of the shokuiku movement that America's school lunch lacks is the incorporation of nutrition education and food and cooking literacy into the class curriculum. There are now more than 5,000 nutrition educators working in Japanese schools. They offer nutrition presentations during lunchtime, weekend cooking workshops for parents and students, and provide counseling for issues such as picky eating.

Voting on future lunch entree choices.
The shokuiku curriculum is standardized. Second graders learn about local foods and practice simple knife skills and food preparation techniques. They have an obento (box lunch) assignment for which they must learn to make their own onigiri rice balls. In third and fourth grade they make their own tamagoyaki (egg omelet rolls) and by fifth and sixth grades, they are able to make their entire lunch.

Sanya also leases a rice field in the countryside, which students visit in the fall to help with planting and in the spring to assist in the harvest.

Giving thanks after eating. 
The day I visited, the menu included Fukagawa-meshi, a rice dish, kenchinjiru (miso soup with tofu and vegetables), kibinago (silver stripe round herrings) cooked in soy sauce, half of a Satsuma mandarin orange, and milk. A student announcer explained that the rice was a Tokyo-area specialty, traditionally made with clams, miso, burdock, carrot, garlic scapes and shiitake. "Twenty years ago there were many clams in Tokyo Bay," he explained, "but today they are mostly imported from elsewhere. The dish is a local specialty that was often served at Tokyo food stalls. Today's Fukagawa-meshi has clams in it, so please enjoy the Edomae (Tokyo style) flavors."

There's a lot to admire about Japanese school lunches, but Laura pointed out areas where the U.S. arguably does a better job: food and nutrition assistance for low-income students,  for example, done in an unobtrusive way that doesn't stigmatize recipients.

For more on school lunches, check out Cafeteria Culture, an amazing local not-for-profit organization Atsuko helps lead that has done much to make school lunches more sustainable.

December 11, 2015

Chef's Choice: Twenty-two Chefs Dish on Japanese Food Culture

One of the most entertaining reads of this fall for me was Chef's Choice: 22 Culinary Masters Tell How Japanese Food Culture Influenced Their Careers and Cuisine by Saori Kawano and Don Gabor.

Kawano, the founder and president of Korin Japanese Trading Corp., the Tribeca Japanese chef knife and tableware store, and writer Gabor have put together a series of interviews that will appeal to the aspiring chef or culinary student as well as anyone interesting in eating and cooking Japanese food. Each interview is divided into sections describing the chef's influences, career path, cuisine, training and "a day in the life," section devoted to amusing or instructive anecdotes.

Each chef was selected for his or her affinity and love for Japanese cuisine, so it's not surprising that Japanese influences figure heavily in their cooking. Some even have to hold back to keep from overdoing it. Eric Ripert says he's channeled his exposure to Japanese cuisine into his food at Le Bernardin, and notes. "Now I sometimes restrain myself because I discover that ninety percent of the menu has a Japanese influence. Then we have to go back to French cuisine--at least a little bit!" Increasing globalization means that an aware chef is plucking influences from a wide array of cuisines. The challenge, Ripert notes, "is to be creative without being disrespectful of tradition," to help customers "understand other food cultures."

But what does that mean?  Slavishly reproducing classic Japanese dishes, or riffing on them in a way appealing to western audiences? When foreign chefs depart from the traditional Japanese way of doing things it can be dismaying to Japanese customers. For example Wylie Dufresne, known for his intellectual, avant garde approach to cooking, makes a pumped-up dashi that registers on the palate like a pounding tsunami, not the gentle ocean swell of traditional dashi. Where Japanese chefs will immerse their bonito flakes into their konbu broth briefly, from ten to 30 seconds, Dufresne pushes the boundaries, going for a ten-minute soak.  Japanese customers will complain; this is not the soft, gentle umami they are used to. "I don't know whether it's right or wrong, but it's different." says Dufresne.

Besides some mind-of-a-chef techniques, you'll learn a little about Japanese taste predilections. Cookbook author and teacher Elizabeth Andoh discusses the importance of mouth-feel to the Japanese. Ingredients that might be off-putting to westerners, like the neba-neba (slimy, sticky, or stringy) texture of okra, junsai (watershield, a pond green covered in a transparent jelly) or natto (fermented soybeans) are beloved in Japan.

You'll also learn a bit about the history of Japanese ingredients in western cooking. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, French and American chefs began going to Japan, and Japanese chefs flocked to France to study and cook. David Bouley recalls the first time he saw soy sauce used by a French chef, by Joel Robuchon at his Saint Germain L'Atelier in Paris. Robuchon combined soy sauce with butter, ginger and lemon juice, a move that must have seemed daring at the time but now seems almost quaint.

Besides Andoh, there are only two other women included, Lee Anne Wong, who gained fame on Top Chef and now heads Koko Head Cafe in Honolulu, and Toni Robertson, Executive Chef of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group in Singapore. Growing up in a family of doctors, to satisfy parental expectations, Robertson became a U.S. Air Force emergency room medic and served in the Air National Guard before turning to cooking. The experience wasn't a waste though. She calls it "perfect training" for professional kitchen work because she learned how to remain calm in the midst of "controlled chaos."

Some of the most tantalizing tidbits involve the chefs' thoughts on individual ingredients. Marcus Samuelsson loves yuzu and smoked fish liver. Wylie Dufresne rhapsodizes about kuro edamame, or black soybeans, which he calls "a higher level of soybean that tastes almost like corn, peanuts, or a little of both," with a black outer skin but "an emerald green bean inside that shines through. When you pop the soybean out of its skin and eat it, it's so delicious and flavorful that you'll never want to go back to the other edamame."

Nobu Matsuhisa highlights the importance of ingenuity and imagination when faced with a lack of ingredients. When he arrived in Lima, Peru as a young man fresh fish was bountiful, but not Japanese ingredients. To approximate Japanese rice he tried mixing local rice with sweet glutinous rice. To come up with a facsimile of Japanese rice vinegar he mixed soy sauce, acetic acid, and then later wine, kombu and salt. Without fresh wasabi, he mixed powdered wasabi with horseradish and some local hot pepper.

Bouley advocates intuitive cooking  "When you cook a dish that you're worried about, I suggest that you rely more on your senses... Stop thinking, because that's going to distract you." He gives the example of learning how to cook onions by paying careful attention to sensory input every step of the way. "What do they smell like they they are cooking and getting sweet?...What do they smell like then they are still full of water? They smell bitter, they smell acidy. Trust your senses and they will not lie to you."

The chapter on Australian chef Ben Flatt, who married his wife Chikako and then worked with her parents at their Noto Peninsula guest house Sannami, is fascinating. Flatt learned Japanese knife techniques, fermentation, pickling and seasonal cooking from his in-laws, and he and Chikako now run an inn and cook "Noto-Italian" cuisine at Flatt's by the Sea. They make 400 litres of ishiri, a fermented squid sauce, a year. One of his dishes involves hinazushi pickled fish that tastes like blue cheese paired with deep-fried flying fish wings and dressed with a mix of sansho leaf, olive oil and sugar.

All of the chefs, not surprisingly, recommend working hard, no matter how lowly your first position in the kitchen turns out to be, adapting to any working condition, and figuring things out on your own. A common criticism of American-trained chefs is that they need to be spoon-fed recipes and techniques, a far cry from the Japanese system, where no one teaches apprentices anything; they are expected to learn by watching how the masters do things.

Yosuke Suga, whose father ran a French restaurant in Nagoya and who worked for ten years as Joel Robuchon's trusted lieutenant, says that as an apprentice and later chef in both Japan and France, "nobody trained me or taught me recipes. I had to observe and absorb them." Today's culinary school grads, he notes, are alway on the lookout for the next best gig. "But even if the chefs are smart and learn the technique in just one year, they cannot learn philosophy or's difficult to trust them on a deeper level."