Losing the Flavor

Photo of Japanese cuisine.
I'm Barry Petersen and this Letter From Asia comes from Tokyo.

We blame American fast food on things from bigger bellies to higher cholesterol. But how about changing, literally, how a culture tastes its own cuisine?

American taste is shaped by dipping in ketchup, adding salt, and piling on mustard. And if it's pizza – whoa, watch out for the spices that numb the tongue. But this is Japanese cuisine, honed over centuries…so subtle that a dish of crab may be accented by petals from a chrysanthemum.

"The Japanese love the flavors, the colors, the artistry and the time that is taken of course to present these things," explains Kate Klippensteen. Klippensteen is an American who has lived in Japan for years and a writer who just completed a book on Japanese cooking utensils.

She sees Japanese taste changing and we mean, the ability to taste. The young now expect strong flavors. Consider the difference between a Big Mac and tofu, and you see the problem. And Japanese packaged foods increasingly have stronger taste just to compete.

"So you've got kids whose tongues have been spoiled in a way because they've had all this salty and very seasoned Japanese food," Klippensteen says. "So if you take some young people to a very exquisite kappo or ryotei restaurant, they might ask for soy sauce."

The subtlety of dishes and tastes have always linked the Japanese to nature. Certain foods are served when the cherry blossoms are out and winter will bring heartier dishes. A way to remember when Japan was a collection of villages and meals were about when the mushrooms were in season or certain fish were available.

"People have become divorced from nature in cities around the world and it is a way to sort of anchor people to their pasts, nature and themselves." says Klippensteen.

What a shame if a culture that is a feast for the eyes is a banquet of traditions and tastes that its people can no longer savor.
by Barry Petersen