Japan's elegant cuisine deserves Unesco's cultural heritage status, says Food Editor Tan Hsueh Yun

Japan's elegant cuisine deserves Unesco's cultural heritage status, says Food Editor Tan Hsueh Yun

News that the United Nations cultural organisation has added traditional Japanese food to its cultural heritage list is very welcome, although one wonders why it took so long.

The announcement, however, comes at an important time.

Japanese people are turning away from Washoku or traditional Japanese cooking, in favour of convenient or fast food. Large food conglomerates churn out chips, cookies, instant noodles, fancy soft drinks, and even my beloved Pocky and Pretz sticks, in exotic flavours to tempt hapless snackers. Then there is Yoshoku, Japanese versions of European or foreign dishes.

These would include curry, pasta, hamburger patties and gratins. Family-style restaurants often serve these dishes, feeding new generations of Japanese who may grow up without knowing the rich history behind their country's cuisine. And pretty though they are, those elaborate bento lunch boxes that mothers painstakingly put together for their children often include such ingredients as processed cheese, canned sausages and other food that have proven disastrous in Western diets.

Some people outside of Japan are also having second thoughts about eating Japanese, because of radiation fears after the Fukushima nuclear disaster triggered by the 2011 earthquake. Whether these fears are justified or not, Unesco's recognition of Washoku as cultural heritage helps to reinforce the importance of good produce in true Japanese cooking.

Unesco's move also helps to keep in check organisations which might want to dilute Washoku by passing off inferior ingredients as the real thing. This comes after a slew of big organisations, including Hankyu Hanshin Hotels, and department store chains such as Takashimaya and Daimaru Matsuzakaya, admitted in November to misrepresenting food on their menus. They had, among other things, passed off tiger prawns as the more luscious kuruma prawns and labelled processed meat mixed with beef fat as steak.

These scares and scandals can do a lot to undermine what is a very elegant cuisine.

Washoku (wa means harmony and shoku is food), is a philosophy that guides the cooking of traditional Japanese food, to achieve both nutritional value and aesthetic harmony in a meal.

Some of the principles include varying different flavours in a meal, with salty, sweet, sour, bitter or spicy dishes. Cooks also have both cooked and raw food in a meal; and use seasonal ingredients. Any multi-course kaiseki meal hews to these principles, which is what makes them such a delight to look at and to eat.

There is no saying that Unesco's move is going to stop the nation from gobbling up hamburgers and washing them down with soft drinks. French cuisine is also on the cultural heritage list and there are reports that the French are preferring softer baguettes to the more traditional chewy loaves.

Being on the cultural heritage list, however, serves as a reminder that the principles of these cuisines and the cooking methods are worth something in the relentless march towards progress, which only ever means that the food gets more junky.

To keep the flame alive will require a strange mix of passion and relentless efficiency. If I was a gambling person, I would put my money on the Japanese.

hsueh@sph.com.sg

www.facebook.com/tanhsuehyun

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