Is water the secret to fine Japanese cuisine?

Japanese traditional cuisine or washoku, is so essential to the Japanese way of life that in 2013, Unesco recognised the cuisine as an intangible cultural heritage. Typical Japanese food like miso, sushi and sashimi is often associated with the word "healthy" and research by the National Centre for Global Health and Medicine in Tokyo has linked the island nation's long life expectancy (87 for women and 80 for men) to the country's diet.

Chef Takuji Takahashi would agree with that. The master chef of Kinobu is the third-generation chef of the one-Michelin starred restaurant in Kyoto and is seasoned in the art of Japanese cuisine. Takahashi is acknowledged as a Japanese cuisine goodwill ambassador and frequently travels the world, spreading the gospel about Japanese food.

The talented chef has a Masters in Food Science and Biotechnology from Kyoto University, which means he has the added advantage of being able to use science to further enhance the traditional Japanese cuisine he so loves.

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Takahashi was in town recently at the invitation of Japanese ambassador HE Dr Makio Miyagawa (who lives a few doors away from Kinobu in Kyoto) and in an exclusive event held at the ambassador's residence, he showed off an impressive knowledge base of Japanese food, which covered history, geography, topography, essential and seasonal ingredients and the treasures of the sea.

Chef Takuji Takahashi says working with seasonal produce is a crucial aspect of Japanese cuisine.Photo: The Star/Asia News Network

According to Takahashi, Japanese cooking utilises a lot of water as most of the water in Japan is soft water, which is ideally suited to cooking. This explains why water-rich dishes like dashi, tofu, boiled rice and green tea are so popular in the cuisine as the Japanese use water as much as possible. The water in Kyoto is reputed to be particularly good and there are reports that food connoisseurs during the Meiji period transported water from Kyoto to Tokyo just to make the best tofu.

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Other elements that are integral to the cuisine include rice (there are over 300 varieties in Japan). Rice is one of Japan's most important crops and has been cultivated for over 2,000 years. White rice, or hakumai is the foundation of Japanese food and is typically served with most meals, especially as a set with miso and pickles or as a bento meal, where it is topped with furikake (dry Japanese seasoning). Rice can also be incorporated into onigiri (rice balls), fried rice or sushi and its usage even stretches to sake, where it is a primary ingredient alongside water and rice koji.

Then there are seasonings like miso (there are three kinds: rice, barley and soybean), which is used for sauces and spreads or mixed with dashi soup stock, and is high in protein, vitamins and minerals. Miso soup is a staple offering as part of a set meal in most Japanese restaurants and has umami-rich flavours.

Soy sauce is also a traditional accompaniment in Japanese food. There are three kinds: light, dark and tamari (a soy sauce made with little or no wheat). Interestingly, in Japan, 82 per cent of soy sauce is dark soy sauce, while 15 per cent is light soy sauce, which uses 10 per cent more salt than dark soy sauce, according to Takahashi.

Probably the most important ingredient in Japanese food is kombu (edible kelp). Kombu is used very widely in Japan, and over 90 per cent of the product is cultivated in Hokkaido. Kombu is especially integral as one of the three ingredients in dashi stock (the other two being bonito and water) and is a rich source of glutamic acid, which gives an umami flavour.

Like most Japanese chefs, Takahashi only cooks seasonal ingredients and prepared this dish of fresh clams, scallops and squid with wakegi (leek) in a sumiso dressing, as all these ingredients are only available between March to April.Photo: The Star/Asia News Network

The other ingredient that goes into dashi stock is shaved dried bonito (the hardest food ingredient in the world), which is made from a fish called skipjack tuna, which is cut into fillets, simmered, deboned and then smoked. The hardened fish is then shaved and infused with koji (a fermentation agent) and then alternates between being placed in a humid room and dried under the hot sun.

Seasonal ingredients are also considered sacred in Japanese cuisine and chefs in Japan traditionally pay respect to seasonal produce, paying special emphasis to vegetables, so menus change constantly to reflect what's been freshly harvested.

For example, there are 155 varieties of vegetables grown in Japan, like daikon, burdock root, kyuri (Japanese cucumber) and many others but each one has a season when it tastes best, and Takahashi is insistent that it is important to pay homage to these vegetables when they are in season.

Takahashi's tile fish with bamboo in dashi broth makes use of the freshest seasonal produce.Photo: The Star/Asia News Network

"The vegetables that are grown every season are important for our intake. In the summer time, the temperature goes up to 38°C, therefore we need to keep our bodies cool with vegetables like cucumbers and tomatoes. In winter, the temperature goes down to 5°C, so we need to warm up our body with radish, daikon or carrots. Everything we eat is designed to enhance our body mechanism," he says.

Japan's seafood diversity comes from both warm water - catch like horse mackerel and sardines - and cold water - horse hair crabs, salmon, pike, cod, scallops and more. The Japanese eat on average three servings of fish a week, and the staple diet of raw fish has been linked to a lower caloric intake (about 25 per cent less than the average Westerner) and longer life expectancy, according to research conducted by Britain's Office for National Statistics.

Japanese seafood is revered around the world, and tourists constantly flock to Tokyo's Tsukiji market for a glimpse of the season's finest catch - the Japanese commercial fishing industry is worth US$14 billion (S$19.6 billion).

Having a food science background has also helped Takahashi further hone his skill in Japanese cuisine, and he uses his scientific knowledge to refine traditional Japanese dishes.

Takahashi demonstrating how to prepare and cut leeks, watched by a rapt audience, including Malaysian celebrity Chef Wan.
Photo:The Star/Asia News Network

"When making dashi stock, basically what I do now is make it at 65°C and time it at one hour. I have also done it at 75°C and 95°C but I discovered that maximum umami can only be extracted at 65°C. But on the other hand, what I think is important and what I keep in mind is that I don't want those scientific figures to be obvious in my dishes, so I don't let that show. I put more emphasis on taste and flavour," he says.

Ultimately, Takahashi says the most important aspect of his job is being able to spread his love and knowledge of Japanese cuisine with the rest of the world. "I would like to have people incorporate Japanese food into their daily lifestyle. Talking about Japanese food is my way of enhancing multi-culturalism, so that's why I do this and I think that is important," he says.

Ambassador Dr Makio Miyagawa invited Takahashi to teach Malaysians more about Japanese food.Photo: The Star/Asia News Network

Miyagawa also thinks this facet of cultural exchange is important, especially in disseminating information about food from his homeland, which is why he specifically picked Takahashi for the job.

"He always explains the background of Japanese cuisine and the development of cooking styles, so I thought that this would help Malaysians understand the way we cook and what we treasure," he says.