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The Culinary Connection Between France and Japan

There is no bond between the West and the East that is stronger than the bond shared by France and Japan. A mutual respect and appreciation for one another’s culture has been notable since the 1870s and still continues to this day, affecting tradition, culture, and undoubtedly, culinary style. These two diametrically opposed cultures are both shaped by their shared admiration and awareness of food and cuisine, tying them as the world’s top gastronomic leaders. However, rather than being competitors, Japanese and French cuisine are seen as foils, allowing each to prosper independently whilst also influencing one another through shared values. Today, French trained Japanese chefs, Japanese trained French chefs and the increasing number of French-Japanese fusion restaurants make apparent these shared values and reveal to us the bond that France and Japan hold.

French-Japanese culinary encounters date back to 1868 during the Meiji restoration after Japan finally opened its ports to Western trade. In Tsukiji, a settlement was established for foreigners leading to the opening of hotels and restaurants aimed at Westerners. At the Tsukiji hotel, Louis Begeux was employed as the head chef, making him the first foreign head chef in Japan. He is known as the “father of French cuisine in Japan” as he spread his French influence through working at various high-end venues during his years in Japan, including working at Imperial banquets. Many of Begeux’s apprentices such as Nishio Masukichi and Suzumoto Toshio would travel to France to study French cooking techniques, returning to Japan again to help spread French style cooking. Toshio even published several cook books and manuals based on Georges Auguste Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire, allowing these techniques to be shared across Japan. French cuisine quickly became the standard meal served at official functions including the emperor’s birthday. On the French side, soy sauce was the first Japanese ingredient to be introduced through the Netherlands. At Louis XV’s court, Kyushu soy sauce was frequently used as salad dressing and as the base for other dishes.

Despite these early interactions, this cultural mixing became more mainstream in the 1960s, the same time as when the French nouvelle cuisine movement began. Before this, French haute cuisine was mostly meat-centric, used thick and heavy sauces and was often embellished and decorative. However, after the increased convergence of Japan and France in the 1960s, a new generation of French chefs suddenly began embracing minimalism, light sauces, delicate taste and intricate plating, much of which mirrored Japanese cuisine, specifically kaiseki. In Europe there was little precedent for this style of cuisine until the interaction between Japanese and French chefs. Therefore, although there are no official statements that the transition from cuisine classic to nouvelle cuisine was a direct influence from Japanese cuisine, we can see that this must be the case. However, this does not answer the question of why French cuisine resonates so strongly with Japanese chefs and Japanese cuisine with French chefs?

In order to understand the core essence of these two culinary cultures, we can look at the kaiseki/washoku meal of the Japanese and the gastronomic meal of the French. Kaiseki is a style of multi-course Japanese dinner that is meticulously prepared using seasonal ingredients and beautifully displayed. It often consists of a sakizuke, an appetizer served with sake, nimono, a simmered dish, mukozuke, a sashimi (raw fish) dish, hassun, a season dish, yakimono, a grilled course, and hamono, a rice dish, eaten in that order. A kaiseki meal whilst painstakingly prepared and beautifully displayed is not overly complex and works to highlight the natural quality of each ingredient. Regional ingredients are also used to tell a story and create a theme for the meal. Whilst kaiseki is the highest form of a Japanese meal (often being expensive), washoku, the traditional Japanese meal served in Japanese restaurants and homes, also follow similar structures of different courses and the purposeful placement of each dish on the table. In France, kaiseki is comparable to the gastronomic meal which similarly focuses on high quality products, terroir and patrimony, and beautiful presentation. Produce is sourced locally and displayed artistically. It is also comprised of several courses: l'aperitif, starting drinks, l'entrée, the appetizer, le plat, a main course, le plateau de fromages, a cheese dish, le dessert, the desert, and le digestif, an after-dinner drink. Even when not taking part in a gastronomic meal, many French restaurants and home cooking will follow a set structure with a starter, a main dish and a dessert (or cheese).

These countries’ values are reflected in their culinary traditions so much so that they felt compelled to propose these meals to symbolize their country and be added as to the list of UNESCO intangible world heritages. In 2010 the Gastronomic Meal of the French was accepted as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage, defining it as a “customary social practice”. The UNESCO website continues to explain the importance of “togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the balance between human beings and the products of nature”. Finally, the traditions of the gastronomic meal is something handed down by “individuals called gastronomes who possess deep knowledge of the tradition and preserve its memory, watch over the living practice of the rites, thus contributing to their oral and/or written transmission, in particular to younger generations.” 3 years later, in 2013, the Japanese washoku was also named a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage, similarly defining it as a “social practice based on a set of skills, knowledge, practice and traditions related to the production, processing, preparation and consumption of food”. There is also an association with “an essential spirit of respect for nature”. Much like the Gastronomic meal, the practice of washoku is also seen as a tradition that is handed down, with “the basic knowledge and skills related to washoku, such as the proper seasoning of home cooking, are passed down in the home at shared mealtimes.” These shared values of respect for ingredients and nature, structured meals that facilitate social bonding and the importance of heritage and the passing down of traditions ties these two countries together and allow for the transmitting and understanding of each other’s cultural values through food. It is not impossible to believe that the first few French chefs to arrive in Japan probably understood very little Japanese, and Japanese chefs understood very little French, however, through these food cultures and traditions, one can very quickly see the shared values and beliefs.

One may think, that Japanese and French cuisine would be competitors seeing how similar they are in their values. However, their geographic separation and vastly different ingredients separate the two leading to a sense of exoticism; Japan being the France of the East and France being the Japan of the West. You can see the competition between French and Italian cuisine which share many similarities the way French and Japanese cuisines does. However, their geographic proximity and use of similar ingredients lend to competition rather than comradery. On the other hand, the French and Japanese interaction lead to both being exposed to new ingredients, never before seen foods and drinks, and a treatment of both as ‘exotic’ to one another. Exotic, yet compatible, thanks to the similar course structure of the two cuisines, which has also allowed for the fusion of Japanese and French cuisine.

Joël Robuchon, a chef with more Michelin stars than any other chef in history, first travelled to Japan in 1976 at the age of 31, five years before opening his first restaurant and eight years before being awarded his first 3 Michelin stars. Many of his most iconic dishes keep a distinctly French style whilst incorporating Japanese ingredients and taste, such as his foie-gras paired with wasabi. However, besides new Japanese ingredients that he called “forbidden or unknown produce like shallots, tarragon and chives,” the experience that impacted him the most was his visit to Sukiyabashi Jiro, a prestigious sushi restaurant that has hosted guests such as Barack Obama. In almost any sushi restaurant, it is structured in such a way that the guests sit in front of the kitchen counter where the sushi masters work in order to carefully watch the craft in action whilst also conversing with the chefs. This structure strongly reflects the washoku idea of a meal as a craft, a means of conversation and spreading of knowledge, as well as the importance of the freshness and origins of food, which are ideologies shared by the French gastronomic meal. As such, Joël Robuchon was highly inspired by this layout and it led to his concept of the “Atelier”, a French dining experience where customers sat at a bar counter in close proximity to the chefs.

On the Japanese side, popular chef and owner of restaurant, Nabeno-ism, Yuichiro Watanabe, went to culinary school in France and also spent 21 years working under Joël Robuchon. Nabeo-ism is the Japanese attempt at bringing together Edo food culture and French cuisine. Watanabe owes much of his techniques and training on French food culture, specifically that of Robuchon. “He usually told me, “Don’t try difficult things, don’t mix more than 3-4 ingredients, value harmony and season ingredients to make them to be recognized eventually. Let beef to be tasted as beef, chicken as chicken. Respect the ingredients and season it to raise its origin flavor.” This belief of ‘respect for food and it’s natural qualities’ is an extremely important concept in Japanese cuisine as well, as children are taught at school to grow and cook their own vegetables, sometimes even growing chickens and harvesting the eggs. The merging of Japanese-French cuisine can also be seen very clearly through two of his dishes, the sobagaki (a buckwheat dough ball) and his seasonal dish. The sobagaki is his signature dish, with the soba flour/buchwheat being an ingredient prevalent in both Japan and France, in France used for the galette and in Japan for the soba noodles, allowing it to be a symbol of the two cultures’ connection. The sobagaki is cooked on a traditional French plaque and requires high handling skills. The dish comes with caviar and is a very simple dish that allows for not only the taste of each ingredient but also the skill of the chef to come through. For the seasonal dish, he truly tries to integrate traditional French and Edo ingredients, such as French pigeon and Kyoto eggplants, or French black truffle and traditional Edo vegetables. The dish also respects fresh seasonal ingredients which is important in both French and Japanese food culture. The Japanese and French cuisine fit together perfectly thanks to these shared values such as freshness, simplicity, terroir, respect, and craftsmanship.

This interest for one another’s cuisine is apparent in the increasing demand for Japanese restaurants in France and French restaurants in Japan; in France there is an entire neighborhood known as the Japanese quarter where many Japanese restaurants and bakeries can be found. In Japan, there are 308 French Michelin starred restaurants, the second highest number after traditional Japanese restaurants. However, the perceived exotic nature of each other’s countries can lead to misunderstanding of the food and the culture. French culture is often highly romanticized in Japan, leading French cuisine to almost always be classified as high class, fancy and for special occasions. It is also usually in the style of nouvelle cuisine, and more recently, as molecular gastronomy rather than cuisine classique. On the other hand, in France, the high demand for Japanese cuisine has led to many inauthentic ramen restaurants as well as many Chinese owned Asian-fusion restaurants to be given Japanese names such as ‘Sushi Wasabi”. Whilst chefs studying abroad in these two countries may come to develop a deeper understanding of each other’s food culture, the public is prone to misconceptions. Furthermore, there is a completely different set of values that can be learnt through casual cooking and home cooking as opposed to haute-cuisine. The place where one can learn the most about casual/everyday meals is in the school lunch system.

As both France and Japan highly value heritage and the passing down of food traditions, school lunch time is an important educational experience for students in both countries. An American woman described her daughter’s French canteen as having “tables of four already set — silverware, silver bread basket, off-white ceramic plates, cloth napkins, clear glasses and water pitchers laid out ready for lunch” and that “almost all foods are prepared right in the kitchen; they’re not ready-made frozen”. Fruits, vegetables, fish and meat are usually locally sourced and fresh bread is also delivered every morning by a local bakery. Schools are required to serve children with “a starter of vegetables, salad or soup; a warm main course high in protein whether it be meat, fish or eggs; a side dish of vegetables or grains; a cheese course or dairy product; plus raw or cooked fruit balanced with a dessert and an afternoon snack.” The school lunches reflect the importance of terroir and fresh, quality produce. Children also don’t have a choice in what they are served and are given ‘adult’ foods that help them learn about healthy and complete meal groups whilst also developing their taste. Another unique aspect of the French canteen is the way in which the students are served. Students sit down at pre-set tables of four and wait for older student volunteers to bring the courses to the table one at a time. Only after finishing the first vegetable course will they be served the main course platter, and so on, reflecting the service à la russe of the gastronomic meal. The lunch time also lasts two hours long allowing for the meal to be eaten slowly and encouraging conversation. For the French, school lunch time is an opportunity for students to grow into the ‘adult world’ through developing their taste buds, mastering the art of conversation and learning etiquettes. At home, kids sit and eat with the adults and are sometimes even offered sips of wine from a young age to get them accustomed to the taste and system of a French meal. For the French, the meal is where socialization happens, and kids learn how to take part in it.

In Japan, school lunches look very different. First of all, Japanese schools have no cafeteria. Every class eats in their own classrooms with their peers and teacher, and there are no cooking staff or janitors around. Students often (though not always) take part in the preparation of the lunch in some way, helping out the cooks in the kitchen and learning about the nutritional value of food. When it comes time to serving the meal, they are on their own. Students will have shifts serving one another out of big communal pots as a way of reinforcing responsibility and self-sufficiency at the same time as sharing and community. After each student is served, they are allowed to get seconds, and in most schools, leaving left-overs is not allowed. This means that as Japanese school lunches are 40minutes long as opposed to the French two hours, students are encouraged to focus on their meals rather than on each other. Students are taught extensively about the origins of food as well as having thankfulness and respect for food, for example the produce is often grown locally if not grown at school by the students themselves. Before each meal, students are taught to say “itadakimasu” literally translating to “I am going to receive this meal” but signifying appreciation for the meal, and at the end to say “gochisousamadeshita” literally translating to “that was a feast” carrying the idea that every food, no matter how small or simple was a delicious meal that we are thankful for. Afterwards, students are expected to clean up after themselves as well as clean the entire classroom, again reinforcing the idea of responsibility and communal good. Often at home, while there is light conversation, meals are eaten quietly and respectfully, and the youngest member of the household is expected to serve the elders. In this way, whilst French meals emphasize the importance of taste and conversation, Japanese school lunches emphasize the importance of personal and communal responsibilities.

The values taught during school lunches can be seen reflected in everyday society. In Japan, many restaurants are designed specifically for busy working people to get quick nutritious lunches on their own; some ramen shops even having exclusively one-person seating. On the other hand, in France, most workers have two-hour lunch breaks and wouldn’t dare be seen eating on their own. Therefore, whilst these two countries’ food cultures, cuisine styles and ingredients all work incredibly well together, it is not the perfect portrait of the culture. This may be why there is an entire medical condition called “Paris syndrome” which is defined as “a psychological condition experienced almost exclusively by Japanese tourists who are disappointed when the city of lights does not live up to their romantic expectations.”. Many Japanese tourists have expressed shock at slow service or bread being placed on the table without a plate. It may also be why so many Western tourists are looked down upon in Japan as they have a reputation of wasting food, talking too loudly and behaving disrespectfully, although in France this may just be seen as socializing.

Japanese and French cuisine have a long connection that has allowed for French and Japanese people to come together on the basis of shared values and respect for food, and in this ever-globalizing society, it has and surely will continue to shape each other’s culinary styles. One can only hope that the study of and spread of more authentic French and Japanese cuisine will lead to an even better understanding and admiration for one another’s culture as well lead to new culinary innovations.


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