In his role as Director of the Japan Culinary Academy, the organization he founded in 2004, Yoshihiro Murata has presided over the most ambitious series of writings on Japanese Cuisine ever published in English, the JCA’s Complete Japanese Cuisine (Japanese title, Nihon Ryori Daizen).
Escoffier in Kimono: Creating the Final Word on Japanese Cuisine
An embodiment of Murata’s passion for the dissemination of Japanese culinary knowledge, the first volume, Introduction to Japanese Cuisine: Nature, History and Culture, has been published first in English with the Japanese version to follow.
“The series will be Japan’s Escoffier,” Murata explains, referring to the seminal French work La Guide Culinaire, published in 1903, which codified the culinary wisdom and practical know-how of the era and remains a revered and much-used work a century later.
There have been few serious and comprehensive books in English on the practicalities of Japanese cuisine since the excellent, but now rather outdated Japanese Cooking: a Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji, published in 1980. Murata’s own books and his collaboration in Umami: the Fifth Taste and Dashi and Umami (the latter available used for a cool £2,095.76 on Amazon UK) are invaluable additions to any collection, but they focus on specific areas and skills. The Japanese Culinary Academy’s Complete Japanese Cuisine series is a game-changing, all-encompassing masterwork, and KJ was lucky to obtain a hot-off-the-press copy of the first volume, together with a personalized preview given by its mastermind.
“Most books are created by a publisher, but in this case, we created a publisher to make the series of books,” Murata explains. “We didn’t want to risk the whole project collapsing in the middle if a commercial publisher decided sales weren’t to their liking and pulled the plug. So our NPO, the Japanese Culinary Academy financed the whole thing. To be honest, it cost a small fortune.”
The first volume is a thing of beauty, with gorgeous photography and illustrations, but it's no flimsy coffee-table dalliance—it’s the real deal. It contains fabulous recipes, deliberately unnamed, though this writer immediately recognized the signature style of four galactico of Japanese kaiseki genius, all based here in Kyoto. Yet the book is far more than just that.
Murata takes up the story. “There are more than 55 thousand ‘Japanese’ restaurants around the world, but only a small percentage of them are run by Japanese,” he begins. “Of course that doesn’t take anything away from them, but it highlights a pressing need. We had to create a comprehensive, unsurpassable guide for the chefs across the world who were not born into the culture from which Japanese cuisine emerged.
Unless you can grasp the concepts, understand the heart and soul of Japanese food and its preparation, you won’t be able to recreate it or successfully adapt it to your tastes. This book is the bedrock of essential knowledge. It will be an invaluable tool.”
(C) 2015 Shuhari Initiative Ltd/P.90 Tokyo National Museum P.91 KUMA Masashi
He’s not exaggerating. The book is a cornucopia of wisdom, beginning with basics such as the cuisine’s debt to nature, and its health-giving properties that have essentially remained unchanged over the centuries. It also explains much of the mystery and ritual that have arisen through its connections to Shinto and Buddhism.
A section on ‘Agriculture and Gratitude to the Gods’ segues into an explanation of the Noshi paper covers for chopsticks, a word that derives from noshiawabi, literally ‘stretched-out abalone,’ a traditional symbol of health and longevity. Subsequent pieces elaborate on Tea Ceremony cuisine, Fermentation, Shokado Bento, Beauty in Tea Ceremony Cuisine, the Rimpa School of Painting and the Hidden Plum, Shojin Dashi, Knives... and on it goes.
Murata himself penned the introduction; also included are erudite yet highly readable essays by historian Kumakura Isao and food scientist Fushiki Tohru, and a splendid glossary of Japanese food terms and ingredients.
(C) 2015 Shuhari Initiative Ltd./NAKANO Haruo
It’s the recipes, however, that will get any true Japanese food lover’s mouth watering. Sashimi Kanoko Sea Bream, Squid and Fatty Tuna; Chilled Turtle Kenchin in Mini Winter Melon; Wild Vegetables in Tosazu Vinegar; Kamo Eggplant in Edamame Dengaku Miso Glaze; Scattered Spring Sushi Fit for a Princess, anyone?
In amongst this treasure trove, this writer discovered one particularly rare dish, a personal favorite, Kamasu Sugi-ita Yaki (Barracuda in Smoldering Cedar Shavings). It’s an incredible thing, a long lost Edo-period dish rediscovered by its creator who pored through historical archives to recreate “the sensation of what it must have been like eating out in the Japanese forests amongst the birds and wild animals two centuries ago.”
I am not at liberty to disclose here which chef created which dish, but I suspect that you might hazard a guess. His own kitchen nestles in the shade of a Kyoto bamboo forest, don’t you know.
Introduction to Japanese Cuisine: Nature, History and Culture by the Japanese Culinary Academy, published by Shuhari Initiative, 2015. ISBN-10: 4908325006 ISBN-13: 978-4908325007
A version of this article first appeared in ‘Beyond the Chopping Board: Master Chefs ponder the Meaning and Value of Food’ in Kyoto Journal #83, 'FOOD!'. It is reproduced with kind permission of the publishers. Kyoto Journal is an award-winning non-profit volunteer-based quarterly magazine established in 1986 offering insights from Kyoto, Japan and all of Asia.