Celebrity Chefs Yoshihiro Murata and Heston Blumenthal introduce the essence of Washoku

On 10 February 2014, 125 guests including journalists, food critics and prominent figures from the UK government, gathered at the Embassy for a reception to celebrate the recently appointed status of Washoku (traditional dietary cultures of the Japanese) as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The event was supported by The Norinchukin Bank.

Ambassador Hayashi opened the evening by saying: “Here at the Embassy we have made great efforts to promote Japanese cuisine but, encouraged by this recognition of Washoku by the United Nations’ cultural body, I have come to believe we must go a step further and make this intangible heritage even more accessible in a tangible manner.  Therefore, I would like 2014 to be known as “the Year of Washoku in London”.

Special guests Mr Yoshihiro Murata, a master of Japanese cuisine, and Mr Heston Blumenthal, a renowned British chef, provided a detailed explanation of the essence and importance of Washoku and its future in the UK. Both chefs own Michelin star restaurants and have championed the promotion of authentic Japanese cuisine in the UK.
Mr Murata spoke first about umami and how Japan is the only country in the world that has this as the main focus of its cuisine.  As Ambassador Hayashi mentions in his March blog post, umami is “one of the five basic tastes alongside sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The term, formed from the Japanese words umai (“delicious”) and mi (“taste”), was first coined by Kikunae Ikeda, a professor of the Tokyo Imperial University, in 1908, and is generally taken to mean something like “a pleasant savoury taste”. Mr Murata went on to say that “umami could be found in any cuisine in the world but that in Japan it had long been recognised as a category of taste in its own right, with combinations of different materials (e.g., bonito fish, shiitake mushrooms, sea kelp) being used deliberately to enhance it.”

Mr Murata recommended the use of umami in all types of cuisine as an alternative to seasoning via oils and fats as it makes for a much healthier diet, and he complimented Mr Blumenthal as having recognised this in his own creations.

Celebrity chefs Mr Murata and Mr Blumenthal

Mr Blumenthal talked about his first trip to Japan in 2004 where he attended a conference about umami in a temple in Kyoto. This was his first experience of a fifth taste and he discussed how he learnt about the delicacy of different tastes and their impact on cooking. He was impressed by the reverence of the Japanese culture of ingredients and care of ingredients, and extreme attention to detail, recounting how surprised he was to learn that the Japanese recognised 20 different cuts from one tuna fish!

He went on to say that other cultures probably already used umami but just hadn’t recognised what it was – for example, tomato pulp has most umami and the fact that it is used to enhance flavour in Mediterranean cuisine for example, shows that the idea of umami can be applied to other cultures.

Talking about cooking methods in Japan, Mr Murata explained how in Japanese cooking, people tried to work with the natural flavours of the ingredients, rather than seasoning to add flavour as in western methods. For example, he said “Japanese people consider radish (daikon) a gift from god. The flavour after you immerse the radish in pure water and cook over a ‘holy’ flame is considered to be perfect and humans should not further season it“.

Following the fascinating insights from the two chefs and a series of question and answers from the audience, guests were invited to try specially created washoku dishes from a range of major Japanese restaurants, including Michelin-starred Umu and Nobu. A selection of Japanese sake (rice wine) was also provided by Sake Samurai as an important accompaniment to the washoku dishes.

Reports from the guest were positive and the event served as a launch for the further promotion of authentic Japanese food in the UK, and as Ambassador Hayashi remarked in his opening speech, "This year, all year, in all aspects of our work, we would like to pursue the promotion of Japanese food".