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UNESCO Designates Washoku as an Intangible Cultural Heritage

unescoIn December 2013, washoku (the traditional dietary culture of the Japanese, or simply Japanese cuisine) was listed as an intangible cultural heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Japan has developed its unique food culture through the combination of the country’s diverse natural beauty and four distinct seasons together with the delicate sensitivity inherited by Japanese people since ancient times. Indeed, washoku is a product of the close interaction among people, nature and seasons. Thus, a wonderful blend of distinctive elements is abundantly deserving of its designation as an intangible cultural heritage.
UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list is intended to include and protect customs, traditional arts and crafts such as dances and songs, and other intangible properties a community or group of people recognize as part of their cultural heritage. Earlier, Mount Fuji was added to the “World Heritage” list, which covers tangible sites, such as natural landmarks and the remains of ancient civilizations.

Surprisingly, it was only several years ago that a “cuisine” or “food culture” was first designated as an intangible cultural heritage, this being French cuisine, or the “French gastronomic meal,” in 2010. The gastronomic meal is a social custom used in celebrations of childbirths, marriages, birthdays and other important moments in life by feasting over many hours on elaborately prepared food. Since then, UNESCO has added Mediterranean cuisine as jointly proposed by Spain, Italy, Greece and Morocco, Mexican cuisine and the Turkish traditional dish Keşkek (a type of wheat congee) to its list of intangible cultural heritages.

We wonder how it happened that the Japanese food, washoku, we eat every day was proposed and designated as an intangible cultural heritage. Living in the U.S., when they say “washoku,” we think of the popular dishes that even the locals love at Japanese restaurants, such as sushi, shabu-shabu and certainly ramen. For those of us who remember what life in the U.S. was like 10 or 20 years ago, the transformation has been remarkable. It’s amazing to consider the extent to which Japanese dishes have become part of the local food culture. It isn’t too much to say that Japanese food has taken root in the U.S.

Four Specific Characteristics of Washoku

washoku

Washoku


When the application of Japanese cuisine (as washoku) was filed for inclusion on the UNESCO list, however, the Japanese government didn’t mention or include specific dishes like those named above. Neither did it emphasize the global popularity enjoyed by Japanese food today. Instead, Japan referred to all dishes collectively and described “washoku” as a culture-specifically, a “traditional food culture of Japan” –without regard for how it’s viewed in the present day. Furthermore, the cuisine is regarded not as a dish but more characteristically as a custom associated with the consumption of food that reflects the Japanese disposition towards a “respect for nature.” Four specific characteristics are mentioned:

1. A diverse range of fresh food ingredients and respect for their natural tastes

Japanese seafoodThe archipelago of Japan stretches from north to south. It has coastal areas, mountains and plains blessed with many different natural environments, so it isn’t surprising that each region has its own diverse set of food ingredients. Cooking techniques and kitchen utensils/tools have also been developed to make use of the natural flavors of those ingredients.

2. Healthy, nutritionally balanced diet

The traditional menu of Japanese dishes, which basically consists of one soup and three vegetable offerings, is said to provide an ideal nutritional balance. Japanese dishes are also characterized by the clever use of umami (savoriness) to produce flavors with less use of animal-based oil, which certainly contributes to the longevity and healthy fitness of the Japanese.

3. Expression of natural beauty and changing of seasons through food

Osuimono Japanese Soup

Osuimono (Japanese Soup)

A unique attribute of Japanese cuisine is that we believe meals are a way to express our home country’s natural beauty and changing seasons. For example, we use seasonal flowers and leaves to decorate the dishes or use seasonal objects or tableware to reflect the season.

4. Closely associated with New Year celebrations and other traditional events

Japan’s food culture has developed in close association with traditional events held throughout the year. The food with which nature has blessed us is shared and eaten together by family members and people in local communities, which helps them to build closer bonds.

All these definitions have significant meanings that may sound high-minded. However, when we take time to think about each one of these points we realize that every claim ingeniously expresses the characteristics of washoku that we have come to understand, albeit unconsciously, as we’ve grown up. Washoku is an integral part of the geography, seasons and lifestyle of Japan and its people.

Geography and Seasons of Japan

countrysideThe Japanese archipelago has distinct climates enjoyed by the coastal regions on the Pacific side and the Sea of Japan side, as well as different temperatures characterizing the coastlines and mountain ranges. Each region produces a different set of food ingredients. That’s why local specialties have traditionally been held in high regard. Particularly in the Edo period, the Sankin Kotai system -which required local feudal lords to reside in Edo (now called Tokyo) every other year-brought local food cultures to the capital and spread its food culture to different parts of Japan, helping develop a unique food culture.

Japanese today are still interested in the food ingredients and dishes specific to different regions. The number of TV programs and magazine articles introducing local food cultures seems to be ever-increasing. Do a bit of channel surfing on TV, and you’ll certainly find a show that explores food. Moreover, the bustling crowds of people at local food fairs, held at department stores in Japan, are something you’ never see here in the U.S. The unique character of the food in each region extends the breadth and depth of Japanese cuisine.

Enjoying Food in its Season

spring

Spring

The regional diversity of food ingredients is attributable to geographical factors, particularly the different climates, but the diversity of seasonal food offerings is also treasured in Japan. It is said that Japan has four distinct seasons as compared to other nations. People in Japan, since ancient times, have been aware of and fascinated by the seasons-spring, summer, fall and winter-and found enjoyment in each. For example, the linked verses recorded in “Manyoshu (The Anthology of Myriad Leaves)” and haiku-whose form was completed in the Edo period – express seasons with the use of kigo, or words and phrases reflecting the season.

fall

Fall

Numerous food ingredients available only in specific seasons are precious gifts of nature grown and harvested according to the seasonal cycle. Some items remain in season only for a few weeks or a couple of months-the period called “Shun” in Japan when a seasonal item is the tastiest-which is why Japanese attach importance to the freshness of food ingredients. The phrase, “Shun o ajiwau (enjoy the food in season)” reflects a key element of Japanese cuisine, which is to take pleasure in creating different menus by focusing on “shun.”

Dashi and Food Culture

shiitake

Shiitake mushrooms

The Japanese have used dashi (soup stock made from fish, kelp and vegetables) for many years. Dashi is a key to extracting the natural umami (savoriness) from food ingredients. Different components of umami are known today, each associated with a different amino acid. The three key components of umami are glutamic acid, inosinic acid and guanylic acid. They are contained in the representative food ingredients of washoku. Glutamic acid is contained in kelp, inosinic acid is found in dried bonito and small sardines, and guanylic acid comes from shiitake mushrooms. Whichever the case, the first step is to dry the source ingredient in order to reduce the water content and concentrate the component of umami. The dried ingredient is then cooked or simmered in hot water so that the umami slowly emerges.

Kezuribushi (shaved bonito)

Kezuribushi (shaved bonito)

It isn’t coincidental that these three components of umami have developed in Japan. Kelp is harvested primarily in Hokkaido and the Hokuriku region, where records suggest that kelp was eaten in Hokkaido as early as in the Jomon period (12,000 B.C. – 300 B.C.). While inosinic acid can be taken from dried bonito and small sardines, etc., bonito are caught not in the northern region, but mainly in the southern part of Japan around Kagoshima, etc. In the spring, bonito travel north toward the Hokuriku region from the waters south of Kagoshima, and in the autumn they head south. Shiitake mushrooms containing guanylic acid are grown or cultivated in the mountainous regions where airiness and moderate temperatures make for quality produce. Japanese have found umami in different food ingredients produced in geographically different parts of the country, such as its northern and southern waters, and its seas and mountains.

The Key Ingredient of Healthy Eating

Kombu

Kombu (kelp)

Kelp was transported throughout Japan primarily by sea but not overland. The sea routes along which kelp was transported were called kombu (kelp) roads. A drying method was developed in the Muromachi period, and kelp found its way from Hokkaido to all parts of Japan. A majority of shipments (dried kelp) headed south from Hokkaido along the Sea of Japan coast, going through Shimonoseki and proceeding to Osaka and Kyoto-the center of Kamigata (the current Kyoto and Osaka) culture, where the Imperial Court was located. The remaining kelp was loaded onto vessels and transported to Edo from Osaka. This is cited as a reason that premium-grade kelp product such as Ma Kombu and Rausu Kombu rarely reached Tokyo and why the custom of cooking stock from kelp is found mostly in the Kansai region. Another interesting point is that the prosperous kelp trade between the merchants of Sakai (now Osaka) and their counterparts in Okinawa is attributable to the status of the latter as Japan’s top kelp consuming prefecture.

dashi

Dashi (soup stock made from fish and kelp)

So, what does it mean that umami helps “produce flavors with less use of animal-based oil, which certainly contributes to the longevity and healthy fitness of the Japanese”? It is said that umami has the effect of stimulating the satiety center of the brain. In other words, we could feel full after consuming a small but appropriate amount of food having umami taste. The same meat or fish doesn’t make us feel full if it isn’t cooked in a manner that produces umami, unless such umami-limited meat/fish dish is eaten in a larger quantity. Also, because dashi contains umami extracted from food ingredients, vegetables and other ingredients, it can be cooked deliciously without having to add oil and salt more than necessary, thereby contributing to a healthier, more balanced diet.

Meals and Key Events Throughout the Year

hamaguri

Hamaguri (clam)

As mentioned earlier, Japanese treasure the four seasons and appreciate food ingredients in shun. Naturally, we have created various dishes for key events held in the respective seasons. For example, it’s customary to eat clams at the Doll’s Festival in March. Clam meat is cooked in clear soup and offered on this auspicious day as a wish for girls to find suitable partners, like clam shells that fit perfectly.

tsukimi dango

Tsukimi dango

On the night of the full moon in autumn (Jyu-go-ya, or the fifteenth night from the new moon), tsukimi dango, or moon viewing dumplings, are prepared-a custom that reportedly began in the Heian period to thank the moon for the harvest, and later became a popular celebration in the Edo period. Fifteen dumplings, each shaped in a perfect sphere like the moon, are stacked up high, as if to reach the moon. The dumplings are garnished with silver grass to represent stalks of rice. In the Japanese food culture, there is meaning even in the shape of the food and how it is presented, such as in the use of specific plates and decorations.

The Cultural Symbols of Osechi

The most important event of the year for Japanese is arguably the New Year celebration, for which osechi (traditional New Year dishes) are prepared. Various ingredients are used to cook different dishes, each having an auspicious meaning, for good luck. Black beans are eaten for health, hoping that we can work industriously till we become browned under the sun, while tazukuri (small dried sardines caramelized in soy sauce) symbolizes abundant crops because the name sounds like “growing a rice paddy.” Kazunoko (salted herring roe) symbolizes prosperity for descendants, kurikinton (mashed sweet chestnuts) is believed to bring money as the sweets look like golden nuggets, and kamaboko (steamed fish paste) is associated with the first sunrise of the year due to its semicircular shape. A customary rule is to prepare each food in an odd number for good luck and put them in three special lacquered boxes that stack atop each other.

osechi

Osechi (Japanese traditional New Year dishes)


Additionally, since osechi dishes are prepared using the proper seasoning and cooking methods they have great preservation qualities. Thus, family and friends can spend the first three days of the New Year relaxed, free from cooking meals. Also, these New Year dishes are prepared from various food ingredients including vegetables, grains, eggs, meat and fish, as well as with different cooking techniques. They are indeed a comprehensive compilation of Japanese cuisine. Osechi has an important cultural meaning in that food ingredients grown and harvested in the range of climates unique to Japan are cooked and shared by many who are united by hope and great prospects for the coming year.

Washoku Enjoyed Around the Globe

We now understand that washoku means more than just sushi, tempura and ramen. We probably don’t think about the climate and seasons of Japan or even the cultural meanings of these dishes when we eat them. We also welcome the fact that sushi, tempura and ramen have sparked a boom in Japanese food around the world. However, there are aspects of washoku that aren’t yet familiar to people in other countries. The designation of washoku as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage is a great opportunity for people the world over to learn what washoku truly means. It’s also a great opportunity for us Japanese to rediscover our cuisine. We should be proud of the long history and uniqueness of washoku. Hopefully, more people around the world will try, and be inspired by, Japanese cuisine. Washoku is a heritage of which we can be very proud of.

Gochiso Magazine, Nijiya Market

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