Aside from well-known sushi (fish on rice) and sashimi (fresh raw fish), a pleasant delight is to enjoy ‘aburi’ – slightly grilled sashimi. Exemplary of Japanese standards to ensure food quality a classic sushi meal would be prepared by the chef in front of few guests seated around. Such a dinner envisages a kind of miso soup with small mussels, egg cake as a desert and of course green tea to conclude what inevitably becomes quite an event. A traditional restaurant is called ‘izakaya’. It hosts typically groups of friends sharing a cosy cabin where drink buffets are quite popular. Do not be surprised to order digitally using tablets.
Fruit can be a luxury product in Japan. While it is common to eat various dried fruit, one can even give fruit as a present. The exclusiveness along with price tag can go a long way. You can even find fruit-flavoured butter or various fruit jelly deserts.
Meat and milk
In progressive Japan and a megacity like Tokyo it is perhaps not surprising that food culture is constantly evolving. Meat is growing in prominence as younger generation doesn’t want to deal with multiple fish bones of the traditional fish dishes. Famous Japanese beef “kobe” is widely available with its distinct layers of fat throughout the meat acquired through feeding livestock with among other things beer. Even dairy production can be said to be partly a ”side product” from raising cattle for beef. The milk consumption in Japan took off after World War II with the introduction of school milk program following USDA recommendations. Since then milk consumption continues to grow, particularly among the elderly who are concerned about muscle and bone structure. Milk is even consumed by those who report being lactose-intolerant. Yet the seemingly lacking lactose-free dairy products remain puzzling.
Overall, due to limited size and mountainous terranes Japan’s milk production is constrained and mostly concentrated on the northern island of Hokkaido. Japanese share European concerns about farm succession and manure treatment. However, due to breeding cattle for beef they also find problematic issues around calving. Japanese dairy association “J-Milk” is promoting milk production and consumption. To producers they offer funds to buy live animals from abroad. To consumers they share recipes of innovative dishes that combine traditional Japanese cuisine and milk. One example is a miso soup where miso is mixed with milk before cooking so that no milk taste remains in the final soup. In general, the variety of flavours, sizes and products is impressive. Consider a clever way to diversify butter. We already mentioned fruit butter, but the creativity doesn’t stop there: miso, garlic and basil flavours are other examples.
Japan shouts out ”convenience”. Vending machines in Tokyo are very common, serving primarily drinks such as water, tea and cold coffee varieties. In a busy city tempo you can even buy items from these vending machines with a rechargeable MetroCard. However, when it comes to trash other considerations outweigh convenience and it is a rare sight to spot a trash can in the city. Convenient lunch ‘bento’ boxes also surprise with both taste and presentation. These almost preach the diversity of the diet: rice, tofu, fish, chicken and multiple vegies.
The art of tea drinking
Tea is king. A traditional tea ceremony we took part in involved very precise instructions: eat the cookie, wipe fingers on the napkin, rotate tea bowl twice, drink in roughly 4 sips, wipe the edge with finger and clean the finger at the napkin. Tourist attraction or meticulous Japanese traditions? Perhaps both, but when surrounded by beautiful gardens with every tree sculpted to impress, one is simply left to admire. Another traditional drink is sake. One often finds two types: fruity or dry. Even wine was commonly stored in larger sake bottles after World War II due to lack of proper wine bottles.
Japanese are also admired for their functional foods. During the 1980’s Japanese academic society introduced the concept of functional foods and in 1991, the government established new legislation (FOSHU, “foods for special dietary use”) for regulating this market. Large body of products are now available in Japan in the realm of functional food. Foods in the vicinity of functional foods initially included those products with effects that modulate the body function and contribute to the prevention of diseases. However, today it is widely assumed to consider foods with biological effects beyond their ordinary nutritional effect (although there might be controversy over this definition among scientific society). Amongst them dietary supplements such as vitamins and minerals are widely available.
In an admission showcase at Tokyo University a number of bio-fortified products were presented. These snack bars, confectionery and bakery products were developed and marketed by the researchers. A market visit indicated that retail sector has paid special attention to the so-called health beverages and foodstuff. The Eurobarometer estimated market for functional packaged food in Japan about US$8.5 billion in 2015, with an 8% increase from 2010. The functional beverages sector also had a retail value of US$7 billion in 2015. Large number of sport drinks, energy drinks and carbonates have been developed previously and now market is witnessing a trend for fruit and vegetable juices and yogurt. Aquarius Pocari Sweat and Green Dakara drink brands can be found almost everywhere. Main subcategories of packaged functional food embrace brands such as Xylitol, Xylish and Black Black which are active in functional confectionery segment.
In this article we shared the impressions from the graduate study visit to the land of the rising sun – Japan. A diverse group of food scientists and economists from SLU got to learn about Japanese food production, consumption and many things in between – from enzymes to cloning research from top Japanese scientists. Yet, here we gave you a general flare for the food and habits around it that we spotted.
All in all, Japan has a lot to impress and inspire with in terms of food quality, diversity, health considerations, convenience, originality and presentation. We are very grateful to the SLU Graduate School “Focus on Food and Biomaterials” as well as SLU Future Food for enabling this rich learning experience.
Source: SLU Graduate School “Focus on Food and Biomaterials”
Photos taken of different group participants.
PhD Student, Department of Molecular Sciences