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If French is the language of love, Latin the language of the old boy’s network and Klingon the language of the socially restricted then Japanese is, surely, the language of cuisine. Is there another culture that has different words for a fish depending on what season it is caught? Or categorise dishes eaten before 1868 with an opposing nomenclature from those introduced after? In contrast to the easy, on-the-go cuisine of Yo Sushi, wedged in the corners of our airport terminals and shopping centres, traditional Japanese cooking is unflinchingly formal.
There have been many surreal moments on this fork and flag journey but lamenting the absence from the menu of eel liver with the winner of Masterchef surrounded by a mock-Tudor interior in a bustling Japanese eatery is close to the top of the bill. Asakusa was like a cavern, twisting and narrowing as it went, light dissipating with distance. The decor was discordant, which gave it a quirky charm of clutter and chaos. It was the antithesis of the chains from which its diners had sought refuge. To modernise would be counter-intuitive.
Wagamama has been so successful because it dupes the diner into believing they are ordering the exotic when in reality they are only choosing from dishes that have been imported to the western taste. Japan beguiles with its accent on tradition and its deep, resonant spirituality and folklore. While the West is enthralled by its difference it also likes to appropriate it into the familiar. Take for instance the last Samurai, that symbol of Japanese pride, that Cinephiles will recall Hollywood cast as Tom Cruise.
Having spent three years in the country and heavily influenced by its flavours and traditions our resident expert reeled off dish after dish from the specials menu, scrawled in Japanese with a marker pen. It was only dishes arrived at the table that I had an inkling of what awaited us. Having a reputation in the show for brave flavours and adroit combinations I braced myself. I was right to, as the first dish was Monkfish liver.
This was an Izakaya, principally a drinking place but serving small dishes. But that didn’t mean that the language of cuisine was any less in evidence. While all national cuisines have to some degree or another been influenced by and incorporated dishes and flavours from other places very few divide the traditional and the alien so abruptly and so precisely. Any dish introduced after 1868 is deemed Yoshoku, non-native. Such imports include the Japanese favourites such as Katsu (india), Tempura (Portuguese) and Ramen (China). These rude interlopers to the Japanese table, these migrant flavours are, however popular, destined to remain on long term visas never to be granted a passport. They can never be Washoku, traditional dishes. Indeed purveyors and producers of such dishes are not referred to as Itamae, a Japanese cuisine chef.
Such endearing terms of specificity pervade the Japanese culinary lexicon, in which precision is all. For instance the seasonality, or shun, of a dish is so important that ingredients change name. They even have a specific term, hatsu-gatsuo, for the first catch of skipjack tuna that arrives on a particular current.
Washoku usually consists of Ichiju-sansai, or one soup and three sides. This may typically be Miso soup with rise, grilled dish and a vegetable. Meat, or more particularly Mammal meat, has been something of a taboo in traditional culture. But again, the definitions are specific to the point of pedantic. While cultivated meat was shunned wild game was prized, in particular slaughtered hare. One of the effects of this is that Whale meat and Terrapin took the place of pork and beef.
But in modern Japan this culinary straightjacket has largely been thrown off, allowing us to indulge in a wide selection of the traditional, the popular and the downright indulgent. Fulfilling the former an aubergine boat filled with miso, pork goyza and mushrooms in butter. For the popular we tried Sashimi, that delicately flavoured raw fish that has become such a craze in the capital. Unusually ours was sea-bream and sea-bass, two familiar fish in an unfamiliar guise. The most intriguing selection was chicken skin kebabs. Looking like deep fried toenails on a cocktail stick these proved surprisingly morish, like a light, less cumbersome pork scratching.
It would have been remiss, almost rude, not to try some Sake so I ordered a tasting set. This comprised of three varieties each introduced in verbose terms on a laminated card. Like wine and whiskey Sake varies in quality and price and attracts its own acolytes. The key, I discovered, to the taste was its relative rice polishing ratio. As with other aspects of Japanese cuisine nothing is left unclassified.
Japanese food has revealed itself to London diners but has kept much of its mystery. Perhaps more than any other cuisine on this journey it speaks its own language, and how you interpret it depends on your reading of the menu.