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Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011
Recognizing Japanese food culture
The word 'sushi' might just be the most traveled word in Japanese. All around the world, Japanese cuisine is appreciated, respected and most of all, enjoyed. Because of its uniqueness, a panel of experts under the agriculture ministry is calling for Japan's culinary culture to be included on UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Japanese food culture is not in any danger of becoming extinct. Indeed, it is thriving. In large cities and the countryside, restaurants showcase fantastic local products and specialty items. In Japan, delicious food is not just big business and a national pastime; it is an inalienable right.
Perhaps the panel of Japanese experts is motivated by rivalry with Korea, who managed to get Korean imperial food onto the new list this year. French, Mexican and Mediterranean food culture has already been designated as an important expression of cultural heritage. Japan's unique food culture also deserves the distinction.
Japanese cuisine includes a wide variety of products, some 1,500 different items, with rice at its center. It also emphasizes seasonal produce, and uses many fermented foods such as miso, natto and soy sauce. Those products are shared with other Asian countries, but also have their own special Japanese style and taste. Japanese cuisine is perhaps most unique for its fifth basic flavor, umami, which has captured the attention of great chefs around the world.
Japanese eating rituals and habits are also part of this unique heritage. Special tableware and utensils are extensive and the hospitality and manners of a shared meal remain special. The visual presentation of food is an art form with great attention for even the smallest mouth-watering details. A Japanese meal is much more than just eating; it's socializing and communicating.
Perhaps most importantly, the expression of gratitude accompanying meals remains strong in daily life. That gratitude became even stronger after the disasters last March, when so many people were torn apart from not only the food rituals, but also much worse, from sufficient food.
Japanese food culture has also resisted the pervasiveness of junk snacks and fast food, and remained largely healthy and vibrant. Japanese cuisine contributes to the physical wellbeing, the symbolic cohesion and daily pleasure of the country. Having Japan's unique food culture added to the UNESCO list is an excellent way to express a justified pride in the country's cultural assets.