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Friday, Nov. 30, 2012
Japan can learn from the Nordic kitchen
Food production in Japan is not in great shape. For decades, rural populations have dwindled and local farmers have been undercut by imports, at both the cheap and luxury ends of the market. Current plans to open up Japan's famously closed farming market through free-trade pacts sound like a death knell for traditional agriculture.
Change is needed, and there could be lessons to be drawn from the other side of the world. In Scandinavia, agriculture is still a vital, thriving sector. More than just remaining viable, the work of growing, catching and supplying food is starting to gain recognition and cachet.
This is a reflection of the new restaurant culture that has emerged in northern Europe. The axis of eating has shifted away from the Mediterranean, and a new generation of chefs is looking to its own traditions, rather than the haute cuisines of the old regimes, France and Italy.
The de facto figurehead of this movement is maverick chef Rene Redzepi, whose Copenhagen eatery, Noma, has been picked top in Restaurant magazine's World's 50 Best Restaurants for the last three years. He and his partner, Claus Meyer, were the driving force behind the New Nordic Cuisine Manifesto, whose uncompromising mantra, "pure, fresh, simple and ethical," has been embraced by chefs and food producers throughout the region.
It has also been endorsed on the governmental level. The five Nordic nations — Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland — realize that, besides the prestige value of having top restaurants drawing gourmet tourism to their countries, this new approach to eating can have benefits on many levels: improved health, less spending on medical care, a cleaner environment, more job opportunities outside of urban areas and more vigorous rural communities.
That was the message at a promotional event held in Japan last month. Five so-called Nordic Star Chefs, one from each country, were brought over to conduct a cooking master class, hold press events and show off their talents at some of Tokyo's top restaurants.
One of the most intriguing collaborations saw Denmark's Thorsten Schmidt, from Malling & Schmidt in the city of Aarhus, put together some of his dishes at the Michelin-two-starred Narisawa in Minami-Azabu. It was a natural tie-up, as owner-chef Yoshihiro Narisawa is already championing a similar approach of what he calls "sustainable gastronomy."
The Nordic connection looks set to deepen. A stream of Scandinavian chefs have been visiting Japan recently, from Esben Holmboe Bang of Oslo's excellent Maaemo to Bjorn Frantzen of Stockholm's Frantzen/Lindeberg (both with two Michelin stars). And this weekend (Dec. 1 and 2), Schmidt will be back in Japan as one of the guest chefs at Farming Frontier 2012, a mini expo organized by Japan's ministries of agriculture and economy.
The main aim of this two-day event is to promote Japanese farming, from organic market gardening to the high-tech agribusiness of the future. For visitors, though, it's an opportunity to discover and sample a wide range of food and drink, including artisan tofu and premium wagyū beef from Yonezawa in Yamagata Prefecture and other top areas.
There will also be a Sake Street, with exhibits, samples, an izakaya-style bar and a panel discussion featuring former Japan Times sake columnist John Gauntner. There is still plenty to celebrate when it comes to Japanese food and drink — and we can always learn from the world around us too.
Food Frontier 2012 will be held at Tokyo Big Sight in Odaiba, Tokyo, on Dec. 1 and 2 (10 a.m.-5 p.m.). Entrance is free. For more information, visit www.meti.go.jp/english/press/2012/pdf/1018_01b.pdf.