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Sunday, Jan. 27, 2002

We've lost that food-loving feeling

Staff writer

Feeling hungry? Luckily, those of us living in the here-and-now can eat almost anything we want, anytime we want -- and as much as we like.

Eating is the easiest it's ever been. Should we ever for an instant forget that, there's always those Stone-Age folk in a famous TV advert to remind us. In that hit small-screen commercial, when mammoth-hunters turn and flee from their enraged would-be prey, the voice-over declares simply: "Hungry? Cup Noodle." Sounds simple and effective if you're at a loss what to nosh.

Food has never been more functional. Gone are the hours slaving over a hot stove, to lovingly prepare the day's meal. Now it's "two minutes" to make, and another "two minutes" to sate the appetite.

In fact, you don't even have to eat "food" any more to survive. Drug stores are groaning under the weight of colorful pills and potions, carefully compounded to give the body every "essential" nutrient. To give it almost everything, that is, but the pleasure of taste.

And that is the irony of this food-rich age -- we can opt for instant foods, fast food and even the kind of "food" that can be swallowed with a glass of water. But where has our taste for real food gone?

That's the question many experts are asking these days. They're urging people to become more conscious of their eating habits -- and children to familiarize themselves with the flavors of local fare before their taste buds are desensitized by convenience food. Those who miss out on this, they say, may never truly appreciate the wonderful world of tastes.

One who is busily highlighting the dangers of a tasteless future is the internationally renowned chef Kiyomi Mikuni, who spent 10 years in Europe, working mainly in France and specializing in French cuisine. As he puts it, "Meals for human beings are much more than just feed for animals."

Despite a grueling schedule at his restaurant, Ho^tel de Mikuni, which opened in 1985 in Tokyo's Yotsuya district, Mikuni, 47, has recently started a project to give elementary-school pupils an opportunity to learn the myriad tastes of food, and to give them the experience of seeing, touching, cooking and eating food made from traditional ingredients.

Warming to his theme during a break at his eatery, he explained: "We enjoy food through every sense, especially our eyes, nose and, of course, tongue. And when you sense the sweetness, saltiness, sourness and bitterness in food, you stimulate your brain. I want more Japanese people to regard having meals as something other than just taking in food for their body.

"And if we become accustomed to the strong taste of chemical seasoning, our ability to sense delicate flavors degenerates, robbing us of the joy of enjoying a variety of tastes."

A bitter lesson

This may sound a bit alarming, but in Japan, the media has recently been making much of younger people's increasing dependence on more and stronger seasoning for their food. Mayora (people who put mayonnaise on all their food, from toast to rice) and ketchuppa (those who do the same with tomato ketchup) are among the names that have been dreamed up to label such people.

Against this social background, Mikuni's class at elementary schools starts by getting pupils to experience the four basic tastes by sampling dishes such as potato fries (salty), pieces of pickles (sour), slices of sweet yokan (bean-jam jelly) and bits of sugar-free chocolate -- to taste what "bitter" is. In addition, he provides his young pupils with a little haute cuisine as well, in the form of delicacies such as caviar, pa^te de foie gras and truffles . . . only to see them screw up their faces, perplexed, and declare: "This tastes strange."

"Experiencing a variety of tastes develops these children's abilities to perceive flavor in food. Bitterness is the key. If you can't recognize bitterness, you can't sense other tastes. Ideally, you should learn the four kinds of taste by the age of around 10, otherwise you may never be able to distinguish them properly. That means, you feel the same way whatever you eat," explains Mikuni, whose numerous professional accolades include being head chef for the banquet at the July 2000 Group of Seven finance ministers' summit in Fukuoka.

Modestly, though, he says his recent initiative was inspired by a similar movement in France, where chefs and others opposed to the growing reliance on factory food and fast-food chains have been active in promoting the "rediscovery" of the tastes of traditional French cooking.

"I met one boy [in Japan] who believed fish existed in the sea in sliced form, the way they're packaged on supermarket shelves, and was shocked to see the head and bones of fish," Mikuni says with a smile. "But such children soon take great interest in food when they know how these dishes are made and how they taste and smell."

In postwar Japan, dietary education developed along the lines of nutrition science. Perhaps this was to be expected in view of the serious food shortage during and after the war, encouraging people to ensure that they took in sufficient nutrition to stay healthy. But though the lifestyle changes of the following 50 years introduced attractive and expensive varieties of food to the daily diet, they created new problems with the act of eating.

Although the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry recommends that people eat more than 30 items of food a day, saying that a varied diet generally means a balanced diet, reality falls far short of this ideal.

One survey conducted by the Tokyo-based Nippon Association of Consumer Specialists showed that few high-school students attained the 30-items target. Quite the reverse, in fact. In one case, the researchers reported, a boy ate no breakfast, had three rice balls for lunch, and a cup ramen and a convenience store-made bento for dinner.

Supplements surge

Another survey conducted by the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) and Miyuki Adachi, a professor at Kagawa Nutrition University in Saitama Prefecture, noted that compared with a 1982 study, primary school children surveyed in 1999 tended to eat alone more often and depended more on ready-made meals from convenience stores.

Supplement foods and tablets, such as vitamins and other nutrients, are increasingly popular as an addition to the regular diet. Though the market for such supplements is rising sharply, it is difficult to precisely gauge its size, according to the Japan Health Food and Nutrition Food Association.

The popularity of biscuit-type "nutrition bars" -- marketed as easy replacements for meals for busy people -- is now so widespread that cases are even reported of mothers who give them to their kindergarten-age children as lunch.

In response to such eating trends, various groups are working alongside solo educators like Mikuni to promote alternative dietary instruction or lessons on healthy eating habits. Recently, shokuiku (eating education) -- as in taiiku (physical education) -- has been attracting popular and media attention.

Shuichi Kimura, professor at Showa Women's University in Tokyo and an adviser to a group promoting shokuiku, says, "You can give your small children nutrient biscuits for their lunch. That may not be a problem as far as nourishment is concerned. But if you were the child, would you want to eat them at mealtime?

"We have a number of choices concerning food, but we may fail to provide children with the simple joy of appreciating food, including local cuisine, if we don't reconsider the meaning of having a meal."

With the enormous size of the food and food-products industries, and the relentless barrage of advertising they sponsor, though, it's hardly surprising that young parents who have themselves grown up in a land of fast-food chains tend to feed their children a diet of easy snacks. To be sure, it is (in some sense) reassuring to be able to eat hamburgers and chips that taste the same wherever you are -- from Okinawa to Hokkaido.

Supporters of the "slow-food" movement says otherwise, though. This international movement, that started in Italy in the late '80s and has now spread to more than 30 countries, questions the standardization of food, saying that its mass production is taking away the local character of dishes and impoverishing people's lifestyles.

"We are not saying fast food is completely evil, but that we should consciously preserve local food as one of our choices," says Katsushi Kunimoto, chief director of the Japan Slow Food Association, which was established in 1999. "We are questioning the trend that could narrow children's meal choices to either fast-food restaurants' menus, convenience-store dishes or the school lunch."

The tastes of both properly cooked rice and sake are among those the association is particularly trying to preserve in Japanese cuisine, as it endeavors to nurture people's appreciation of the tastes of traditional food. "If you give children fresh fish cooked in a traditional way, they will definitely come to like fish. You may say it is matter of course, but the eating habit in this country may be going against it," he says.

Indeed, similar concerns have, after 30 years as a chef, led Mikuni to set a new course for the rest of his life. So determined is he to promote food education in Japan that, he says: "Since I got involved in this activity, my picture of my future has become clear. When I reach 50, I want to entrust my restaurants to other chefs, except for a small one where I will cook for only about 10 customers a day. The rest of my time I will spend visiting schools across the country to provide children with classes on food and taste.

"It is our task to pass on to the next generation the value and joy of appreciating meals -- it is just too good to miss."

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