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Saturday, April 7, 2012

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Washoku on World Heritage menu?


Let's talk about food cultures of the world. And I don't mean yogurt.

Japan, home to 16 World Heritage sites, is now hoping to add another World Heritage accolade with washoku (Japanese food). The only other cuisines deemed worthy of the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage assets are French, Mexican, Turkish, Mediterranean and most recently, Korean imperial food. And you know, if Korea is on the list, then Japan sure as heck better be. And there is no doubt that Japanese cuisine deserves to be on the list.

In fact, Japanese cuisine is said to include 1,500 different items. Hmm, let's count: Rice, sushi, sashimi; nabe, okonomiyaki, udon; sea anemone, chicken cartilage, fish sperm . . . I could probably come up with 100 more, but another 1,491? Maybe that's why the classification reads "intangible cultural heritage" — it can be left to the imagination.

From a local Kyoto movement, the push for UNESCO status went on to become a national project led by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry. I don't know about you, but I just can't see the fish going for this one.

I'm not sure what it takes to get washoku placed on UNESCO's World Heritage list, but to get Mount Fuji considered as a World Heritage site took an application fee of ¥10 million and a 300-page document including drawings, figures and specific reasons why the sacred mountain is worthy of the listing under cultural heritage sites.

So I can only suspect that Japanese food will be put through the same rigorous application process. In addition to drawings, color charts, prescribed knife cutting angles and regulations on noodle lengths, the food items will also have to prove culturally important to the Japanese people. Noodles will have to show they are so popular they have spawned noodle-eating contests nationwide, octopus will have to prove they are hailed as the one food where absolutely all parts of it are used (including the head and all eight armpits), and natto (fermented beans) will have to show evidence it can be inhaled at a rate of 530 grams per 27.7 seconds (with a footnote congratulating the recent feat accomplished by Yasuharu Kimori at the 2012 natto speed-eating competition).

Furthermore, chefs will have to demonstrate that studies show that eating sazae (turban shells) does not induce nightmares of giant snails taking over the world, that sea urchin will not be thrown as ninja stars. Lastly, they will have to promise that mochi will not be given to the elderly.

Some foods thought to be uniquely Japanese are, in fact, shared by other Asian cultures. Miso, soy and even natto is eaten in other parts of Asia. However, umami, the mysterious fifth flavor, (after bitter, salty, sweet and sour) is uniquely Japanese, so we could include dashi in washoku. And probably okayu and green tea.

Okay, only 1,482 to go.

There is also shokuyo no hana (edible flowers) and leaves. I'm not just talking about your daily intake of digestible pollen, nor the opportunity to get buzzed and pollinated by bees (Hey, I'm here, pollinate me!). This is Japanese cuisine that includes carnations, cosmos, pansies, roses, and even cherry blossoms. I don't think it includes cherry blossom-flavored beer, however. Leave it to the Japanese, who also eat mitsuba and shiso, some of the tastiest greens around. I grow my own shiso and often see caterpillar shiso addicts, hanging out in hammocks at the bottom of my plants, drugged by the fragrance and heavenly taste. I even sometimes see other bugs shooting up the stems. 1,475.

As it turns out, however, the number of Japanese food items is only one small part of getting the cuisine recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage. Other factors include: visual presentation, fresh and seasonable ingredients, eating rituals, tableware and utensils, and the overall healthiness of the food that adds to longevity and quality of life.

Japanese food is certainly beautifully presented. Dandelions, autumn-colored maple leaves and bento grass, all inedible, are common decorations for food. And Japanese people do amazing things with food other than ingesting it, such as pounding it (mochi), throwing it (Shinto ceremonies) and offering it to the gods (Shinto and Buddhist ceremonies).

Eating utensils, in addition to chopsticks, would have to include the hari needles used to pierce and extract the corpses of sazae.

Although Japanese food is generally very healthy, I cannot agree with the claim that the cuisine has successfully resisted junk food. Personally, I consider cherry blossom-flavored potato chips and green-tea flavored Kit-Kats more on the junk side than the food side. I'm not letting my caterpillars get close to that stuff.

All in all, however, I think Japanese food will have no trouble making it onto the World Heritage list. And with help of Wasao, the dog appointed by the National Federation of UNESCO Associations in Japan as a special ambassador for World Heritage-related activities, washoku should attain this status even faster. This diplomat dog is said to "promote the connection between people and nature, as well as the importance of life."

With Wasao barking for us, maybe even Japanese dog food has a chance to be included. Japan is a country where discerning canines can get miso soup, freeze-dried natto, and even okara (from tofu) doggie treats from gourmet dog food companies. 1,472.

We'll find out in November 2013, when UNESCO issues its final judgment. Woof-woof!



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