To many people, food is a language that overcomes all conventional barriers of communication. To these people, words hold no importance in telling their stories when they can let their food speak on their behalf. Almost every race among humanity can be identified by the uniqueness and individuality of the flavours, smells and looks of their food, with every style of food being a brief window into their respective cultures. However, perhaps the style of food that speaks the most about its own culture is that of Japanese food.
In spite of a long and bloody history, Japan’s culture has flourished in a great deal of ways, with their introduction to the international stage of affairs only serving to increase exposure to the components of their culture, predominantly their food. The staples of Japanese food, whether through media or personal experience, have become widely known, with them becoming more and more readily available as time goes on. You can’t go the length of a shopping mall nowadays without seeing a Japanese restaurant at some point, and food blogs have to mention at least one incidence of coming across some form of Japanese food that left them hungry for more.
However, many of these dishes that are so often lauded by professional critics and average hungry joes tend to be, more often than not, incredibly simple in their design and choice of ingredients. Almost all nigiri sushi are comprised of only a slice of raw fish, rice cooked with vinegar and occasionally coated with a touch of wasabi and soy sauce. And yet, with less than ten ingredients, a simple piece of sushi can achieve so much in the richness of its flavour and how they all combine together to form a cohesive experience unlike any other. How is it that something so simple can accomplish what extravagant five-course meals have failed to do? Or is it because that very same simplicity is the reason behind its unparalleled success?
As a whole, the culture of Japanese food is not defined solely by its own flavour, but also by the people who make it their life’s purpose to constantly better their craft. The term shokunin, which directly translates to craftsman or artisan, symbolises the significance of constantly improving one’s craft as a personal life philosophy in Japan’s culture. To better understand the relevance of the philosophy, look no further than Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary which showcases how the philosophy of shokunin is integral to the success of what is widely considered as one of Japan’s best sushi chef. The titular chef, Jiro Ono, earned the distinction of being the first ever chef from Japan to win three Michelin stars.
Even then, Jiro is shown to constantly wish to better his craft. Quoting Jiro himself, “I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I will continue to climb, trying to reach the top – but no one knows where the top is.” This is a man who has earned himself one of the highest honours that can be achieved in the culinary world, and yet still he chooses to continue pushing himself to go beyond what he thinks himself capable of. Every piece of sushi that he makes is another step in his never-ending quest to better his craft, even after the decades of learning he has already done.
“I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I will continue to climb, trying to reach the top – but no one knows where the top is.”
But he isn’t alone in this regard. Every day, more and more chefs put their heart and soul into creating dishes that, although simple and unexceptional on their own, become something truly amazing with their own two hands. In that sense, perhaps that’s what separates a good dish from an incredible dish: Whether it speaks from the heart to yours. The emphasis of Japan’s culture in valuing pride, passion and dedication in their craft, especially their food, is what truly defines the path of a shokunin for the rest of the world to experience to our own benefit. So the next time you sit down for a nice bowl of ramen, let the fruits of their labour speak to you with every mouthful of their food.
Article by Yau Jun Min