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Yoshihiro Murata found his purpose in life when, as university graduate, he went to France to learn how to cook.
The scion of a family of Kyoto restaurateurs, in France he found a country secure in its belief its food was the world’s best. Japanese cuisine was seen as an ethnic curiosity.
The experience, he says, “made me realise that [Japanese] food is not second best. I decided to make introducing Japanese food to the world my life’s work. So I came back to Japan.”
As a child, he ate good food every day, but did not learn how to make it — his father regarded cooking and school as serious, but separate, businesses.
On his return, Mr Murata learnt to cook Japanese food, and his 33 years as a chef have seen some big changes in France’s, and the world’s, regard for his native cuisine. His main Kikunoi restaurant in Kyoto has three Michelin stars. His other two restaurants in Kyoto and Tokyo make do with two stars each from the French gastronomic guide.
“The basic structure of Japanese food is well understood outside the country,” he says. “Food, worldwide, is generally centred on oil, whereas Japanese food alone is based on umami” — a savoury taste developed from glutamates, dietary amino acids found in most high-protein foods.
The umami taste comes from basic Japanese ingredients such as kombu (kelp) or katsuobushi (dried skipjack tuna). They make a flavoursome, zero-calorie basis for food and that, says Mr Murata, is something the world’s chefs have noticed. “To improve their own food, and make it less calorific, famous chefs are using umami instead of oil.”
But the more spiritual aspects of Japanese food, the bits that make it Japanese rather than just a confection of tastes, remain a mystery to the world.
“In Europe cooking is based on adding things, such as meat with a sauce; in Japan, it’s based on taking things away. That’s still not understood at all.”
Mr Murata says that the most overseas Japanese restaurants are in Korea, while the place with the best Japanese food outside Japan is Manhattan. But he is less impressed by the quality and attempts to create real Japanese flavours elsewhere.
“Food is about the eater. If the people of a country don’t understand, then not only will they not pay, you can call anything authentic,” he says.
One problem for Japanese restaurants outside Japan is finding high-quality ingredients. “You can’t get them at all,” says Mr Murata, “even katsuo.” Where, then, do the higher-quality Japanese restaurants in Europe get their ingredients? “The black market, someone flies in . . . it’s like that, don’t you think?” he says.
With the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal likely to flood Japan with cheap US and Australian produce, its own producers will have to move upmarket or die, so they must export.
Mr Murata says he has looked into the problem of exporting katsuo in particular, and because the fish is allowed to moulder, Japan has a system of voluntary restraints on exports. He says the government has “not made enough effort to allow [its] export”.
To prosper in a world of globalised food, Mr Murata says Japan will need to market the uniqueness of its produce and its importance to true Japanese cuisine. He adds the country should follow the French marketing model: “Spain learned that lesson, and look at the rapid increase in its food exports.”
But for Mr Murata much less sophistication is needed to create happiness. When asked what food he could not do without, his answer is simple — it forms the core of every Japanese diet and is the part that needs least cooking: sticky white rice.