Back to Main
Chicago Shimpo
What is the attraction of Japanese Cuisine?
Panel Discusses Japanese Food and Drink

A panel of experts of Japanese culinary culture gathered in Chicago to discuss the attraction and future of Japanese cuisine, while tasting sake served by Japanese brewers and sake importers.

The free event, “Panel Discussion on Japanese Cuisine & Sake Tasting,” was held at the Japan Information Center at the Consulate-General of Japan in Chicago on September 22. It preceded Chicago Gourmet, the widely popular food event in Chicago, which was scheduled to feature Japanese dinner and cooking demonstration on September 23 and 24.

Consul General of Japan Naoki Ito opened the event, explaining that it’s part of the commemorative events to be held through December to celebrate the Consulate-General’s 120th anniversary of its opening in Chicago. “We are here to share the passion for Japanese cuisine and sake, to celebrate our long-standing partnership with Chicago and the Midwest,” said Ito.

Since Japanese cuisine was registered as nontangible world heritage in 2013, the Japanese government has been actively promoting Japanese food and drinks globally. As a result, export of sake has been growing at the rate of 10% each year.

With that in mind, Ito suggested that sake could be enjoyed more to complement steaks in eChicago, the nation’s center of beef futures trading.

The panel was moderated by Steve Dolinsky, award-winning food reporter in Chicago and best known as ABC 7’s Hungry Hound. Panelists included chef Takashi Yagihashi of Slurping Turtle in Chicago, Chicago Tribune Food & Dining reporter Louisa Chu, Japan’s Suntory Whiskey Ambassador Gardner Dunn, Owner of Kamehachi restaurant Sharon Perazzoli, and traditional Japanese cooking master Naoyuki Yanagihara from Tokyo.

Sake makers such as Kobayashi Shuzo from Kyushu and Tanakaya from Hyogo provided their brews for sampling, along with sake importers such as Vine Connections and TENZING.

Panel Discussion

It was a documentary film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” which features an 85-year-old sushi chef in Tokyo that made Dolinsky visit Japan to find out, in person, what’s going on there on the front of food culture and tradition. He’s traveled to Japan many times since, and can’t forget the vivid impression of the food markets in department stores’ basements. It was a powerful experience that impressed him about the Japanese passion for food, Dolinsky said.
He then opened the floor by posing a question: “What attracts the people in America to Japanese cuisine?”

Chef Yanagihara pointed out the diversity of ingredients available in Japan is one reason. At the famous Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, more than 150 types of seafood and 200 kinds of fresh produce are sold each day. Being an archipelago stretching from north to south, Japan offers a wide variety of food materials coming from cold Hokkaido and from tropical Okinawa. With 70% of the country being mountainous, Japan has clean, high-quality water, which is an important element of Japanese cooking. Dashi, or Japanese soup stock, also depends on good-quality water and diverse ingredients available.

Slurping Turtle’s Yagihashi said the attraction is simple: Japanese chef like Jiro in the film looks “cool” in performing the traditional Japanese cooking, and that attracts Americans, making some of them aspire to be like him.

Chu said some of the contributing factors in Japanese cuisine are the use of simple ingredients and respect paid to highly skilled chefs. The delicacy of Japanese cuisine would also be a key to attract non-Asian Americans.

* How can you allure non-Asian Americans to try Japanese cuisine?

Chu suggested a visual presentation of taking dashi stock, for example, would attract attention to Japanese cooking in general.

For Dunn, a sushi chef preparing fish looks highly stylish and awesome, as though you’re watching a tea ceremony. Such stylishness is an important part of attraction to Americans, he said.

* “Fusion” items such as California rolls and spicy tuna rolls are not usually served in Japan. Will Japanese restaurants in Chicago serve them if the customer requests?

“We don’t say no,” said Perazzoli of Kamehachi. “I know some restaurants have started serving California rolls in Japan.”
Perazzoli’s mother opened Kamehachi in 1967, when no Americans would eat raw fish. Located across from the Second City comedy theater, Kamehachi was frequented by movie stars from Hollywood, who already had experienced sashimi and sushi back in Los Angeles. As time went by, more and more customers came to the restaurant to enjoy sushi. “What we serve is all driven by customers,” Perazzoli said.

* What’s needed to increase fans of Japanese cuisine?

“Education,” said Perazzoli. Kamehachi trains its serving staff to be able to explain and recommend dishes to customers. Flying fish sashimi was a recent addition to the menu, and many customers were happy to try it when explained by the serving staff, she added.

Yanagihara, who teaches a cooking class in the U.S. as well as in Tokyo, said a majority of his students now say dashi tastes good, as opposed to “fishy”, as was the case before.
“Education helps,” he explained. “Japanese cuisine is not just sushi and tempura; we are now at the point of stepping up to the next level.”

* What about “umami” that’s being hyped so much lately?

According to Yanagihara, umami is an important element of Japanese cuisine and can be found in fermented seasonings such as miso (soy bean paste) and shoyu (soy sauce), as well as in dashi.
Umami also helps make Japanese food taste good without using oil, thus making it low in calories. That’s part of the attraction that draws Americans to learning Japanese cuisine, Yanagihara said.

* What goes well with sake? How is sake being enjoyed today?

“To begin with, we don’t know how to pronounce the names of sake, and it’s pretty hard to remember the type or the maker of the sake you enjoyed before,” Dunn commented. “That’s creating a barrier for people to order or buy sake.”

At his restaurant, Yagihashi trains his serving staff so they can explain to customers every selection of sake the restaurant offers. “That removes the barrier for customers, and the next step for us is to make them drink sake at home, as well as at the restaurant,” he said.

Kamehachi, also stressing serving staff training, sees a trend of increasing acceptance of sake, like that of wine.

Meanwhile, Dunn thought the problem with sake exists outside Japanese restaurants and customers.
“A while ago, nobody knew about Japanese whiskey. We tried to familiarize the ‘gatekeepers’ such as bartenders and restaurant staff with Suntory whiskeys – they have that power [to control customers’ tastes],” explained Dunn. “Another thing is to put a [Suntory] bottle in front of the customer – that way, the customer can recognize it at a liquor shop. Suntory’s logo is easy to remember; but if the bottle says something like ‘Hokkaido Samurai Sake,’ you can’t recognize it anywhere else,” he added.

* How about sake for steak? Any new combinations?

Yagihara explained that, generally, sake falls into two categories depending on the rate of rice polishing: “hon-jozo” has a strong taste with less aroma but becomes aromatic when heated; “ginjo” has a light flavor with strong aroma.
“Sake is generally lighter than other alcohol beverages and goes well with any kind of food, helping clearing the palate in between the dishes,” he said.

Chu mentioned the recent trend of cocktail drinking and said sake is good for making cocktails. Other ideas included “Sake Margarita” suggested by Yagihashi.

Dunn advised using storytelling to attract consumers to sake drinking. “General education for sake requires catching consumers’ attention and making them want to buy and drink sake,” he explained. “To do that, I’d recommend telling consumers rich traditional stories of Japan.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Consulate-General of Japan in Chicago, Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau, Japan External Trade Organization (“JETRO”) Chicago Office, Japan Airlines and Travel Massive.

From left: moderater Steve Dolnsky, Takashi Yagihashi, Louisa Chu, Naoyuki Yanagihara, Sharon Perazzoli, and Gardner Dunn

Sake presentation by Kobayashi Shuzo

Kuradashi sake provided by Tanaka-Ya

Sake presentation by Tenzing

Sake presentation by Vine Connections