Posted by shinshine

On January 24th and 25th, I attended The Essence of Japanese Food – Discover Authentic Japanese Ingredients, a culinary event sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) of Japan.  This free event ran for 4 days, first two days focused on introducing Japanese food culture and ingredients to culinary school students and junior chefs and the last two days on demo application of Japanese ingredients to restaurant chefs and food buyers.

I attended the last two days of the event based on my familiarity with the cuisine (on a relative scale).  It was a small (maximum of 40 attendees by registration), but fairly well-organized, packed event that presenting companies and chefs put much effort to prepare.  On both days, we started out with 10-minute introductory presentations from each company that brought 1 or 2 ingredients, including yuzu (유자; yu ja) liquor and sauce for cooking, sashimi-quality frozen sea scallops, wagyu (Japanese beef), nagaimo (마, ma), black garlic (흑마늘; heuk ma neul), somen (소면; so myeon), buckwheat noodles (메밀국수; me mil guk su), sake, gold flake balls, microwavable fish products over the two days.  After the lunch break on our own, we came back for company demo introductions (somen and buckwheat noodles) and featured chef’s cooking demonstrations (Josh DeChellis on the first day and David Bouley on the second day).  Following the demo and tasting, we were led to a separate product exhibition room, where we could ask more specific questions and taste ingredient samples.  The event ended with a happy hour of Japanese hors d’oeuvres and sake.

Here are some of my observations of the event.

  • Most representatives from the Japanese companies made their presentation in Japanese, which helped them just be confident and showcase their ingredients.  One interpreter was available throughout the two days I attended who was knowledgeable in the ingredients as well as culinary terms.  There were also a couple of companies that brought in their own U.S. reps who were very much fluent in both languages and their products.
  • Many of the introductory presentations addressed the issues that Americans are interested and care about.  Buzz topics such as ‘sustainability’ and ‘chemical-free’ as well as strict standards in processing and inspection were discussed.
  • Presentations were also focused on their long (sometimes too long) history of the ingredients and products, including artisanal human care and geological advantage (weather and environment) that distinguish their products as high quality.
  • While the presenters glossed over some basic culinary details since the audience was professionals, basic yet culturally different details were covered, such as boiling somen which is different from pasta that requires the cooking water to be salted and cooking time to be longer, yet doneness is determined at ‘al dente’.
  • Informational brochures on Japanese food were available in the back of the presentation room, including ‘Japanese Beef Products Guide Book,’ ‘Dashi Culture,’ and ‘Umami.’
  • Flyers informing the products to be showcased at the International Restaurant & Foodservice Show of New York (February 28 – March 2, 2010), along with two special events “World of Koji – The Secret of Japanese Fermented Products” and “Umami in Kombu and Other Food Products” scheduled at the venue, were also available.
  • These companies were ready to discuss distribution.
  • The highlight of the two days was chef David Bouley’s over 2-hour cooking demo of preparing a 4-course tasting menu.  Throughout the demo, chef Bouley’s knowledge and respect for the Japanese ingredients were flowing non-stop, which could only come from his long-standing personal interest in the cuisine, decades of relationships with Japanese chefs and countless trials of Japanese ingredients in his own cuisine “without compromising the integrity of Japanese or French cuisine.”

Thoughts after the Event

Introduction of a country’s cuisine is a multifaceted effort.  I don’t know how many direct deals the participating companies ended up getting from this event.  My wild guess is on an individual company level, participating in this event wouldn’t be cost-effective, which makes the role of the MAFF of Japan more important.  Although the companies might not gain immediate monetary rewards, events like this serve as long-term efforts that raise awareness and appreciation of the Japanese ingredients and food culture among the current and future chefs who are particularly interested in new ingredients and ways to incorporate them into their own cuisines.

Although I have not been in the food industry for long, I have not seen any notice for Korean food trade shows or seminars for people in the food industry in New York area.  I do not belong to any cool group that gets invitations to special events and that may be the reason I don’t know much about Korean food events.  I found out about this event, as I usually do for other culinary events, through my culinary school’s weekly news email for alumni.

Street festivals and advertisements on publications are aimed at the general public, which is one aspect of the introduction/familiarization of a cuisine.  We can debate all the possible ways to spell Korean food items.  I don’t know the specifics of what is planned at the government level or any company level and reasons to opt for certain routes.  On a personal level, however, it is disappointing not to find any Korean companies when Joe McPherson and I combed through the list of the exhibitors (as of February 5th, 2010) at the International Restaurant & Foodservice Show of New York (February 28 – March 2, 2010).

As a cook who is seeking out opportunities to learn more about what’s behind all the emphases on ‘well-being,’ high quality, natural Korean ingredients, I have not had a chance to learn in New York.  I just hope to see more focused, long-term minded efforts that introduce and familiarize the Korean ingredients and food culture to targeted audiences, such as the food industry right here in New York.

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