Culture, No.10  Feb. 9, 2012


Photo : Dr. Hosoya Ryota

Dr. Hosoya Ryota

Hosoya Ryota: You always have concern about the dietary habits of today’s young people. And you wonder whether the reason they have difficulty in delivering babies is that their eating patterns contain things such as cola, potato chips and apple pie.

Tatsumi Yoshiko: I am very concerned that the number of premature babies with very low birth weights is actually said to be increasing.

Hosoya: When I heard that, I went and spoke with an experienced birth attendant since the maternity center of Saint Luke’s International Hospital is located nearby. This person told me there are indeed many pregnant women who have peculiar eating habits.

I asked for more details and was told that the women’s poor diets are not because a lack of intelligence caused absurd eating habits, but because they are working and have no time to care about their own dietary habits.

However, there is plenty of time for birth attendants to educate pregnant women before childbirth, and the women are taught to review their eating habits. According to the attendant, this has been a great help for them. When these pregnant women are given instructions such as “you should eat this type of food,” their dietary habits greatly improve.

The birth attendant who answered my questions commented with a smile that it would be nice if all those women who were capable at their jobs could get pregnant.

Tatsumi: Indeed, it would be nice. Do those pregnant women visibly change?

Hosoya: The birth attendant said they do change. So thinking about what we eat is after all thinking about our entire life. You always say food is fundamental to life. I really feel this is true.

In this era of the declining birthrate, there are gradual trends of lengthening childbearing and childcare leave, as well as movements to allow childcare leave for fathers. With this as a backdrop, I hope that young people in the prime of their working lives who plan on having children in the near future can make time to think about the question of what eating means to human beings.

Tatsumi: You are absolutely right in that line of thought. However, it is taken for granted that a person like me who is involved with food will say what you just said. If I say this loudly, many people will be turned off. I think they will all listen when a person like you, Dr. Hosoya, speaks from the standpoint of a doctor.

People who do not care about their eating will never be able to lead a decent life.

Flavor is a standard for human beings to properly protect their own lives. There is a close linkage between flavor and living our lives. Relying on this linkage is important throughout the course of our lives.

Hosoya: I see; taste sensitivity protects our lives.

The power of soup stock

Tatsumi: That is why I imagine how happy ailing Japanese would be if retired professional master chefs could cook meals for them at hospitals. And this would also help those chefs find a new sense of purpose for their own lives.

Hosoya: You’re absolutely right. However, under the current system, it’s difficult to secure sufficient meal fees for hospital food. For this reason, given the present circumstances, we can only dream about having professional chefs prepare good-tasting hospital meals. The sense that eating forms the basis for life has faded away in Japan as a whole.

Tatsumi: I hope that the Japanese people can somehow regain that sense. Currently, I am thinking about how we could achieve that.

When I was invited to give a lecture at the Japanese Red Cross College of Nursing some time ago, I first asked the 600 participants, males and females, if they extracted tsuyu (Japanese soup stock) by themselves. Only about 20 of them raised their hands.

I wish everyone would think about the position of stock in soups around the world. Considering Japan’s highly humid geographical conditions, I think the mission of Japanese soup stock is significant.

Hosoya: We have four distinct seasons in Japan and people who live here have traditionally refined their wisdom to be able to eat the soil’s gifts we are given locally in each season by making them delicious. Within the foundations of this inherited Japanese taste sensitivity is soup stock, isn’t it?

Tatsumi: Soup stock plays a role in keeping the blood in human bodies in good condition, without excess or deficiency. I do not think any country, other than Japan, has soups in which seaweed is used to make them delicious while keeping our blood vessels clean.

I feel that we Japanese have not solidly assessed the distinction between what we have and what we lack.

When preparing soups, Japanese stock is easier than for soups made overseas. The tendency of the Japanese to dislike following such a simple preparation process, I think, shows insufficient education on soup stock. How good it is, how necessary it is to our body and how much better it is compared to soups in other countries are not properly recognized.

The Japanese have keen sense when it comes to eating

Hosoya: The problem is not simply with extracting soup stock, is it? It is about neglecting the most fundamental aspects of the special food culture that has been nurtured by Japan’s climate and nature.

In Japan today, in order to maintain and preserve genuine Japanese taste sensitivity we need people like you, who teach the Japanese by taking delicious Japanese food and saying “this tastes good.”

Tatsumi: The Japanese should have an innately keen sense when it comes to eating. In summer, we drink barley tea. In the old days, people use to roast naked barley at home so that some of the vitamin B1 remained in the tea. If we lose vitamin B1 in the summer we feel fatigue. We took barley tea as a supplement for vitamin B1. We also ate parched barley flour as a snack.

Hosoya: We did, didn’t we? It’s called hattai.

Tatsumi: Yes, hattai-ko flour. If we cook it with wheat it can be eaten as a staple food. In the old days, people ate such foods to ensure their intake of vitamin B1, which is needed in the summer. I think eating katsuo (bonito) in May to June was also thought to be necessary for preparing for the harsh weather in summer.

Hosoya: People also did not think that they had to eat such food for their health but ate it because it tasted good. The Japanese had this keen sense. I wish people placed more value on this sense.

First, we make people eat good Japanese soup on a regular basis. After all, eating truly tasty food is the starting point for improving taste sensitivity in people.

Hosoya: I agree with you. If people eat tasty food all the time like you, anyone will immediately be able to notice when they eat terrible food.

Tatsumi: (Laughs)

Hosoya: I really think so. They say that it is best for an apprentice gardener to look only at top-class, excellent gardens. We doctors are the same. We see many healthy babies at health checkups and we notice immediately if there is some concern the baby may be sick.

That is why I think it is very important also with regard of eating to always maintain the condition where what is normal, which you have just explained, is good. However, the problem is that what is normal now includes potato chips and cola, hamburgers… In everyday life, we need to teach children the traditional ways of eating in Japan.

Cooking depends on making arrangements

Tatsumi: The other day I went to the offices of Dentsu in Shiodome, in Tokyo’s Minato Ward. The elevator carried me down from the fiftieth floor to the first floor in one minute. I don’t know if that’s what is called convenience, but I thought that this might inadvertently affect people spending time in such places and that their qualities as human beings may change. At least, matters such as extracting soup stock for preparing meals may seem out of place for such people.

People never think why linear motor trains or ultrafast elevators need to be that fast. In fact, the time it takes to go from the fiftieth floor to the ground floor does not need to be one minute, does it?

Hosoya: But you know, even those people leading lives propelled by such ultrahigh speeds think that good-tasting food is tasty when they eat it. However, it is a different story when it comes to how much time they will spend preparing tasty meals by themselves. I imagine the reality is that women who are more actively working than others tend to live on potato chips and cola. Staying busy has become a normal life for them, and the Japanese people today as a whole do not have peace of mind to think about real taste and what proper eating habits are.

Tatsumi: I think so too. Or maybe the feeling of going down from the fiftieth floor to the ground floor in one minute should be brought into the world of cooking. In short, making arrangements is important. Depending on arrangements, you can reach the ground floor in one minute. It’s the same with extracting soup stock.

Hosoya: The other day you gave me shio-no-takara that contained dried sardines and shiitake mushrooms in bags similar to teabags.

Tatsumi: Soak that bag in water together with seaweed in a pot and put the pot in the refrigerator before you go to bed. While you are sleeping, good stock will seep out naturally. So, if you put that pot on the stove while you wash your face in the morning, you will have extracted soup stock. This makes you feel the same way as going down from the fiftieth floor to the ground floor in one minute.

Hosoya: For those who think they can never extract soup stock because it is so troublesome and time-consuming, we need to hold workshops to show how easy it is to make the best stock.

Tatsumi: Playing music in front of many people can impress them all simultaneously, but in the world of cooking, tastes basically need to be conveyed on a one-to-one basis, which is the most difficult part.

Hosoya: Come to think of it, it is truly difficult to convey something to other people that can only be conveyed on a one-to-one basis.

Tatsumi: I would think that the maximum number of people who can actually receive the taste I try to convey is five. I cannot convey it to ten people at the same time. In kaiseki(tea ceremony dishes), holding a session with ten guests is unusual. Five guests would be typical for a tea ceremony. Tea-making utensils come in sets for five people. The number five has some degree of significance.

Hosoya: I see. You may be right.

Let’s teach cooking to grandchildren

Tatsumi: It is only natural to prepare food for 365 days in the way it should be prepared and eat it in the way it should be eaten, but doing this in a natural way requires self-control. I think nothing takes as much self-control as preparing food for 365 days. Well, “self-control” may now be dead language. (Laughs)

Hosoya: In order to do that, women and men who are too busy working will need to somehow find time to make arrangements for meals.

Tatsumi: Put more strongly, people cannot say that they have no time to prepare meals if they seriously think about why humans eat.

You know that NHK broadcasts a program called “Today’s Cooking.” As far as I am concerned, that program has a defect in the sense that it only teaches people to “take life day by day.” It always teaches how to prepare just one meal.

Hosoya: That certainly does seem to be the case. To tell the truth, I am currently a member of the NHK Consultative Committees on Broadcast Programs, and I’ll need to raise this issue with them. (Laughs)

Tatsumi: Please do tell them.

When we extract soup stock, we prepare enough for one week and freeze it. Then, we can prepare soup in no time when we get home from work. These kinds of things must be taught.

Suppose that we prepare sliced cucumber with vinegar, a very simple dish. If you notice that after you knead the cucumber against the cutting board and slice it, that you do not have nihaizu (vinegar and soy sauce mixed in roughly equal proportions) or sanbaizu (vinegar, soy sauce and mirin [sweetened rice wine for cooking] mixed in roughly equal proportions), we have to hurry and make the vinegar mixture. If this is the case, we’ll surely develop a dislike of cooking. I myself would not prepare sliced cucumber with vinegar if I did not have the vinegar mixture ready.

For this reason, it would be better to make enough nihaizu or sanbaizu to last two weeks. The mixture has vinegar so that it does not spoil. When we know roughly how many times a week we will have vinegar-based food, we simply need to prepare enough vinegar mixture. Then, when we knead and slice cucumbers, we can eat them immediately by pouring the vinegar mixture over them. When we make grated daikon radish, a few drops of sanbaizu make it taste slightly unusual, but delicious. I think that this kind of wisdom is what is asked of modern Japanese people.

Hosoya: What you are saying is that it is not good to only think of what meals to prepare for the day each day. A perspective such as living for a week or a month on this amount of cooking ingredients is necessary for cooking programs.

If we do it at all, we should plan meals for one week and make arrangements. When we boil leafy vegetables, thinking of boiling them just for that day’s meal is not good.

What I do is boil two or three bunches at the same time by tearing leaves and stems apart. Boiled leaves can be eaten with seasoning, and stems can be eaten cooked with potatoes. If we boil about two bunches of leafy vegetables at one time, they can be developed into various dishes. Cooking becomes much easier.

After we boil them, we sprinkle them with a small amount of olive oil. Olive oil keeps food from spoiling. Doing this lets you immediately use them in cooking, even the next day and beyond. However, few people talk about olive oil’s benefits in preventing food spoilage.

When we steam foods, we steam various kinds of vegetables all at the same time. If we steam potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes and taro together, we can prepare meals using them the following day and later. I wonder why people are not taught these kinds of cooking processes.

Hosoya: The life of having meals at home seven days a week was normal years ago in Japan, but there are now smaller numbers of Japanese who consecutively eat meals at home.

For this reason, in reality it is difficult to follow the instruction that they should become better at planning meals. I think that this is one of the factors behind the poor imagination in modern Japanese people when it comes to devising various ways of cooking. We are in an era in which not only men but also women are racing against time and responsibilities in their jobs.

Tatsumi: The busier people are, the more important are their planning and arranging abilities. Before we talk about this, however, the problem is Japanese people’s awareness of eating habits. I am very concerned about how Japanese food culture will become if the situation stays unchanged.

Hosoya: I would think it would be nice to teach young children full of hope for the future at your workshops.

I say this because I started to feel, from talking with you today, that we will not be able to stop the collapse of Japanese food culture unless we start now in teaching children that preparing good-tasting food every day is a basic principle of life.

It is naturally important to have the generation of younger parents who are busy working become aware, starting from scratch, of the significance of eating. However, skipping this generation and teaching the next generation would seem to be closer to achieving the goal, though it may seem to be a roundabout path.

You may be right about that. I know that a junior high school boy is coming to my class next Saturday. I look forward to it. I may tell him to bring his friends. (Laughs)

Hosoya: Boys also love to eat good-tasting food, like I do, and there must be many of them who want to prepare foods by themselves.

Cooking is similar to experiments in the sense that we imagine what will be created when this and that are combined. This will fascinate children.

For this reason, I wish grandmothers would take the time to teach their grandchildren their homemade dishes more often.

Tatsumi: I think the fact that grandmothers have hesitated to teach their sons and daughters how to cook and tell them various things about cooking has caused the current situation. It is not a reserved attitude but the frustration they feel when they try to tell things to young people. They tend to think that it would be better if they just don’t have to tell them.

I do hope that they make their homemade dishes and teach younger people how to prepare them. Those dishes should absolutely taste better than fast food.

Our targets are elderly people and children. I’ve started to feel that we have no choice but to hold out hope for the generations of retired grandfathers and grandmothers and their grandchildren as the target to hand down the Japanese food tradition in order to preserve Japanese tastes. Please do teach the children.

Tatsumi: I think that grandmothers and grandchildren are the most valuable ones.

Translated from “Nihonjin no mikaku wo tsutaetai (Wanting to Hand Down Japanese Sense of Taste)” for the series of ‘Shoku to Inochi – hito ga hito to narutameni,’ Bungeishunju, November 2011, pp. 364-370. (Courtesy of Bungeishunju, Ltd.)