One of my favorite things about being a chef is discovering new and unique cuisines that come from different parts of our world.
Yes, I am from Spain and I love my country’s cooking, but I also love experiencing the foods of new places. No matter what part of the world I am in, there will always be something amazing for me to discover.
Last month, I had the chance to travel to Japan for the very first time in my life, and wow, I was blown away. I had a pretty good understanding of Japanese food before my trip, but nothing could have prepared me for the wonders that were in store when walking the streets, smelling the smells, seeing the ingredients and preparations of this intricate cuisine in its home country. Japanese cuisine is one of the most impressive styles of cooking I have ever experienced. Everything is fresh, simple and beautifully prepared. This I knew, but the Japanese have very unique eating habits and rituals, and their cuisine is considered one of the defining pillars of their culture. Once you experience first hand, it is not hard to see why.
I was invited to Japan by my friend and chef Nobu Matsuhisa to film a television show with him. While I was there, I was inspired to do research for a new restaurant I’m opening in DC, China Chilcano, as well, so that I could really understand and know the cuisine. Basically, I was there to eat and learn. We traveled through the cities of Tokyo and Kyoto, and rural parts of the island of Hokkaido. We saw so many things and tasted so many flavors. There are times in our lives where our adventures have an impact on how we see the world. Where a new window is opened to give us a new perspective. I see the world through food, and here I hope to share some of my favorite discoveries from this journey.
One thing I was reminded of on my trip was how, as this world goes round and round, we often think of how different we all are from each other, we don’t spend enough time thinking about how we’re the same. Many things make us equal as human beings, and we have a tendency of seeing it the other way. During my trip, I was amazed at how similar Japanese cooking is to my native Spain’s. The Japanese believe that eating is a form of socializing, just like we do, and they care a lot about every single aspect of their food. There were so many times when I felt like I was home. When we visited the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, I felt that if I closed my eyes, I could have been in Spain. The sights, smells and sounds all brought me there.
I had to visit the market’s tuna auction, which took place at the crack of dawn. Despite it being early, the nakagi, or tuna buyers, inspected the tuna with such focus and dedication, it was almost as if they were performing a religious ceremony. It was very admirable work and a testament to the effort the Japanese put into their food.
I found many Japanese dishes so similar to Spain’s, like Spanish frituras and Japanese tempura. Vegetables, meats and seafood, both fried to add flavor and texture. In Spain, we use high quality olive oil. In Japan, they use sesame oil. The techniques are so much the same, but also so unique. And wouldn’t you know, the Japanese learned this method of deep-frying from Portuguese and Spanish missionaries at the start of the sixteenth century, so it is no surprise they are so alike.
This is ayu tempura that I enjoyed at an amazing place called Tenshin in Tokyo, considered one of the best tempura restaurants in all of Japan. It’s a secret, local spot that we were lucky to have known about. This meal was especially great because ayu is a fish that’s only in season for a very short time. The ayu that day was still alive, straight out of the Tokyo Bay, and it was so fresh that it actually jumped from the basket into the tempura batter!
A very special part of Japanese cooking is the seasonality of ingredients. When certain ingredients come into season, it is like a holiday. Similar to the ayu we enjoyed, another seafood delicacy in Japan is called shinko. It is only available one week out of the year, and it can be sold for up to 300 dollars per pound. It is considered a delicacy because of its size. As the fish grows bigger, its name changes to kohada and it loses its appeal. The shinko gods must’ve known I was celebrating my birthday on this day, because I was able to enjoy it sashimi-style at a sushi stall in Tsukiji Market. The meal made me feel like I was living and breathing the legendary Japanese comic Oishinbo by Tetsu Kariya and Arika Hanasaki. In this story, the young Yamaoka Shiro is tasked with an epic journey to find the best dishes for a perfect meal that would honor Japanese cuisine. Eating this extraordinary fish, I felt like Yamaoka, successful in my quest to celebrate the culture of Japan. One of my dining companions could even share first hand in my joy, because he had flown to Japan just to eat it. It was flavorful and fresh, and I will never forget it.
Another ingredient that is highly regarded by the Japanese is one of my favorite foods of all time, uni, which is the roe of a sea urchin. Uni is a very acquired taste, and there are many different types that vary in flavors and textures. Some say the best uni comes from the Hokkaido Bay, because of the bay’s clean waters and abundance of kombu. This type of uni is called bafun, characterized by its dense texture and intense taste. I got to pull this astonishing creature straight from the sea when I went fishing with chef Nobu. We were so successful that day, we felt like kings by the end of it with our large supply.
Along with ingredients, the Japanese make an art form out of the presentation of their meals. They bring great care and finesse to any dish, no matter what it is or where it’s from or who it is for, like it’s a special gift. I’ll never forget this bowl of fresh seafood that we enjoyed after a tea ceremony at the Kuramure Inn, a beautiful retreat in Hokkaido that was miles from the hustle and bustle of city life. It was one of the most beautiful dishes I had ever seen, and it looked like it belonged in a museum, making it very difficult to dig into. One taste, though, and it wasn’t hard to continue eating.
While Japan is home to some of the most luxurious restaurants in the world, it is also known for its casual, home-style cooking, as well. The Japanese have a way of creating simple, minimalist dishes with astonishing flavor. It’s known as their “washoku” cuisine, and it is considered one of their national treasures. A lot of these comforting dishes are centered on rice, and one of my favorites from my trip was this oyakodon that we had at the famous yakitori restaurant Bird Land. Made with just eggs and chicken broth, it was known as “father and son,” and it had a very special meaning to me. While I do not have a son, I was traveling through Japan with my one of my daughters, and it was really powerful for us to experience these very special meals and see the world together in a new way. The flavors of this dish were pure and humble, but the taste was incredible, and for me, it honored the traditions of sharing a meal and being together with family.
It often takes a meal to penetrate a culture and see how similar we all are. Food, how we cook it and eat it, connects us, and the world would be a better place if we thought more about the things that bring us together rather than separate us.
This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.