Yutaka Matsushige (1963 – present) plays the protagonist of ‘Kodoku no Gurume’
Perhaps due to the persistent image in Japanese culture that a master artisan should be a man of few words who just shuts up and makes things, for all the country’s obsession with good food, Japan has not yet given rise to the Jamie Oliver type of food celebrity (who probably talks more than he cooks). Indeed, one may say that (to use a marketing lingo) the ‘influencers’ of the food industry tend to be fictional characters rather than real people.
This was the impression I had when I watched the hugely popularly TV series Kodoku no Gurume [孤独のグルメ] (‘The Solitary Gourmet’) based on the manga of the same name. The protagonist Goro Inogashira is a salaryman who visits his clients all over Japan, and sometimes overseas. His one hobby in life is to eat delicious food by himself at a restaurant. He makes of point of eating all by himself because he wants to eat without bothering about other people or being bothered by other people. Although he mostly eats at low-to-mid price range establishments, he has become an iconic symbol of a growing trend in Japan where it is becoming an acceptable thing to eat alone at a restaurant – these days, even the high-end ones adjust their menus to accommodate patrons who eat all by himself or herself.
Rosanjin Kitaooji [北大路魯山人] (1883-1959)
The Japanese gourmet Rosanjin Kitaooji [北大路魯山人] (1883-1959) (actually he is a man of many hats – aesthete, chef, writer, ceramic artist, calligrapher, painter, seal carver, philosopher, entrepreneur, cultural critic, socialite – but for the purpose of this post let us think of him as gourmet) once wrote about a conversation he had with a guest that is almost like a zen koan
of its own:
Guest: Sensei, please tell me about the the essence of cuisine.
Kitaooji: It is something you produce in order to eat.
Guest: So we produce cuisine in order to eat. Then, sensei, what it is that we eat for?
Kitaooji: We eat in order to live.
Guest: Then what do we live for?
Kitaooji: We live in order to die.
If you simplify this into a formula: to cook => to eat => to live => to die. In other words, we cook in order to die.
The reason why I mention him is because he is the one who solved a mystery that has been on my mind for many years – namely, why is cuisine called ryori [料理] in Japanese?
Watermelon radish, or koushin daikon [紅芯大根], is a type of hitherto relatively unknown vegetable that has become increasingly popular in Japan since the early 2010s.
Traditionally, radish or daikon [大根] is a stable ingredient that often appears in miso soup and oden etc. The word “daikon” itsself is (justly or unjustly) associated with drabness, dorkiness and frumpishness. For example:
- Daikon ashi [大根足] refers to the plump, fleshy and ungainly legs of a fat woman.
- Daikon yakusha [大根役者] refers to poor, wooden actors.
- Daikon means “moron”.
Against this cultural milieu, watermelon radish has become to be associated with stylishness, trendiness and glamour. Unlike the traditional radish, watermelon radish is red inside; and whereas a radish tastes like radish, watermelon radish actually tastes like a very sweet watermelon, except it is crispier.