In Japan, chefs and home-cooks alike insist on top quality ingredients grown without pesticides in pollution-free environments. To this end, the Japanese may be the most health-conscience nation in the world because of their unrelenting quest for pure, nutritious food.
The majority of food sold in Japan is farmed or grown in Japan or collected out of the waters of Japan. This attention to the source of food and how it was grown or produced guarantees that food sold in Japan will meet the high standards demanded by Japanese people. Much Japanese food is produced following traditional cultivating and harvesting practices - there is a tremendous amount of value and respect paid to farmers and their products. This attential to the details of food comes with a hefty price tag - Japanese food is very expensive to prepare at home and even more expensive when dining out in restaurants. Portions may be tiny, but the quality will always be high.
When we visited Japan for the spring tea harvest, we set aside time to wander thru the impressive food halls in the department stores of Toyko and Kyoto and also to visit a few local, traditional food markets. We were struck by how much emphasis there was on organic and natural foods, and how important to the Japanese this is. No matter the income level of the family, everyone want to eat healthy, nutrious food.
One term we saw quite often was ‘YUKKI’ which refers to ‘natural farming.’ Yukki labeling implies organic, and this term is used for something grown using organic principles by farmers who are too small to afford the high costs of procuring official ‘organic’ certification. Yukki farmers are the stewards of the land and practice sustainable agriculture by traditional means passed down from previous generations in little local pockets of land all over the country. Many of the products that we saw – regional misos, shoyu, pickled vegetables, rice and salt, all featured a picture of the farmer or food producer responsible for the product in the package.
This category made a great deal of sense to me. My hope would be that we will one day begin to support such labeling here. We all know that there is big undefined space that exists between ‘organic’ and ‘conventionally grown’ fruits and vegetables here in the USA. It would benefit both consumers and farmers if such a sensible, new category of labeling could be employed so that food classification would not be so black and white.
One of my favorite discoveries in Japan was the fresh, clean flavors of Japanese sea salt. Japan has an enormous amount of coastline, and salt harvesting is an ancient craft here. Upon our return, I sought out excellent examples of Japanese salt to sell in our shop. Here are the two choices I made.
IBURI-JIO – smoked sea salt from Akita Prefecture in northern Japan. Here, sea water is collected off the shore of the Oga Pennisnula, and placed in large pots set over wood-burning fires to slowly evaporate for three days. During this time the salt crystallizes and the grains take shape. The collected sea water is rich in natural minerals – magnesium, calcium and potassium – and this composition adds to the integrity of this salt. As a final step, the salt is roasted over cherry wood fires to dry and finish it.
This imparts a lovely, delicate smoked flavor and aroma to the salt, which ends up a pleasing, light tan color. I love this salt because it is so carefully made – many smoked salts that I have tried are strident and harsh from being artificially flavored with liquid hickory smoke. IBURI-JIO IS AMAZING when lightly sprinkled (as a finishing salt ) on grilled salmon or tuna or juicy pork chops.
SUZO SHIO – this sea salt is made in Ishikawa Prefecture from sea water collected from the Noto Peninsula. It is made by an artisan method first started in the 16th century. Clean sea water is sprayed over bamboo blinds which are hung in the salt room from the ceiling to floor. As the salt water runs down the slats of the blinds, some of the water evaporates. But the rest of the water is collected in the pot at the bottom. This water is sprayed over the blinds again numerous times until super-saturated water remains. The super-saturated water is then transfered to another large pot and is slowly heated over a wood fire for two days. SUZO SHIO salt is pure, pure white and a lovely balance of salty with a touch of sweetness. NO BITTERNESS !