FOOD CULTURE IN JAPAN: HISTORY, MANGA, COOKING SHOWS, EATING CONTESTS AND PLASTIC FOOD

HISTORY OF FOOD CULTURE IN JAPAN

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The rice-centered food culture of Japan evolved following the introduction of wet rice cultivation from Asia more than 2,000 years ago. The tradition of rice served with seasonal vegetables and fish and other marine products reached a highly sophisticated form in the Edo period (1603-1868) and remains the vibrant core of native Japanese cuisine. In the century and a half since Japan reopened to the West, however, Japan has developed an incredibly rich and varied food culture that includes not only native-Japanese cuisine but also many foreign dishes, some adapted to Japanese tastes and some imported more or less unchanged. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

In addition to exporting its cuisine to the world, Japan has also exported the very popular cooking show Iron Chef. In this program, which ran as a series in Japan from 1993 to 1999, chefs from Japan and abroad challenged the show’s resident “Iron Chefs” to cooking “battles.” Ryori no tetsujin, as Iron Chef is known in Japan, was only one in a long line of food- and cooking-themed shows on Japanese television. There have also been a very large number of food- and cooking-themed manga (Japanese comics), and some of those manga have been turned into television anime series. [Ibid]

On things to love about food in Japan, Andrew Bender wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “1) Conveyor-belt sushi. Two obsessions: sushi and automation, mashed together with style and fun. It's taking the world by storm from Kyoto to Koreatown. 2) Onigiri. These little triangles of rice, with a dollop of salmon, kelp or tuna inside, and wrapped in nori seaweed, were once road snacks for samurai. Now, road warriors and corporate workers buy them at convenience stores to put in lunch boxes or eat onboard long-distance trains. I haven't officially arrived in Japan until I've eaten one. 3) Ramen. If the only ramen you've ever known is from those plastic packets, you won't know what hit you when you have your first taste of real ramen. It starts with the broth---soy sauce, salt, miso, pork bones and more---and the noodles topped with bamboo shoots, half a hard-boiled egg and strips of roast pork. The obsession extends to a ramen museum (with plenty of tasting opportunities). [Source: Andrew Bender, Los Angeles Times, March 11, 2012]

History of Japanese Food Culture

In the centuries following the introduction of Buddhism to Japan in the 6th century, laws and imperial edicts gradually eliminated the eating of almost all flesh of animals and fowl. The vegetarian style of cooking known as shojin ryori was later popularized by the Zen sect, and by the 15th century many of the foods and food ingredients eaten by Japanese today had already made their debut, for example, soy sauce (shoyu), miso, tofu, and other products made from soybeans. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

“Around the same time, a formal and elaborate style of banquet cooking developed that was derived from the cuisine of the court aristocracy. Known as honzen ryori, it is one of the three basic styles of Japanese cooking along with chakaiseki ryori (the cuisine of the tea ceremony meal) and kaiseki ryori. With an emphasis on the artistic presentation of fresh, seasonal ingredients, the tea meal married the formalities of honzen ryori to the spirit and frugality of Zen. [Ibid]

Kaiseki ryori was developed in its present form in the early 19th century and is still served at first-class Japanese restaurants known as ryotei and at traditional Japanese inns. While retaining the fresh seasonal ingredients and artful presentation of earlier styles, kaiseki meals have fewer rules of etiquette and a more relaxed atmosphere. Sake is drunk during the meal, and, because the Japanese do not generally eat rice while drinking sake, rice is served at the end. Appetizers, sashimi (sliced raw fish), suimono (clear soup), yakimono (grilled foods), mushimono (steamed foods), nimono (simmered foods), and aemono (dressed salad-like foods) are served first, followed by miso soup, tsukemono (pickles), rice, Japanese sweets, and fruit. Tea concludes the meal. Although most Japanese people have few opportunities to experience full-scale kaiseki dinners, the types and order of foods served in kaiseki ryori are the basis for the contemporary full-course Japanese meal. [Ibid]

“The sushi that most people are familiar with today---vinegared rice topped or combined with such items as raw fish and shellfish---developed in Edo (now Tokyo) in the early 19th century. The sushi of that period was sold from stalls as a snack food, and those stalls were the precursors of today’s sushi restaurants. [Ibid]

Foreign Influences on Japanese Food Culture

Japan’s first substantial and direct exposure to the West came with the arrival of European missionaries in the second half of the 16th century. At that time, the combination of Spanish and Portuguese game frying techniques with a Chinese method for cooking vegetables in oil led to the development of tempura, the popular Japanese dish in which seafood and many different types of vegetables are coated with batter and deep fried. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

“With the reopening of Japan to the West in the mid-19th century, many new cooking and eating customs were introduced, the most important being the eating of meat. Although now considered a Japanese dish, sukiyaki---beef, vegetables, tofu, and other ingredients cooked at the table in a broth of soy sauce, mirin (sweet sake), and sugar---was at first served in “Western-style” restaurants. Another popular native dish developed in this period is tonkatsu, deepfried breaded pork cutlets. Created in the early 20th century using Indian curry powder imported by way of England, Japanese curry rice (kare-raisu) became a very popular dish; it contains vegetables and meat or seafood in a thick curry sauce that is served over rice. [Ibid]

Japanese Food Today

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One piece bento
The ingredient choices available at supermarkets and other food stores in all but the most isolated rural districts of Japan are so varied that on any given day a homecooked dinner could contain an incredible variety of dishes of various national origins. Even so, native Japanese food is still the norm, and a “Japanese meal” at home will generally have white rice, miso soup, and tsukemono pickles. The multiple dishes that accompany these three vary widely depending on the region, the season, and family preferences, but candidates include cooked vegetables, tofu, grilled fish, sashimi, and beef, pork, and chicken cooked in a variety of ways. Popular alternatives to native Japanese fare include Chinese-style stir-fried meat and vegetable dishes and Korean-style grilled beef and pork. More adventurous cooks may try their hand at American, French, Italian, and other ethnic dishes. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

Selections particularly popular with children include spaghetti, hamburgers, and the curry rice mentioned above. While many families continue to eat home-cooked meals every night, the greatest change taking place in eating habits in recent decades has been the replacement of homecooked dishes with food prepared outside the home. [Ibid]

Sushi, Chinese and Japanese noodle dishes, and Japanese-style box lunches (bento) have long been available via home delivery (demae) in towns and cities, and now pizza and many other dishes can also be ordered. In addition, supermarkets have many prepared foods such as sushi, tempura, and fried chicken to purchase and take home, and the spread of convenience stores into all but the most remote areas of Japan has made a wide variety of pre-cooked bento-type meals available to almost everyone. [Ibid]

Food Manga

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fast food erasers
Oishinbo a Japanese manga about food, written by Tetsu Kariya and drawn by Akira Hanasaki, was first published in Japan in 1983, and has run to over a hundred volumes. The books have been enormously bestsellers. To date, they have sold over a hundred million copies worldwide, and have spawned a popular television show. The California company Viz Media released the first English translations in 2009. [Source: The New Yorker, Madeleine Schwartz, August 10, 2010]

Madeleine Schwartz wrote in The New Yorker, “It is hard to imagine a more successful combination of comic books and cooking. The premise is straightforward. Two rival Japanese newspapers compete to create a menu that will capture the essence of the country's cuisine. But the battle is complicated by the foodies in charge. At the head of the "Supreme Menu" is the fearsome chef Kaibara Yuzan, whose "Gourmet Club" is thought to be the best restaurant in all Japan. Facing him is his son, Yamaoka Shiro, a reporter and the hero of the series, who is in charge of the "Ultimate Menu."

“Yamaoka is like a gastronimical Clark Kent: as a reporter, he is unremarkable and often outright lazy,” Swatrz wrote. “Several scenes feature him clipping his nails at work. But with food, he is unstoppable, flaking fish with a broken glass when a knife is too dull, or parading enough esoteric information about Japanese cooking to make even an expert jealous. This expertise is vast, and it makes the series an enlightening read. Most of the stories center on the discovery of some aspect of Japanese cooking: as Yamaoka samples fish and mills rice, he also guides the reader through new ingredients and old traditions, with the help of copious footnotes. I did not know, for example, that black edamame are a delicacy, or that sake comes in so many varieties.

“But his mission is not only a search for good ingredients. The book constantly admonishes fanciness when simplicity will suffice, and flourish that ignores basic principles. In one story, an amateur chef given to showy knife skills has to peel a three-meter strip off of a single radish to prove his worth. In another, a worker attempts to impress his date by eating elegant French food, only to realize that nothing is more satisfying than ramen noodles. (French food, it might be noted, does not come off very well in the series).”

“At times, the stories verge on the pedantic, but they make up for it with humor. Yamaoka's passion for his project pushes him to extreme situations and outrageous bursts of indignation. I have never read so many food-related insults in one place. "He's like a gourmet demon," a character says of Kaibara. Chefs accuse each other of being mere amateurs or, worse, of forgetting the reverence they must have for their ingredients. One confrontation has father and son playing out years of family tension in a heated discussion over parasites.”

Foreign Chefs Study Japanese Cuisine

“To give young French and Japanese chefs an opportunity to learn from each other and to help the French chefs to learn and master the characteristics of Japanese cuisine as it is prepared in Japan, since 2005 the Japanese Culinary Academy has held Japanese Culinary Fellowships in Kyoto and Osaka. While studying in the kitchens of first class Kyoto restaurants, the visiting French chefs are also able to experience many food-related aspects of traditional Japanese culture.

Tomonori Takenouchi and Yoko Tanimoto wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Many non-Japanese are knocking on Japan's door to learn the skills of local chefs. Derek Wilcox, a 35-year-old American, is one of 20 chefs at Kikunoi Honten, a Kyoto restaurant founded in 1912 that serves such seasonal delicacies as sashimi made from tilefish and crab meat. He has worked at the restaurant for five years. [Source: Tomonori Takenouchi and Yoko Tanimoto, Yomiuri Shimbun, January 9, 2012]

Wilcox, who arrived in Japan after graduating from a cooking school in New York State, decided to seek work at Kikunoi Honten after tasting "amadai no kabura-mushi"--a steamed dish of tilefish with grated kabu radish--one winter at the restaurant. Wilcox said: "The dish extracted the gentle sweetness and complex taste from the radish. The dish was not only tasty but warmed my heart. "I felt shocked, rather than impressed. In the United States, sophisticated dishes like this don't exist." Since then, he has learned to cook food very carefully, making sure it is arranged on dishes properly. He pays particular attention to seasonal elements.

Kikunoi Honten owner Yoshihiro Murata, 60, said his restaurant has received an increasing number of inquiries from non-Japanese who want to learn Japanese cooking. In the past two or three years, about 10 cooks from Italy, Spain and other countries have visited Kikunoi Honten. "Japanese words such as 'umami' and 'dashi' have become commonplace among cooks in Western countries," Murata said. "As an increasing number of people have become more health-conscious, the greater the chef's skills, the more enthusiastically they study low-calorie Japanese cuisine using dashi of dried kelp and katsuobushi [bonito fish flakes]."

Many students from other Asian countries learn Japanese cooking at Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka. The number has soared from five in fiscal 2007 to 54 in fiscal 2011. Lin Iku-shu, a 27-year-old from Taiwan, said: "Taiwan people are extremely interested in Japanese culture. Japanese restaurants and izakaya pubs are popular."

Popularity of Japanese Food Abroad

According to a 2010 Japan External Trade Organization survey, there are 14,129 Japanese restaurants in the United States---a twofold increase in 10 years--- and about 1,000 restaurants in France and more than 500 in Britain. Many foreign tourists also visit Japan for the food. In a 2010 survey conducted by the Japan National Tourism Organization, 62.5 percent of tourists said they were very interested in Japanese food before visiting the country. Asked to name the dish that satisfied them the most, 44 percent picked sushi. Mika Hanada, chief of JETRO's agriculture, forestry, fisheries and food planning division, told the Yomiuri Shimbun,” "Japanese cuisine is considered a life culture particular to Japan." [Source: Tomonori Takenouchi and Yoko Tanimoto, Yomiuri Shimbun, January 9, 2012]

As Japanese food culture has spread overseas, some top French chefs reportedly use not only miso and soy sauce, but also other traditional Japanese ingredients such as wasabi, yuzu and kombu. Tomonori Takenouchi and Yoko Tanimoto wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Some foodstuffs do not have a high profile in Japanese cuisine, but they have been praised overseas and eventually exported. One of them is Unzen kobu takana, a variety of takana mustard greens that have galls on the surface of leaf stalks. It is a traditional vegetable in Unzen City, Nagasaki Prefecture. Setsue Baba, 61, a local producer of the vegetable in the city, displayed the salt-preserved vegetable at a food fair in Italy in October 2006. Local chefs said her product was suitable for use with pasta and all 1,000 packages on sale were snapped up. "I was pleased that the taste of my hometown was praised," Baba said. "At the same time, I feel responsible in preserving local foodstuffs."She continues to participate in the biennial fair and now exports the vegetable to not only Italy but also Britain, Denmark and other countries.

Chieko Mukasa, a food culture researcher, said, "Like a kaleidoscope, Japanese cuisine is attractive on many levels. "It has been praised overseas and prompted the Japanese to rediscover the joys of a Japanese lifestyle. I hope people introduce the excellent points [of cuisine] to the rest of the world." Efforts to foster local brands have already started. The Japan food Industry Center, an incorporated foundation, has launched a system that gives a stamp of approval to "real and genuine" products that meet quality and production criteria. The system is modeled on those in Europe in which food products are labeled with geographic names to preserve traditional foodstuffs. The government also plans to create a certification system for local foodstuffs by the end of fiscal 2016.

Designating Japanese Food a UNESCO Intangible Heritage

The Japanese government has applied to have "washoku" traditional dietary culture added to UNESCO's intangible cultural heritage list. "We think of [washoku] as a meal that consists of rice, miso soup and okazu side dishes such as boiled vegetables and cooked fish. Imagine a home-cooked Japanese meal based around a bowl of soup and three simple dishes," said Shizuoka University of Art and Culture President Isao Kumakura, who served as chairman of a government study group on the UNESCO bid . In 2011, South Korea sought to include its traditional royal court cuisine in the UNESCO list, but failed to make it past the screening process, suggesting Japan's bid may face similar difficulties. [Source: Yoshiko Kosaka and Tomonori Takenouchi, Yomiuri Shimbun Staff, May 3. 2012]

Tomonori Takenouchi and Yoko Tanimoto wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Efforts will be made this year to promote Japanese cuisine overseas as a national "brand." In March 2012, the Japanese government applied to UNESCO to register Japanese food culture as an intangible cultural heritage.This World Heritage category covers social customs, festivals and other forms of intangible cultural elements. "The gastronomic food of the French" and "traditional Mexican cuisine" are included on the list. [Source: Tomonori Takenouchi and Yoko Tanimoto, Yomiuri Shimbun, January 9, 2012]

In an effort to gain recognition next year, an Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry official said: "We want to demonstrate that the basic Japanese meal comprises a bowl of soup and three dishes with rice as the main staple. We will also emphasize its excellent nutritional balance, and our sophisticated cooking skills in which we use fresh foodstuffs suited to Japan's nature."

Iron Chef and Cooking Shows in Japan

Cooking and eating shows are very popular in Japan. One of the most popular shows, Iron Chef, was one of the top shows in 1990s and later became a hit on the Food Network in the United States. Staged in a domed "kitchen stadium," the show feature a competition between a challenger chef and one of the show's resident chefs. Each is given an hour to prepare a dish with a main ingredient that there are not informed of before the show. Their creations are judged by a cruel panel of critics and a winner is announced.

The cooks perform in a "Kitchen Stadium" with 400 ingredients. The main ingredient is announced by the show’s host who bangs the Gong of Fate signaling the chefs to begin their work while excited sports-style play-by-play announcers describe what they are doing and provide analysis. The chefs often work at a furious pace, tripping over TV wires, cutting themselves with their knives as they make ice from oysters and prepare milk-marinated carp. One time a chef cooked electric eel. Another time a chef extracted the essence of lobster to flavor asparagus and then the threw the lobster away. There are no cash prizes. Just the prestige of appearing.

"Iron Chef" has become campy cult favorite that has spawned knockoffs in America, Israel, Australia, Britain, Thailand and elsewhere. The show's most celebrated chef, Hiroyuki Sakai, is known for whipping up six-course dinners featuring such creations as Wagyu beef, Tasmanian salmon, octopus carpaccio and sweetbreads and abalone croquette. The show features a cooking competition with a mystery ingredient, celebrity judges and an outlandishly costumed host. Kitchen preparations are captured on camera and soaring music heralds the serving of each course. [Source: Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times, December 17, 2012]

Japanese Champions in Eating Contests

Many of the world’s best competitive eaters are skinny Japanese. They have won some the world’s best-paying and competitive eating contesting, embarrassing fat American eaters four times their size. Speaking on behalf of big men eaters in the United States, the president of the International Federation of Competitive Eating said, the "thin" men from Japan "raise questions of national honor for many people. These stunning defeats have been a blow to the big men of competitive eating.”

Shows with eating contests have traditionally been very popular in Japan. Prime Time shows like Food Battle Club and TV Champion are sometimes among the top ranked shows in their time slots. Shows with contestants slurping down bowls of ramen and inhaling 6-foot-long hot dogs were very popular until 2002, when a junior high school student died after choking on a bread while engaging in a speed eating contes with friends at lunch time. After that all eating competition were yanked form television in Japan.

The first Japanese to make a name for himself on the international eating scene was Hirofumi Nakajima who won the Nathan's international hot-dog-eating contest in Coney Island New York in 1997 and 1998.

On July 4, 2000, 34-year-old, 101-pound Kazutoyo "The Rabbit" Arai of Japan defeated 400-pound Steve "The Terminator" Keiner of the United States at the Nathan's contest. Arai ate 25 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Kiener at 16. The year before Keiner defeated a different Japanese rival by eating 20 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Before that nobody had eaten more than 20 hot dogs.

Finishing in third place in 2000 was a Takako Akasaka, a 5 foot 2 inch, 104-pound Japanese woman. She had never won a hot eating contest before that summer but was the Japanese meat bun eating champ.

American professional eaters have been so impressed they watch video tape of Japanese eating contests to study Japanese techniques and have taken up judo to improve the concentration and fitness.

Super Eater Takeru Kobayashi

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On July 4, 2001, 23-year-old, 132-pound Takeru “The Tsunami” Kobayashi stunned the eating contests world when he consumed twice as many hot dogs as any previous contestant to win the Nathan's international hot-dog-eating contest. Kobayashi ate 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes. The runner up, who ate 31 hot dogs, called Kobayashi a "monster." Kobayashi said, "I though about how I could eat as fast as possible. I knew I was going to win when I passed the 30-dog mark. I just kept eating as much as possible."

Kobayashi said he showed no particular aptitude for his sport when he was young other than the he ate a large boxed lunch at school and consumed two bowls of rice for dinner. He said he said he realized had a talent when he downed 10 bowls (5,000 grams) of curry at restaurant in one sitting. He qualified for Coney Island after he performed well in a televised eating contest---eating 387 small bowls of noodles in 12 minutes---that a friend entered him in without telling him.

Kobayashi calls himself a professional and a “food fighter” and lives off his contest winnings. He get in shape by working out and avoiding caffeine, alcohol and spicy food. He prepares for major events two months in advance by eating six to eight high-protein meals a day, totaling about 10,000 calories and keeps logs of what he eats. He lifts weight to tone up his muscles and improve his metabolism. He runs 10 kilometers in the morning and at night to improve his stamina. He usually weighs between 70 and 80 kilograms and he normally eats conventionally at a normal speed.

When he’s competing Kobayashi says that taste is the farthest thing from his mind but when he’s not training he insists that he eats as any normal person would. His favorite foods are raw liver, yogurt and tofu. "They're cheap, that's why I like them." He told the Asahi Shimbun, “I really enjoy eating slowly with people. Such time is so precious, and I appreciate it deeply.”

In the Nathan’s contest Kobayashi uses both hands, often tearing the hot dogs in half, swallows the meats, dunks the buns in water and swallows them too. He doesn’t chew anything. His technique is called the Solomon Method, after King Solomon who split babies like Kobayashi splits hot dogs.

Kobayashi’s Eating Victories

In July 2006, he captured his six consecutive title, eating 53⅓ hot dogs, breaking a record he set in 2005. In 2003, he captured his third consecutive title, eating 44½ hot dogs. In 2002, he ate 50½. He was almost disqualified when some of what he ate started coming out of his nose (contestants who throw up are disqualified) but quickly snorted it back in, which is fine.

By this time Kobayashi was so famous in the United States that he was portrayed as a superhero in NBC’s TV Funhouse segment on Saturday Night Live. Among his records are 17.7 pounds of cow brains in 15 minutes. He once challenged a grizzly bear to a two-minute eating contest and lost.

Hot dogs weren’t the only thing that Kobayashi could consume in massive quantities. In August 2005, Kobayashi ate 100 barbecued-pork buns in Hong Kong, more than twice the number of the first runner up. He was able to swallow many of the buns without chewing them. For his trouble Kobayashi won 20,000 Hong Kong dollars (US$2,574) and a Citizen wristwatch.

In December 2005, Kobayashi won $10,000 eating 67 hamburgers in eight minutes at the World Hamburger Eating Championship in Chattanooga Tennessee, The second place finisher led most of the contest but finished with 62.

In August 2006, Kobayashi ate 58 sausages in 10 minutes at the World Brauwurst Eating Chamopionshi in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. In September he consumed 41 lobster tails in 10 minutes at the Golden Palace.net Lobster Roll Eating Challenge in Boston. In October he gulped down 97 hamburgers in eight minutes at the Krystal Square Off World Hamburger eating Championship in Chattanooga Tennessee. In December he ate 5.5 kilograms of lamp hot pot in 24 minutes and donated the prize money to a local charity. It was the second time he won that event. He has appeared in eating contest at ESPN.

In May 2007 Kobayashi won a Pizza-Hut-sponsored competition in Culver City, California, downing 5½ pounds of pizza in six minutes. He said afterwards, “When I come to America, pizza is my happiness.”

In February 2012, Kobayashi won the 'Wingbowl 20', the annual chicken wing eating contest in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by consuming a record 337 chicken wings in the 30 minutes. Reuters reported: More than 17,000 mostly beer-fuelled spectators packed a Philadelphia indoor arena for the city's annual early morning eating extravaganza in which competitors vie to eat the most chicken wings. Japanese champion Takeru Kobayashi, weighing just 57.6kg defeated his much larger opponents in the 20th annual Wing Bowl and walked away with a $20,000 prize after devouring a record-breaking 337 chicken wings during the 30-minute contest. He easily smashed the previous record of 255 wings set by Jonathan 'Super Squibb' Squibb, who had won the celebration of gluttony the previous three years. [Source: Reuters, February 3, 2012]

Kobayashi Versus Joey Chesnut

In 2006, two rivals for Kobayashi emerged: 1) Korean-born Sonya “the Black Widow” Thomas, who had eaten a record 552 oysters in 10 minutes and 11 pounds of cheesecake in nine minutes; and 2) a 23-year-old American named Joey “the Gurgitator” Chesnut, who set a new American record of eating 52 hot dogs,, just short of Kobayashi’s number, and has set records for deep-fried asparagus spears (6.25 pounds in 10 minutes) and grilled cheese sandwiches (47 in 10 minutes).

The 97-kilogram Chestnut is a project manager for a construction company and a part time engineering student at Jan Jose State University. At the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island in July 2007 he consumed a record 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes, defeating Kobayashi, who could only down 63 hot dogs before a crowd of 50,000. Kobayashi managed his feat despite having arthritis of the jaw and pulled wisdom teeth that left him in pain. A month earlier Chestnut, consumed a record 59 ½ hot dogs in 12 minutes, breaking Kobayashi’s record at the time of 53 3/4 hot dogs at a hot dog eating contest in Tempe Arizona.

At the 2008 competition Kobayashi failed to avenge his loss from the previous year. He and Chestnut devoured 59 hot dogs each at the end of the 10 minute regulation, with Kobayashi winning the contest in a tie-breaking scheme in which the contestants were given five hot dogs to eat as quickly as possible. Afterwards Kobayashi said, “I lost in light of [Chestnut’s] instantaneous force” and said he’d be back in 2009.

Food Technology

Retort pouch food---food that can be easily prepared by placing the pouch in boiling water---is very popular in Japan. Used in everything from Chinese food to yakatori grilled chicken, the technology to make it was perfected in the late 1960s and first used to make curry. Using the technique food is made and then placed in pouches which are heated to 120 degrees to sterilize it. Then it is placed under high pressure which allows longtime preservation.

Chiba-based ABI Co. is a leader in producing quick freezing machines that don’t destroy the taste and freshness of food. Conventional quick freezing methods freeze the water first, thus killing the cells of the food and destroying the taste, ABI machines uses CAS (Cells Alive System) freezing technology that keeps water molecules in the food moving, preventing cell damage. The machines are widely used on tuna fishing boats and are capable of even freezing fresh cream, something that was once thought to be impossible. The company has plans to sell its own line of food frozen with the CAS method.

The Japanese have developed standards and devices for measuring the quality and taste of meat by isolating the chemicals that produce good taste and then measuring them and setting standards for different grades of tastiness. Shinshu premium beef, from Nagano-raised kuroge-wagyu cattle, for example, is valued for its melt-in-your-mouth flavor and lack of greasiness. A key to its great taste is a high percentage of oleic acid in the beef’s fatty acids.

The amount of oleic acid is used as a yardstick for good taste A prefectural government official involved with rating beef told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “There’s an appraisal methods by which you usually assess the degree of marbling in beef. However that doesn’t always reflect how good the beef tastes.”

In July 2010, Kobayashi was arrested following a scuffle that took place at the July 4th hot-dog-eaten contest.. He didn’t participate in the contest because of a contact dispute with organizers. Chestnut won it for the forth year in a row. Kobayashi had finished second the three previous years. He did not take part because the organizers of the event, the International Federation of Competitive Eating, would have kept him from participating in other eating events in North America without the organizer’s permission. Kobayashi was charged with resisting arrest interfering with police and trespassing.

Kobayashi win the hot-dog eating contest six years in a row from 2001 to 2006 but finished second from 2007 to 2009.

Recycling Food in Japan

Japan disposes of about 20 million tons of food waste a year, five times the amount that was given as food aide to the world’s poor in 2007. In addition to being a waste of food the food also take up landfill space and decomposes producing methane, a greenhouse gas, or is incinerated.

By one estimate 6,000 tons of food is thrown away in Tokyo by restaurants and other commercial operations every day.

With prices for animal feed and fertilizers reaching record highs in 2008, there was greater demand for food pellets for pigs and poultry made from recycled leftovers. Recycled feed is about 50 percent cheaper than regular feed. In the past farmer had been reluctant to use but higher regular food prices have caused them to think again. As of 2008, still only 1 percent of feedstock came from recycled food.

Food recyclers tend to use leftovers from convenience stores and restaurants, where strict health laws require food to be thrown after one day. Food from households is not used because the food is often in bad condition. The government is trying to encourage retailers and restaurants---which produce 11 million metric tons a of food waste a year and often pay hefty fees to have food waster hailed away---to work close with feed-recycling companies.

Recycle food taken to a plant is first sorted to remove skewers plastic trays and plastic wrap. The food waste is turned into two kinds of dry feed---one rich in fat and protein and another that is mostly carbohydrates after a final heating process---and a liquid type of feed made from pasteurized drinks and chopped vegetables.

The Japanese food industry recycles 70 percent of its leftovers. About half is made into feed, 5 percent into methane and the rest into fertilizer. Efforts are currently underway to derive energy from recycled food. In an experimental program in Tokyo, ethanol and methane are being made from thrown away school meals.

One effort to make fertilizer from recycled food scraps and animal feed ended in failure because the fertilizer gave off a an "unbearable stench" that farmers and manufacturers couldn't stand.

Plastic Food in Japan

Japan is famous for its realistic plastic replicas of food dishes, which are displayed in the windows of restaurant, snack bars, coffee shops and noodle joints and to let customers know what is on the menu. Plastic food first appeared in the 1920s, when restaurants introduced Western food items and they wanted to show potential customers what the food looked like. [Source: Carol Simons, Smithsonian magazine, March 1984]

Today, Japanese plastic food makers produce sweet and sour pork, miso soup, toast, glasses of orange juice, strawberry parfaits, bento-box soba noodles, sundaes with peach slices and sweet beans, fillet mignon, fried eggs, chocolate mouse, French pastries and even Big Macs, spaghetti Neapolitan with floating utensils that sell for $400 and fresh plastic salmon that goes for $1,300.

Iwasaki Plastic Food Company

Iwasaki Co. Ltd. is Japan's largest plastic food manufacturer. Most items are made in silicon or metal molds (formed from real food) and then painted by hand. Other techniques are also used to make food. A head of lettuce, for example, is made a leaf at a time from hot wax placed in cold water. Items not found in the Iwasaki's 200-page catalog can be custom made.

Easy-to-make items include beer (gold-tinted glycerin and gelatin poured in a plastic tankard) and food "parts" like mushrooms, peppers and cucumber slices. Tempera and sushi require more skill to get the painting right, and only the most skilled "chefs," with ten or more years of experience, tackle difficult-to-make items like air-brushed croissants, pealed mandarin oranges and whole fresh fish.

Iwasaki Co. was founded by Minoru Iwasaki, who is sometimes credited with transforming the plastic food business from a craft into an art form. He said he got the idea for his plastic food from Buddhist funerals. where foods fashioned from wax were given as offerings. His early fake food was made from wax but now most of it is made from polyvinyl chloride. Some of Iwaki's pieces have been displayed at an art gallery in New York.

Image Sources: 1) Liza Dahlby 2) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education 3) 5) 8), JNTO, 4) Andrew Gray Photosensibility 6) Phil Haak 7) and 11) Ray Kinnane, 9) Photomann, 10) Strange ad Funny News blog

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’sEncyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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