Meaning “Welcome!”, that ubiquitous greeting at Japanese restaurants everywhere immediately sets the tone for a unique gastronomic experience. You know that you’re all set for an enjoyable encounter, and more often than not, you walk away satisfied and happy.
Food in Japan is big business. Just look at the number of F&B outlets, concessionaires, bento box retailers and snack outlets across the country. They surround the labyrinthine rail network in Japanese cities, and are a major export factor for the country.
Visit any major city around the world. Chances are that you’ll find numerous Japanese restaurants sprinkled across the region.
What exactly makes Japanese dining so special? I believe there are several lessons here that we can learn from:
Few cuisines around the world are as beautifully presented as Japanese food. Presentation and packaging takes on major importance here, as seen from how beautifully laid out dishes such as sashimi, sushi, udons, ramens, and rice dishes are made.
A case in point are the ornate bento boxes that are presented so lovingly that you feel bad for “destroying” the artwork!
Naturally, this is a no-brainer. In Japan, practically all restaurants and cafes offer great service regardless of their sizes. They can be as tiny as 20 seater sushi bars or noodle joints to huge sprawling restaurants. Other than the enthusiastic greeting which welcomes you when you enter, waiters and waitresses are generally attentive to your needs. Many a sushi chef will also cater specifically to diner’s request, subject of course to meeting their quality standards.
Theatricality and Drama
Japanese dining isn’t just about taste but food theatre. In most of the Japanese F&B outlets that we patronised, the kitchen is always placed upfront in plain view of diners. This applies not only to Michelin starred restaurants but equally to small snack outlets. Food is prepared with much flair and aplomb by trained chefs, wowing diners with their culinary prowess.
Attention to Quality
Who hasn’t heard the story of sushi chefs who wake at 4 am to purchase the freshest fish at Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. Or apprentices who had to slave away for years before being allowed to create a dish for diners.
In Japan, the quality of food, the way its presented, as well as its packaging is of utmost importance. Sadly, such qualities aren’t necessarily translated into Japanese restaurants overseas.
From conveyor belt sushi to food manufacturing, design and packaging, few countries in the world can beat Japan in the use of technology. Having said that, technology is used only for the dimensions of food where a human hand isn’t needed to ensure taste or quality. Notice in the case of sushi restaurants that the slicing of the fish, cooking of the rice, and making of each sushi is still done by hand.
A Japanese pancake manufacturing machine in a small snack shop in Asakusa
Packaging and Shop Design
The final dimension of Japanese food which makes it stand out from many others can be seen in the way it is packaged. Artificial “samples” of their food can be found in the glass display cases in many restaurants, while the packaging of snack foods are often exquisite and elegant. Special care is taken to ensure that shapes, colours and designs fit perfectly in a symphony of tastes and textures.