“Did you know Japan grows its own vanilla beans?” Pastry chef Kanako-san asked as she showed me a bag of vanilla beans.
“Definitely not,” I replied.
She went on to explain that they could purchase their beans based on the year they were harvested, much like wine. And to take it to the next level of minutiae, buyers can also choose their beans based on their maturity level at the time of harvest.
This is how Japan approaches food.
For some time, I’ve observed two trains of thought for plated desserts. If it isn’t French in all its perfect corners and soigné quenelle-ing glory, it’s “organic.” Shunning precision, it’s the opposite: shards of meringue, lumps of ice cream on a mound of crumble, splatters of sauce, random placement of micro-greens. And it can be beautiful. Even if it seems arbitrary, it is still a careful composition based on taste, texture and visual effect.
But it’s gotten out of control. It is like when certain people look at modern art, for example, a Jackson Pollock, and say, “All it is is a canvas of splatters. Anyone could do that.” And in pastry, everyone is doing it and not always to such success.
Too many colors, too many flavors, too many components to look at—plates where you can see the effort. And in the end, the dessert tastes simply…sweet.
Japan strips that excess away. In fact, the Japanese don’t know what excess is to begin with in any form—design, architecture, food. Everything is created with the simplest aesthetic but the thought behind it is profoundly perceptive. That was the beauty of Narisawa.
The first dessert I encountered was a lesson in restraint. Two flavor profiles: red shiso and sour plum. Four components: shiso gelee, sour plum sorbet, a dehydrated shiso leaf and fresh shiso flowers. A magnificent fuchsia hue from the shiso without the use of food coloring. Each stacked on top of another in a martini glass. I was doubtful of its simplicity, but it was perfect upon first taste. “I want to have the kind of palate that can create this,” I thought.
I wonder if the Japanese realize how lucky they are to have such trained palates. As a culture, they have a greater awareness and appreciation of what they eat, beginning in childhood. Unlike the United States with its artificial flavorings and adulterated food substances that have essentially bombed American taste buds, the Japanese—the first to identify “umami”—can detect subtleties and ranges of different tastes because they have been raised on quality food.
I have never seen or tasted such beautiful fruits and vegetables as I did at Narisawa. At first I was disappointed with what I found at local grocery stores—the options were few, expensive and usually imported. I assumed that Japan’s climate and terrain weren’t able to cultivate quality produce, but I was wrong. It’s the best producers who are selective about who they supply to because there is much pride in their work. If it’s going to sit on a shelf to languish, forget about it. Instead, it’s the chefs who can offer the attention so they get the access. A prominent one among them is Chef Narisawa, who handles each fruit, vegetable, animal and sea creature in the purest way at his restaurant.
Every type of fruit was the largest I had ever seen: mangoes, pears, Asian pears, persimmons, peaches, figs, grapes—sadly, future grapes have been ruined for me after eating the muscats at Narisawa. My jaw dropped on a daily basis when deliveries arrived. When fruit is this large in the United States, it is usually genetically modified and lacks flavor, but not in Japan. At Narisawa, every piece of fruit was at the peak of its ripeness and packaged with such care that I rarely saw a blemish. It would be a disgrace to overwork these fruits.
In addition to vanilla beans, Japan grows other items I didn’t think were possible with their climate, such as cinnamon. I’m unsure if Japan’s cinnamon tree is in the same genus as the cinnamon we are familiar with, because the entire branch is utilized, not just the bark. Every inch of it smells of cinnamon, and using a small twig to infuse with cream imparts a delicate fragrance. One day Pastry chef Kanako-san received what were essentially logs of the cinnamon tree from their producer; it looked like he had sawed branches right off the tree. She laughed at the prospect of working with a 10-pound chunk of a cinnamon branch.
Japan is a bountiful country, seemingly self-sustainable with what it can produce, raise and develop. Yet with their overwhelming provisions, the Japanese have the sensibility to keep it modest. And ironically, modesty is the most effective spotlight. Lesson learned.
But the best lesson was realizing a Japanese palate can taste flavors I cannot. I left Narisawa recognizing this for the better. A palate can be continuously trained and now I have a higher level to pursue. Perhaps one day, I’ll be able to taste the difference in vanilla beans from year 2010 and 2014. Wouldn’t that be something…