On Perfect Rice and Enchanted Waterways...
One of the best summer jobs I ever had involved teaching English to visiting students from a Japanese university, touring them around parts of the UK and Europe in the process. I was still a student myself, failing the recruitment test the first time round because an ear-piercing communicated to my interviewer a certain lack of maturity.
A big part of why I loved that job was the people: young Japanese men and women who were roughly my age yet seemed much less cynical than most of my friends (hints here, I think, of the civility thatadmired on a recent visit to Japan).
My students were kind, had a great sense of humour, and even the handful of boys who used to sit in silence at the back of the coach looking tough were actually just great big sweeties. On our final day, driving out to Heathrow to say goodbye, they put on dark or mirrored sunglasses. Trying to look cool again, I sighed to one of the other students. ‘You’re wrong’, he replied. ‘They’re crying’.
The evening before that last coach ride, each of the students had the chance to give a speech. The idea was to reflect - in their very best English - on the month they had spent in the UK and Europe, and what they thought the future might hold for them back in Japan.
Everyone was very complimentary about the UK, going beyond the requisite politeness and expressing admiration for everything from the Queen to the Beatles and Blur (this was the late 1990s). Young people in the UK, they noted, enjoy greater freedoms than in Japan - even when they join the workforce. In Japan, reaching that milestone in life meant dyeing one’s hair back to a natural-looking dark colour, exchanging joyously outlandish fashion and accessories for sober business-wear and being willing to work 12-hour days with a commute of up to two hours either side.
So emotional were some of those speeches, imagining what life might be like if they could stay in the UK, that you could almost imagine God Save the Queen fading up in the background as each student told their story.
And then came the moment when the record scratches and the music abruptly stops.
‘But… the food...’
Each student looked down at their shoes at this point, either embarrassed to be bringing up the subject or suffering a traumatic flashback to their first encounter with a baked potato.
‘We have to go back to Japan’.
Things have become much better on the food front, and cities like Edinburgh and London now have a wonderful range of ingredients and options for eating out. But as I’ve mentioned before, UK supermarkets often can’t match the freshness of their Japanese counterparts. And when it comes to eating out, the kind of meal you might pay £5 for in a tiny little restaurant in Tokyo can set you back multiples of that in the UK.
This week, I’ve been thinking about that summer job from years ago for two reasons. First, Japan did very well in the Taste Atlas Awards: runner-up to Italy in a survey of world cuisines. Second, in an effort to keep our children connected to the Japanese side of their heritage, we went off in search of an affordable Japanese restaurant in London (food beats kanji practice every time).
We tried Eat Tokyo in Soho, where we found that for fractionally more than the cost of a large McDonalds it was possible to feed three children (including a ravenous teenager) and two adults to a decent standard.
I confidently informed my son not to get too excited by the ‘double portion’ promise on the katsu curry. ‘It’s probably just a quirk of translation between Japanese and English’, I suggested, on the basis of no real information at all. ‘It’ll just mean large’.
How wrong I was:
During the course of that meal, I learned from my wife something new about why the very best Japanese restaurants in London charge an extortionate amount for their fare.
That’s right - plain old water. The water used to steam rice - whether for sushi or as a side-dish - apparently makes a big difference to the taste. For this reason, top Japanese restaurants around the world, including Endo in London, go to the extraordinary trouble of importing water from Japan for preparing rice and various other dishes.
I was sceptical. The cultural historian in me wondered whether this was another outlandish claim - there’s a venerable tradition of them - about the special, blessed nature of Japan and/or the Japanese. Westerners have often gone along with this, venerating things like the tea ceremony and flower-arranging in a sometimes rather unnerving way. Perhaps my wife, possessing the heightened patriotism of the ex-pat, likes to image that Japan is home to enchanted waterways?
Sadly, no. It turns out there is solid evidence for why water really is important to the taste of cooked rice. First, it’s relatively soft water, which means it is more easily absorbed into ingredients. With rice, that means you can fluff it up nicely and when shaped for sushi it doesn’t need to be squeezed too hard (which crushes the rice and spoils the feel of it in the mouth).
Soft water helps to make broths taste good, too, bringing out the umami flavours in the ingredients.recently wrote a piece about umami - well worth a look.
The pH level of the water also matters, for getting rice just right. Endo Kazutoshi apparently imports his water from the same farm in Fukuoka where he gets his rice - so that the acidity is perfect and, in the words of the reviewer from the National Restaurant Awards, ‘guests can feel each yielding grain on their tongue’.
Now that’s what I call high-endo cuisine (as the reviewer inexplicably missed their chance to say…).
I’m not sure that I have the patience, let alone the funds, to indulge too much elevated foodie chat. But I accept that it is probably no coincidence that the two top world cuisines both value high-quality ingredients over complexity of recipes.
More importantly, I now feel the pain a little more acutely of my lovely visiting students from back in the 1990s. I hope that their employers are not asking too much of them - and that when they do, a good meal, created using
enchanted the right water, remains, as ever, a source of the deepest comfort.
Harding Junior: family photograph.
Miso soup: Unsplash (public domain)