A few observations about food choices in Japan

I just had a two week food scouting mission in Japan, home of one of the world’s great cuisines.  I learned a ton about Japanese cuisine and ingredients. Here’s a few of my observations.

Food Aesthetics are very important.  Roundness, size and color together seem to be as important as flavor.  Japanese consumers will pay handsomely for perfect produce specimens.  Interestingly, some of their buying cues are very different than ours.  For example, this year’s fetishized brand of strawberries were pink.  US consumers would put their nose up to this.  I’m definitely not going to be able to sell those to Washington consumers.

No price is too high for perfection, (How about a perfectly round $12 Fuji apple?)   …but perfection is in the eye of the beholder.  Japanese beef producers look to export markets like the US in order to sell their choice cuts.  We have an expression here that anybody can sell the tenderloins, strips and ribeyes.  It’s the opposite in Japan: their beef producers are routinely backed up on those cuts.  Their domestic customers will pay top dollar for high-grade kobe beef, but only when it comes to top rounds and other inexpensive whole muscle cuts.  Japanese consumers slice the product thin, so they don’t need or want to pay for the cuts that you eat chunks of with a fork and knife … like a steak.

Marketers trumpet their products’ health benefits.  And, a lot of the benefits are extremely obscure.  All sales pitches came with some kind of benefit whether it was that the product was heart healthy or that it helped your eyebrows grow more fully or your finger nails grow faster.  Clearly health claims are a big part of their food sales culture.

Yet, additives are often OK.  For the most part, the Japanese seem to have no problem with MSG, artificial colors or other additives that a high-end consumer in the US would turn their nose up at.  I had to explain to a high-end nut butter company that if they want to enter the US market with their high-end product it is going to need be reformulated without the emulsifiers and such.  So many of the specialty products that I found were immediately dropped from my list due to these additives, with MSG surprisingly being one of the most common offenders (a product that they invented and that is apparently a household staple).

In general, taste, texture and aesthetics are king. Except for natto. Some Japanese will eat a slimy cardboardy, absolutely disgusting fermented soybean product called natto with their breakfast because it is apparently healthy.  I’d rather take innocuous-flavored supplement pills than ruin my breakfast.  (especially since traditional Japanese breakfast is so fantastically delicious)…why ruin it?

And, sometimes their pursuit of quality has incredibly positive health side-effects.  I met a pork producer who has a remarkably innovative system of feeding the pigs a fermented grain, probiotic-rich diet and thereby avoid administration of antibiotics, even though they are raised in confinement.  Surprisingly, animal welfare had nothing to do with his decision-making, he didn’t even know that he was breaking a paradigm.  He just does it because it makes the fat whiter and gives the pork a better smell.

The trip was great for learning about Japanese cuisine, for palate development, etc – but I still disagree with them on some things. I feel better equipped to handle those uber-fishy flavors, those slimy textures, etc. I ate everything put before me, even a number of endangered species (which I ate only because I didn’t order them, they were on a chefs tasting menu and it was killed already). The server at one such meal tried to tell me that they have whale because of their scientific research … yeah the scientific research study must be designed to repeatedly confirm that they like to eat whale meat. It didn’t do it for me. Frankly, it had a funky look and texture to it. Same thing with the sharks fin. Sure, it had a pleasing texture, but is it worth killing a whole animal just to eat a tenth of a percent of it? Fuck no.

Now I am confused.  I guess I need to go back and explore some more.

Note:  I did find a whole bunch of amazing products and am in the process of navigating how to get them into the US market.

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