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Essays by Prairie Stuart-Wolff

Health, heart, and humanity Health, heart, and humanity

Health, heart, and humanity

Only a couple of generations ago, a block of katsuobushi, a rock hard section of dried skipjack tuna, was a staple in every pantry. It was a child’s chore to whirr it against a blade producing a pile of fluffy pink shavings from which their mother would draw the day’s dashi.
Dashi, an umami rich stock made of dried fish, kelp, and at times shiitake mushroom, is the bedrock of Japanese cuisine, but today a block of katsuobushi shaved at home is an anomaly. Goichiro Hayashi, fifth generation owner of Hayashi Kyuemon, a dashi company in Fukuoka, knows that in a world where time is money to be saved and spent, few will ever return to the days of shaving katsuobushi at home.So in his work to preserve, produce, and promote the worth of pure dashi ingredients, he is willing to make concessions to this age in which everyone seeks a level of convenience. “If you look at what suits the era, instant dashi is okay,” he says. “But the instant options that are available often include chemical seasonings and various preservatives so I want people to be careful. I want people to choose the instant option that is made consciously with quality ingredients.” Supplying these healthier options is the work of his company that makes dashi packs for home and commercial use.

In a large room held just above freezing, boxes are stacked high towards the ceiling holding skipjack tuna and mackerel from Kagoshima and sardines from Nagasaki. “It felt spiritual,” head chef Matusmoto said of the fist time he walked into this storeroom and heard the sounds of Mozart playing over the ingredients in repose. Inspired by examples in the world of wine, Hayashi began aging the regionally sourced specialty ingredients while serenaded by a continuous loop of classical music. “Rather than just leave them in a dark cold room, we play music. If you treat the products with care and consideration, that feeling is conveyed. Surely it improves their condition,” he says.
Hayashi’s production facility hums along. Katsuobushi is steamed and shaved, the ruffled pink shavings packaged up for individual sale or to be added to custom dashi blends. “People are forgetting the true taste of things,” Hayashi says. It’s a familiar narrative around the world, a perceived scarcity of time that has ended an era of cooking from scratch at home each day. “So many of the things that kids are eating at home from a young age, it’s now normal for those processed foods to be full of preservatives and chemical seasonings,” he says. Taste memories from childhood guide us throughout life and the processed alternatives that have replaced raw ingredients in the home kitchen have radically altered an entire generation’s understanding of taste. If we are to correct this trend, Hayashi, like Alice Waters in America, puts his faith in children. If they can learn to distinguish the taste of pure dashi they will make healthier choices as adults. To this end, he frequents food education fairs where he can introduce children to the true taste of katsuobushi and dashi made with pure ingredients. “This work,” he says, “making dashi with ingredients that are good for the body, is not just business. I’m always considering how I can support our society and convey this message.”

For now, business requires him to find ever more convenient methods to deliver healthful ingredients and Hayashi is up for the challenge. “I love this work,” he says. “The food that we eat everyday, this is the medicine that makes up the human body. Food is the most natural source of vitamins. I’m grateful that it’s my work to deliver nutritious ingredients.” As a businessman Hayashi will keep step with society and try to accommodate its trends. But ultimately he thinks the trend towards convenience is the symptom of a greater ill. “People in Japan are too busy. We really have to change the lifestyle, start to be conscious of time and make an effort to prepare toothsome food that is good for the body. We need to remember the importance of that kind of time.”

About the author

Prairie Stuart-Wolff is a writer, photographer, and avid home cook who upon moving to Japan in 2007, immediately recognized the great depth and beauty of Japanese culinary traditions. She produces Cultivated Days, an online journal that investigates and celebrates the ingredients, principles, and practices of Japanese food and culture in context.