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Table setting for Japanese food with copper-rimmed white dinner plate and hashi (chopsticks) atop a maki placemat.

An adventure with Japanese food not only has the power to influence your individual cooking style but, more than that, …

What keeps me motivated is not the food itself but all the bonds and memories the food represents. ~ Michael Chiarello

Have you ever noticed how the familiar taste or aroma of certain foods can transport us to the places we first experienced them? 

It’s like what happens whenever I bring fresh corn tortillas home from the store. I always sniff them ~ can’t resist it and don’t want to ~ and as soon as I catch that hint of lime…

… I’m back in central Mexico, a high school student having a meal with her homestay family.

Maybe it’s the same with you.

So, you get to wondering . . . if the mere contact with a favorite food can inspire us to want to wander, how much more inspiring might the memories of professional chefs be?

After all, they work with food day in and day out.

Turns out, a variety of culinary aces have had memorable food experiences in countries far from their own. And I’ve chosen some of their most delicious stories to share with you.

Today’s inspiring memories celebrate Japan and Japanese food

ELIZABETH ANDOH, food/culture educator and author

The woman who would become the foremost interpreter of Japanese cuisine to English speakers arrived in Japan as a University of Michigan graduate student. Right away, she began studying Japanese and focused on food as a way of understanding the culture. More than five books and four decades later, Elizabeth Andoh still lives in Japan, teaching others how to appreciate and prepare the food of the country she has come to know and love.

Noodles have a special place in the hearts and bellies of the Japanese.

When the first steamy days of summer arrive, icy sōmen noodles appear on family tables throughout Japan.

(Excerpted from Andoh’s book, Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen.)

Hiyashi-somen (Chilled Japanese noodles) by Julia Frost

DAVID CHANG, chef and restauranteur

Once upon a time, Chang was teaching English in southern Honshu, puzzling out what he was going to do once his teaching gig was over. And then — BAM! — his noodle habit became an obsession. Chang’s spare time “research” in Japanese noodle shops would lead him to found the multi-national Momofuku restaurant group.

I lived a few train stops away from the school in a little town called Izumi-Tottori. There wasn’t much there: a maki roll place, a sushi place, a dumpling house, and a ramen shop. The ramen shop was near the train station, and it was always bustling . . .  I’d sit there – first at this place, and later at any ramen or noodle shop I could get a seat in — by myself, shrouded in the sound of slurping noodles and the racket of the kitchen turning out bowl after bowl of soup, and just watch the place work.

(Excerpted from Chang’s book, Momofuku.)

Bowl of ramen with charsiu pork, green onions, hard boiled egg, and nori.

RENÉ REDZEPI, chef and restauranteur

Many consider Redzepi’s Copenhagen-based restaurant, Noma, the best in the world. Still, with all his accomplishments, the chef was so taken with Japanese cuisine and dedication to craftsmanship, he temporarily relocated Noma and its staff from the Danish capital to Tokyo in 2015. There was yet, Redzepi thought, much to learn.

I’d dreamt of something like this for years, since I was a young cook without the money to travel . . . . . I sat for my first kaiseki meals, multi-course dinners steeped in history and more balanced than the long tasting menus some of us chefs are used to eating and cooking. Dishware and the design of the restaurant are adjusted to reflect the season. Time of year dictates everything. This ritual taught me so much about meticulousness, lightness, and what seasonality really means. 

(Read more about René Redzepi in Japan here.)

Kaiseki dinner spread by Alyson Hurt

No doubt about it, Japan is a one-of-a-kind place. And now we know that an adventure with Japanese food not only has the power to influence your individual cooking style; it can also change the course of your life.


Feature image, Japanese Food Empty Dish, by ohsuriya; Hiyashi-somen (Chilled Japanese Noodles) by Julia Frost, and (Kaiseki) Dinner Spread by Alyson Hurt.