Japan food seeks heritage gong as young spurn rice

FoodJapan food seeks heritage gong as young spurn rice. (AP)

Washoku, the traditional cuisine of Japan, is being considered for designation as part of the world's priceless cultural heritage by the U.N. this week. But even as sushi and sake booms worldwide, purists say its finer points are candidates for the endangered list at home. The younger generation is increasingly eating Krispy Kreme doughnuts and McDonald's, not rice.

Among cuisines, only French cooking has been distinguished as a national culinary tradition. Other picks by UNESCO for its World Heritage list, such as food from Mexico and Turkey, are more specific dishes. Washoku embraces seasonal ingredients, a unique taste, time consuming preparation and a style of eating steeped in centuries of tradition. At its heart is savory "umami," recognized as a fundamental taste along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter.

"That's a delicate subtle taste. But younger people can't even taste it anymore because they're too used to spicy oily food," said Isao Kumakura, president of Shizuoka University of Art and Culture, who is leading the drive to get washoku recognized. "It's Westernization. Japanese should be more proud of Japanese culture."

Kumakura believes UNESCO recognition will send a global message and boost efforts to save washoku, a fight that faces serious challenges.

Annual rice consumption in Japan has fallen 17 percent over the last 15 years to 7.81 million tons from 9.44 million tons, according to government data.

Fast-food chains have become ubiquitous in Japan, including Krispy Kreme, Domino's Pizza and the perennial favorite McDonald's. Their reasonable prices and fast service are attracting the stomachs of the workaholic "salaryman" and OL, short for "office lady."

As washoku dims in popularity, fears are growing the community ties it historically stood for may also be withering, such as cooking together for New Year's and other festivals.

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