Japan and France have enjoyed a flourishing relationship on many fronts, officially, since 1858. But cultural exchange between the two nations is said to have started way earlier than that; as early as 1615, with the visit of Japanese Samurai and ambassador, Hasekura Tsunenaga, to Saint-Tropez. Tsunenaga, en route to Rome as an emissary of daimyo Date Masamune, spent a number of days in the commune located in the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, in Southern France. Hasekura’s visit is the first recorded contact between Japan and France — and the cultural confluence has continued, since then, influencing fashion, the arts, style and design, and even culinary traditions.
Hasekura Tsunenaga’s visit is the first recorded contact between Japan and France — and the cultural confluence has continued, since then, influencing fashion, the arts, style and design, and even culinary traditions.
Early exchange and culinary confluence
Hasekura’s stopover at the coastal town of Saint-Tropez was unintentional, necessitated by bad weather that interrupted the ship’s journey to Rome. The would-be calamity turned into a cultural connection that went down in the annals of history. French nobility, local to the town, hosted Hasekura and his party. The hosts, intrigued by their guests from the Orient, recorded many of their habits as they interacted throughout the stopover. Among these habits, that Hasekura and his company “never touch food with their fingers, but instead use two small sticks that they hold with three fingers,” which was the first documentation of the use of chopsticks in the context of French society.
Of course, relations between Japan and foreign countries were severely limited during this timeframe, given the Tokugawa shogunate’s Sakoku or “locked country” foreign policy that defined the Edo Period, from 1603 to 1868. However, when this policy was finally lifted, ushering in the Meiji restoration, Japan once more saw not only a boom in international trade, but also in foreign cultural exchange. A settlement catering to foreigners was established in Tsukiji, which gave rise to the opening of hotels and other such establishments. Louis Begeux, largely renowned as Japan’s “Father of French Cuisine,” was hired as the head chef at the hotel in Tsukiji, making him Japan’s first foreign head chef. While other types of “yoshoku” or Western cuisine, such as German and British food, enjoyed a degree of popularity in Japan, French cuisine was the only foreign food served in the imperial court, as well as at diplomatic and official engagements.
Savory shifts and sumptuous similarities
French gastronomy’s shift in the 1960s to a lighter way of cooking proved even more similar to Japanese culinary techniques. The breakaway style called French nouvelle cuisine made delicious waves in the culinary world, inspiring new methods and movements. Like Japanese cuisine, this about-face from classic French cooking placed greater emphasis on a delicate yet flavorful palate, bursting with an umami-rich mouthfeel while still showcasing the brightness and simplicity of each flavor. Seasonal produce was the new star on the ingredient list, and quality and freshness of ingredients were vital to the recipe. Where food once drowned in a blanket of rich sauces, presentation also shifted to clean, elegant, minimalistic plating, with an emphasis on the main ingredients.
The culinary concepts put forth by French nouvelle cuisine remain popular today, under the umbrella known as “New International” or “New Global” cuisine, a far-reaching gastronomical trend that has impacted core cooking techniques across the globe — including the fusion of eastern and western methods.
Gastronomes the world over will also find that cultural exchange between countries like Japan and France has certainly taken place on many fronts — the kitchen most definitely included.
New International or New Global cuisine takes an array of innovative approaches to fusion cuisine. In the context of the cuisine of the east, including Japanese food, the New Global trend marries the spices and culinary techniques of Asia, with more Western ingredients, and vice versa. So, diners might now find entrees like foie gras (popular with both French and Japanese chefs for its full umami flavor) seasoned in daikon, and drizzled with a light sauce of sesame, garlic, and shoyu; or a dish of seafood with matcha, like a matcha-pistachio encrusted fillet of sous vide white fish; and even a menu offering like Japanese duck à l’orange, with yuzu juice and white radish.
With the epicurean-level evolution of culinary concepts, over time, the imagination has become every chef’s limit, and taste buds, their guide. Gastronomes the world over will also find that cultural exchange between countries like Japan and France has certainly taken place on many fronts — the kitchen most definitely included.