In the previous posts, we have discussed how the subtraction of external stimulus influences our sensory system and the way we feel satisfaction, using vision (ikebana) and cognitive abilities (haiku) as the examples. When we are able to reduce the external source of pleasure effectively, we can concentrate much better to successfully unleash our own abilities, which results in deep satisfaction.
In today’s world, subtraction can be applied to the act of eating to directly improve our health and happiness. Unlike typical conventional diet approaches, we can apply it directly to our sense of taste so that we can re-define “deliciousness” which will make “eating less” substantially easier.
Essentially, each human’s ultimate objective is to increase the odds of survival, just like any other living creature on Earth. As such, our taste buds are programmed to detect needed nutrients and harmful substances. Carbohydrates and sodium are considered delicious because our body needs them to stay alive. On the other hand, sourness and bitterness taste bad because they signal a potential detriment to your body.
If we apply the principles of subtraction (see previous post) to the relationship between food, deliciousness and resulting satisfaction, we can establish an assumption that our taste buds can perform best when subtraction is applied to the food, and we will feel deep satisfaction. But this sounds contradictory to our perceptions. We now turn to the history to verify it.
The three whites are the most delicious food according to the people in Edo.
From left: tofu, daikon (white radish), and rice. Do they make your mouth water??
Today many people think tofu is tasteless or plain. But in 1782, a cooking book named “豆腐百珍 (100 recipes of Tofu)” became one of the best-selling books in Japan. People were excited about it because tofu was considered one of the most “tasty” foods back then. During the same time of the period, Edo (then Tokyo) people decided that their three favorite foods were tofu, daikon (white radish) and rice. They were called the “three whites.” While people today may well think that all of the three are “tasteless,” people in Edo era found them very tasty and sought them.
Interestingly, the “three whites” are comprised of a concentrated form of protein (tofu: made of soy beans), carbohydrates (rice) and some types of enzymes (white radish). As all of us know that carbohydrates and proteins are the major nutrition groups we ingest today. However, in the 18th century Japan, meat was rare and none of the concentrated carbohydrates such as flour, sugar or rice were easily accessible by ordinary people. Most people ate miscellaneous grain-like seeds for carb and occasional fish for protein. Both white rice and tofu were a treat and precious sources of high carb and protein. That’s why the people in the Edo era found them delicious.
But as technology improved, humans started producing food with much higher nutrition concentration with intense flavors in larger amounts. Take sugar. The “sugar” we consume today is the pure form of sucrose made by refining sugarcane or sugar bees. Sucrose consists of glucose and fructose, and fructose is the sweetest of all naturally occurring carbohydrates.
Until sugarcane plantations became a large industry in the 17th~18th century in the Caribbean, 99% of the world did not have such an intense source of sweetness. It’s easy to imagine how people became crazy when they first tasted it. Once experienced, they couldn’t stop eating it. The average sugar consumption increased exponentially from the 18th century to the 20th century.
|Year||Sugar consumption (lbs.)||% relative to 1700|
Average amount of sugar consumed by an Englishman
Source: “Sugar Love (A not so sweet story)” National Geographic
Four pounds of sugar per year was considered “delicious” (probably heavenly delicious) in the 18th century. But by the end of the 19th century, it must have felt like nothing because people consumed 2000% more. Today an average American consumes about 130 lbs sugar each year.
As we started producing more intense food in larger amounts, we quickly forgot how to recognize the delicious taste of tofu. At the same time, we kept relaxing the threshold of the amount of sugar that is considered delicious. Our diet has completely changed over the last 200 years and so did the definition of “deliciousness.”
Another interesting example can be found in sushi, which is rapidly transforming from the cuisine of delicate subtraction to the meal of addition and excessiveness. How does delicate subtraction work in sushi making? Take a look at the video, which features a chef from one of the most famous authentic and traditional sushi restaurants in Japan.
You may have noticed that the chef spends enormous amount of time evaluating and selecting sushi-neta, (sushi toppings – mostly fish), which have to be in season (“旬” (shun)) and of the best quality. The mission of an authentic sushi chef is to deliver the very best of natural flavors found in the seafood in season. Once he picks the ingredients, he cuts, prepares and cooks them with amazing precision, but as minimally as possible, in order to preserve the natural flavors in his sushi-neta.
Because the purpose of sushi is to enjoy every deliciousness found in the seafood in season, everything else, including rice and condiments is there only to highlight or emphasize it. You must have noticed how small a sushi portion he makes. In general, the amount of rice used for sushi becomes smaller as it becomes high-end and authentic. It is said that about 13 grams (0.45 oz.) of rice per portion is used in an authentic sushi restaurant. It is smaller than the yolk ball of a boiled egg. Sushi chefs believe that this is the right balance in which the rice augments the flavor of fish, but does not interfere with it.
Soy sauce is not a dipping sauce as you may believe. You should only need a couple of drops. If the ingredients are good on their own, you can and you should reduce it drastically. The same applies to wasabi. By the way, natural wasabi is hard to find outside Japan. It’s very likely that the wasabi you are eating is artificial.
Condiments are also reduced to ultimate essentials. Natural garnishes such as raw ginger, garlic, radish, green onions, sansho (Japanese pepper) are the main sources of the zests. But again, they are not there to “add” flavors. They are there to help you focus on the taste of sushi-neta. Naturally, there are no intense flavors such as no cream cheese, mayonnaise or chili sauce.
But as the time went on and also the technology enabled large-scale fishing and transportation, sushi became affordable and popular all over the world. And as it became popular, it started adding elements, rather than keeping it simple and minimal.
The rice became sweeter (with vinegar, sake and sugar) and the portions became larger. There are all kinds of condiments, and we eat sushi using a lot of soy sauce and wasabi. Most of us don’t know whether the fish is in season as we eat it, and it probably doesn’t matter anyway because they were fished somewhere far away, frozen and shipped long distances. Many species are farm-raised and some are artificially processed.
As fish became accessible to many people who live far from the oceans, the freshness and the sense of season became compromised. The quality decreased which had to be compensated for by adding additional flavors or by increasing the amount.