When I arrived in Sapporo in November 2018, I wanted to learn a scientific technique that the laboratory of flow control at Hokkaido University is specialized in. I had prepared a list of questions. I came back with lots of answers as well as other questions to reflect upon.
Japan to me is a mystery land, one of the most fascinating places that I have been to so far. The key turns anti-clockwise to lock the door, the soap dispensers are lifted up for dispensing soap, and quite popularly, books are written from back to front and right to left. The inherent bipolarity in the system is quite obtrusive. On one hand, Japan is supremely hi-tech and birthplace of cutting technologies, on the other hand it is carefully preserving its centuries-old culture and traditions even in the modern-day world. Such a balance is quite extraordinary to achieve.
As a food scientist, I can’t help but observe differences in the food systems of different countries and cultures. Visiting Japan, I was a bit worried about my food choices being a vegetarian, but to my surprise, I always found something.
Every time I visited the supermarket, two things were quite evident: (1) exorbitant prices of fruits, and (2) the artistically and a bit too abundantly packaged products, mostly bakery. Both the things are quite thought-provoking for our food industry.
For instance, there are some fun facts about how melons in Hokkaido can be priced up to hundreds of dollars. As I found out, there is a tradition of giving fruits as presents and giving expensive melons is a way of showing how important the other person means to the gift giver. Here is a video giving a glimpse of what makes these melons so expensive. In the end, melon is not only a piece of fruit but it’s an integral part of the culture of symbolism. Paying attention to details is definitely a beautiful aspect of Japanese culture. The sado, which is the popular tea-ceremony in Japan also taught me the same – how important it is to acknowledge and appreciate every little thing in your environment.
However, the matter of concern is that these practices could have influenced the mindset of population in general and appreciation of beauty have somehow affected everyday consumer preferences. As a result, the demand for fruits is not only regulated by its nutritional quality but more importantly by its aesthetics. Consequentially, a lot of fresh produce does not make it to the market and at the same time buying fresh fruits becomes a luxury since they are priced extremely high, e.g. a piece of apple could cost anywhere between 3-4 USD.
This is happening not only in Japan but everywhere in the world. The supermarkets have to throw away a lot of produce because the consumers prefer to buy perfectly looking fruits and vegetables. As food process engineers, we can contribute to an extent with providing upcycling solutions for the left-over items using different technologies and material science to develop new product options. However, the bigger impact can be created by changing the mindsets of people and making sustainable choices more fashionable.
I was also quite impressed by how sophisticatedly the bakery products are packaged with each cookie individually wrapped in a plastic cover. It serves the purpose of keeping the right texture, sensory properties of the product and takes care of food safety even in humid environment. But it cannot be overlooked how much potential ‘one-time use’ plastic waste it generates which is a significant contributor to the problem of micro-plastics. This could influence the seafood centric cuisines, Japan being one of them. Therefore, our food industry has to re-innovate in this direction and find solutions to these challenges. And it is a pleasure to see that we are already walking that path with the big players joining in this revolution.
On a side note, it was quite fascinating to see the artistic work outside the restaurants where the wax models of the dishes served in the restaurants are displayed outside. Honestly, it was really hard to say that they were not real.
Japan is truly a wonderland. I will definitely go again to find more answers and perhaps will come back with new questions.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anubha Garg is a doctoral student at ETH Zurich with a research focus in the area of food process engineering. Her interests are in developing new products, understanding and optimizing processes and finding relevant solutions to food related issues. Anubha believes that food is an integral aspect of everyone’s life and there is a huge potential to make a difference with diverse expertise. In her free time, she likes to be close to nature and explore different forms of art.
Read about Anubha’s impressions from Mozambique and Iceland in her previous article From Tropics to Nordics.