Inside track: Joycelyn Neve ponders the importance of traditions

08 January 2020 by

Keeping up a taste of tradition is important, even if it sometimes leaves a bad taste in the mouth, says Joycelyn Neve

What I'm going to eat when I'm on holiday normally determines where I go. Japanese food has long been up there with my favourites: sushi, miso, yakitori, ramen and the rest. The delicate flavours, light dishes and seafood bias is right up my street.

Getting to try the real deal on my recent trip to Japan, exploring the wonderful and weird things to eat there, was a truly great experience.

After the bright lights of Tokyo and enjoying all the incredible food I'd imagined, the next stop was the Izo peninsula for hot springs, rugged coastlines and beautiful forests; some much-needed R&R. Checking into a Japanese ryokan, we were asked whether we'd like the traditional Japanese kaiseki menu or the ‘Western' menu for dinner.

Of course, we picked the kaiseki, a tasting menu of seasonal produce known as the fine dining of Japan due to its beauty and intricacy. Who would order the Western menu while staying here? If I could turn back time, probably me.

I wholeheartedly agree that the beauty and intricacy of the kaiseki was quite something. The presentation of the dishes was immaculate, the ceremony and etiquette was beautiful and a wonderful experience. But to say a third of the dishes were challenging would be a polite understatement. Thick, pungent fish broth and gelatinous fish skin meringues were just a bit too challenging. My Instagram food spam, which normally receives oohs and aahs, changed to "what the fuck is that?" and green face emojis.

The realisation that I didn't love all Japanese food was confirmed when travelling around the country by bullet train.

Learning to dodge people of a certain age with foil lunch parcels before dried sardines and other antisocial travel snacks and their associated smells emerged to fill the carriage became a necessary skill. Drying and fermenting, a preserving method used for hundreds of years, has its place, but we do have refrigeration now and a lot of these things are an acquired taste, so will these less-popular yet traditional foods live on?

Is it even important to keep all traditional food alive as part of a heritage and culture as well as the diet? Miso and sushi made the cut, so should trends and modern palates decide what stays and what goes?

There's certainly something about tradition. No matter where in the world you are, no matter what that food is, or how it's tied to certain occasions, it gives a sense of belonging, heritage and occasion. The vast majority of us Brits do it every year at Christmas with turkey or goose and Christmas pudding and all the other things we don't eat for the rest of the year.

Whether it's Sunday roast or ramen, foods have been passed down the generations through family recipes of which we're fiercely proud. Everyone's mum's roast is the best.

Although some of the traditional Japanese dining I experienced had me wanting beans on toast, I'm not Japanese. Our traditional dishes should be celebrated and protected, even if they're only eaten once a year or only very occasionally, and even if you don't like them that much.

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