Many years ago, I read an article about Michel Richard, a French pastry chef who moved to the U.S. in the 1970s and now sits at the helm of a veritable restaurant empire. In the course of his cross country travels, Richard discovered that Americans seemed to be singularly obsessed with all things crispy. More precisely, he noted that there was a premium placed on the textural play between interiors (moist) and exteriors (crunchy), Kentucky Fried Chicken being the prime example of this sort of texture-driven cookery. Indeed, the fast food establishments that increasingly dotted the American landscape were particularly adept at a particular kind of culinary alchemy, which melded a relatively sophisticated understanding of sensory pleasure with mass-market tastes (and, of course, standardized supply chains). It was this discovery, claims Richard, that led him to rethink the way French food was prepared and presented in this country.
I first tasted ozōni, a comforting mélange of vegetables and broth topped with toasted rice cakes, in Hakodate, a charming port city on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaidō famous for its squid and Western-style architecture. It was New Year’s morning, and I had arrived in Japan just a few days earlier. The previous evening had been a blur of rapid-fire Japanese, new and exciting foods (candy-sweet black beans! Bright yellow chestnuts and sweet potatoes! Raw quail eggs with soba noodles!) and unfamiliar etiquette. Of course, my confusion was compounded by jetlag and culture shock, not to mention a few sips too many of sake and umeshu. The next morning, after my attempts to watch the sun rise over Goryōkaku park were stymied by a blizzard, I felt a powerful craving for a hot, warm breakfast.