I have seen a land where olive oil will thrive, I predict, because the people instinctively ask the right questions: agricultural freshness, premium quality, health, honesty. Though they don’t have a long tradition with olive oil, and though low-grade stuff is available in supermarkets, the Japanese clearly get premium extra virgin olive oil.
Recently I traveled to Tokyo to take part in Olive Japan 2012, a 4-day olive oil competition and trade show of sorts, organized by the delightful, indefatigable, and always impeccably dressed Toshiya Tada and his sharp, ebullient colleague Tomomi Endo. Tada and Endo are founders of the ground-breaking Olive Oil Sommeliers Association Japan, and are the gate-keepers of excellent oil in this country so aware of excellence. The competition itself was highly enjoyable, with 140 oils submitted from 20 countries (gold medals went to oils from Tunisia, California, Spain, Australia and elsewhere). But to me even more enthralling was trade show, which drew 30,000 Japanese in 2 days. Extended families, school kids in uniform drumming on their smartphones, elderly couples, mothers with babies in strollers – everyone here to experience freshly-made olive oil. Even – or perhaps especially – when they knew nothing about it.
What struck me most about the Japanese, when faced with a foreign food like olive oil and its unfamiliar set of sensory cues, was their eagerness to learn more about it. When rocked back on their heels by a bitter, peppery oil they hadn’t seen coming, people from many nations I know would have put down the oil and walked away. Not so the Japanese! Time and again I saw people’s lips purse in an O of surprise, even distress, as the pepperiness hit the back of their throat, then, as soon as the pepper passed and they could speak again, they’d loose a barrage of questions. Through an interpreter I heard the same questions frequently: “What causes that pungency?” “Is that a sign that this oil is healthy?” “Does bitterness and pungency mean freshness?”
Japanese have already embraced olive oil for use in traditional Italian and Spanish recipes, but I heard more and more people talking about how good a premium oil was on sashimi, with tofu and over miso soup, as a flavor-enhancer with soy sauce or wasabe. Fine oil is seeping into the local cuisine here, and into the Japanese consciousness.
In fact, as I found when I traveled to Shodoshima Island, Japan, not long after, olives have been grown in this land for well over a century. (I have read in several places that Portuguese Jesuits brought olive oil to Japan in the Renaissance, and introduced a style of cooking in olive oil that later became “tempura.” However, I haven’t yet found this in a solid and reliable source – any tips?) Olives are also being grown in Kyushu Province, and in areas devastated by the recent tsunami. As the ferry boat arrived, I could see olive trees growing down by the harbor, and groves here and there on the steep-sided hills beyond. The Japanese themselves refer to this place as “the Olive Island,” and small quantities of oil is made here each year, despite the tough growing conditions (monsoon season is tough on the trees!) Here again the Japanese focus on excellence was in evidence: last year, bad weather and parasites damaged the olives, so the growers decided not to make oil. If only all Mediterranean growers would take a page from their book, and only make oil out of first-class olives! With typical Japanese ingenuity and thrift, Shodoshima companies are also making an excellent soft drink out of the waste water from the oil extraction process – it tastes a bit like ginger ale with a sprig of peppermint in it – and a strong, refreshing and healthy tea from leaves of olive trees, grown in a grove where the trees were in hedges, and their crowns barely reached my knees. Tea from bansai olives: yet another new olive experience!