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TRAVEL WATCH: JANUARY 24, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 3

Watch Japan's Chefs Colonize World Cuisine
By MIKI TANIKAWA

The menu at the Japanese chain Mos Burger brings new meaning to the concept "fusion food." While global giant McDonald's bows to local culture by adding to its standard mix burgers flavored with teriyaki and nabeyaki (a traditional pot-boiled dish), Mos Burger takes the Japanization of Western fast food to new extremes with its rice burgers. The buns are made of rice instead of bread. Nestled between them is a choice of shrimp cakes or Japanese-style fried beef. And they seem to be popular:Mos operates more than 1,500 outlets in Japan and has expanded into Malaysia, Singapore and China with its unique brand of blended fast food.

The Japanese are famed, of course, for their mixing of outside and local influences. That eclecticism is true with food as well, providing visitors the opportunity for entertaining culinary adventures. According to master chef Yukio Hattori, who runs a cooking school in Tokyo, the Japanese have developed a knack for sampling foreign foods and modifying them to fit their own tastes. Says Hattori:"Exploring with food is in our dna".

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While geneticists might argue that point, it's hard to find a fast-food specialty that hasn't been adapted to local tastebuds. The Royal Hat pizza chain, for example, offers a variety of wafu, Japanese-style pizzas. One features mochi (sticky rice cake) with nori (dry seaweed) sprinkled on top. Burger chain First Kitchen attracts customers with French fries flavored with takoyaki--octopus balls. And it's not only a fast-food trend; upmarket restaurants also get into the act. Most Italian eateries in Japan, for example, offer tarako, or cod roe spaghetti.

The phenomenon isn't just about being playful. Culinary experts in Tokyo credit Japanese chefs with a certain artistic flair, in seeking out the most exciting combinations of ingredients spread among different national food groups.

Such ardor is hotly pursued in restaurants like Kiti (tel: 813-3478-7727), located in Tokyo's posh Shibuya district. Its softly lit Euro-techno interior is sprinkled with Japanese accents like a small traditional garden with bamboo water pipes and a tansu (a Japanese cabinet) with French wine bottles on top. The menu, too, involves an intriguing mix of French and Japanese. And we're talking about more than just rice dressed like a baguette. Try the sea urchin and grated yam wrapped in a thin layer of baked paté. Or the beef filet sushi: a delicately cooked piece of beef, placed on top of a vinegared rice ball and dipped into a rich cheese sauce.

"Some might think we are haphazardly blending one ingredient with another," says Kiti's chef, Tsuyoshi Kuwasawa. "Only one out of 10 combinations we try proves to be the right match." While the chef declines to describe any of his less successful blends, take note:fermented bean linguine is nowhere on the menu.



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