Japan is often admired for its exquisite presentation of food, which is achieved with a notoriously meticulous perfectionism and style. Whether it’s sushi, sweets, fruit — or even just a salad — the look is every bit as important as the taste. “Japanese people eat with their eyes,” the saying goes.
On the flip side, however, lies a darker reality: food that isn’t deemed the perfect size, shape or color lands in the dump. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Japan's average annual food waste adds up to 18 million tons, five to eight million of which are edible food discarded for reasons as simple as it visually didn’t live up to the standard. That amount is about equivalent — or even more — to the total amount of annual global food aid, according to the most recent statistics from the World Food Program.
One project tackling this issue is Mottainai Action, a concept developed and produced by a-dot, a company based in Tokyo. The name of the project derives from the company's aspiration to curb Japan's "mottainai" behavior, a term meaning "wasteful," often used in a negative connotation to express regret. A-dot's project puts the spotlight on edible food that is doomed to be discarded for simple reasons such as being blemished, misshapen or smaller (or bigger) than the standards set by large retailers, and turns it into deliciously cooked meals at four concept diners in Tokyo: the seafood "izakaya" Uoharu in Marunouchi, the vegetable cafe Mottainai Farm Radice in Daikanyama, the tempura stand Tachiten-maru in Shimbashi and the full course-specialized Omakase in Azabu-Juban. The food used at all four restaurants is produced by farmers, factories and fish market vendors who had partnered with the stores to sell foodstuff that wouldn’t pass large retailers’ tests to fit the standard supermarket display. The business model thus maximizes use of edible produce and financial stability for these vendors, while customers are given the chance to contribute to the society and enjoy delicious bites at a reasonable price.
Mottainai Farm Radice near Daikanyama station is a café during the day and a restaurant-bar at night, offering a variety of healthy cuisine options using mostly vegetables. Radice transforms "unsellable produce" from local farms into a lineup of delicious meals and drinks, including the “Fusuma” bruschetta (¥500), the crispy “Big Nakakiage,” sliced vegetables, deep-fried tempura-style (¥800) or the fresh “Capo” juice served at dinnertime as an amuse-bouche for ¥500 in a choice of five purpose-targeted flavors: beauty, reset, constipation, detox and hangover (also available for takeout in two sizes). Other dishes on the menu include cheese fondue (¥1,280) served with bites of fresh vegetables, meat and shrimp and the mildly sweet avocado tiramisu (¥700). The café also features a small "marche" open to residents and visitors to browse through fresh vegetables, fruit, nuts and even wine.
Uoharu, located a just two-minute walk from Yurakucho or Hibiya stations, features mostly seafood meals using fish delivered from the Tsukiji market. Like Radice's veggies, the fish there is put aside for discard for three main reasons: it was smaller or bigger than "normal," had a chopped tail or is a result of an overhaul. Uoharu's menu lineup includes a la carte bites of fresh sashimi, baked fish and other nibbles from ¥290 on.
Tachiten-maru, which opened in November last year, is a "tachinomiya"-style tempura standing bar that has its food delivered from Shimane and Tottori prefectures. The restaurant's best on the menu is a tempura fish called "babaa" (¥180 apiece) – a collagen-rich fish and a local delicatessen in the two prefectures that rarely makes it to the mainstream market for it's said to look like "an old lady" (thereby the name). Also on the menu are crabs legs (¥300) that had been put aside for being chipped or fresh shrimps (¥80) that were smaller than the standards.
Omakase, a one-minute walk from Azabu-juban station, is the project's high-class restaurant that operates entirely on a reservation basis and serves Japanese-style full-course menus including top class crabs, foie gras, wagyu beef and other "imperfect" luxurious foods.
With the project just having started, it is difficult to estimate its success so far in reducing food loss, but a visit to any of its eateries will contribute to the cause –– even if just for the reassurance of how good those cast-off veggies, seafood and fruits taste. When your conscience gets in on the feast, you’ll wonder why anyone would consider tossing them aside.
For more information on the Mottainai Action project, visit the company's official website here. (Japanese language only).© Japan Today