In New York City, one of the oldest cities in the United States and the one I call home, there is often the civic debate of whether to preserve old buildings or just knock them down and build new ones. Since real estate goes for a premium here, we tend to opt toward knocking them down and replacing them with stunning new edifices. This city thrives on consumers who expect to live and work in luxury and convenience. That is one extreme compared to other old cities such as Boston that lean toward preservation. I’ve lived in or around both cities, and I know it’s easy to argue the point endlessly whether preservation and tradition is more important than modernization and innovation.

Furthermore, to bring this matter into spiritual life and experience, this same argument of tradition versus innovation is also prevalent in church culture. Should we preserve tradition or be “relevant” and imitate the culture at large? I’ve been privy to arguments in which some want to bring back practices of the ancient church and the teachings of the apostles, to those who want to base spirituality on experience and ambiance and want the style of worship reflect a coffeehouse scene or some other contemporary venue. Do these two extremes have to be at odds? Are there other examples and cultures we could examine to learn how to integrate tradition and innovation?

Over the years, Japanese culture has been one that has pricked my thoughts on this issue. They put such a premium on both honoring traditions, yet also embracing modernity and pushing the envelope of innovation. This desire for integration was further entertained while watching the series Mind of a Chef. The show follows David Chang, the founding chef of award-winning restaurant Momofuku, to showcase his cooking style and inspiration. Since his foundational training was in Japan, and his own style of cooking was influenced by its philosophy of the culinary arts, he shows how Japanese cuisine takes traditional and humble items, such as soy, and perfects it to make signature ingredients like tofu and miso. What struck me about his travels was the constant emphasis on taking ancient practices and innovating them to appeal to modern tastes and sensibilities. For instance, while Chang was visiting a miso factory in Kyoto with Chef Yoshihiro Murata of Japan’s well-known restaurant Kikonoi, Chef Murata shared the Japanese understanding of combining innovation with tradition: “We believe that protecting our tradition is to go forward. The part you protect and the part you innovate has to move in parallel. Otherwise, a thousand years from now we will still be exactly the same. The president here [of the miso factory] is constantly doing new things. By being innovative he keeps the tradition going.”

Although it seems that Japanese culture leans much more toward preserving culture than in innovation, the continued success and popularity of their foods and cuisine attest to quite the opposite. Even after thousands of years, tofu and miso remain bedrock ingredients that shape and inform their cultural tastes. Moreover, these ancient ingredients are now appreciated and admired worldwide and have proven to attract the modern palate. Therefore, Chef Murata’s insight that innovation could effectively run parallel to tradition is appealing, and the idea that innovation elevates tradition, so that in effect it also preserves it, provides a loophole to allow traditions to exist in new forms. How often do we let traditions fall by the wayside and die because we don’t have the patience or persistence to take simple and humble forms and innovate alongside them so that they can grow and appeal to modern sensibilities?

Another interesting example of this philosophy played out beautifully in Chang’s travels when he sampled Japan’s long tradition and love affair with ramen noodle soup. He showed how the style of the soup depended on the region of the country, but also how various chefs were constantly “tinkering” with the traditional representation and taking the experience to a new level. One style of the soup, called Tsukemen, is one such example in which ramen noodles were chilled like soba noodles. Then the soup broth was flavored heavily, so that the chilled noodles could be dipped into the broth and eaten like a soba noodle experience. The combination of one style with another completely changed, not only the experience, but also the taste of the noodles in the soup. Although it was such a subtle difference, to the Japanese taste and experience, that slight shift was both exhilarating and rooted in valued customs. Tradition was taken to a new level.

As I consider this tinkering of tradition and innovation here in the States and in my own church experience, the Japanese approach to preserving tradition through innovation is one to seriously ponder and experiment with. Otherwise, not only will our identity and place in our heritage be lost, but we’ll also lose our sense of who we are now. There’s also something hopeful in the idea of returning to the humble origins and taking those simple elements and tinkering with them with patience and love, so as to elevate them to a new level of both tradition and experience.

1 Comment

  1. I love the correlation here between old/new, tradition/innovation as seen through food. Though as a food writer I find Chang’s restaurants overrated, I agree that in Japanese culture we often see perfection achieved in areas of tradition and innovation (on the tradition side, have you seen “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”? Fantastic documentary). Thanks for the thoughtful article.

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