TOKYO — It's Friday night in Japan and all eyes are glued to the "Battle of the Iron Chef" on TV. A brash challenger has just sent a huge seafood omelet somersaulting gracefully into the air from his frying pan, causing commentators to oooh and ahhh.
The wild and campy program is one of countless cooking shows that fill the television schedule - a sign that the Japanese, while perhaps not known for it overseas, are among the most devoted food fanatics in the world.
They put their money where their mouths are, spending more on going out to eat than people in the United States and France. According to the London-based market research firm Euromonitor, the Japanese spend an average of 197,000 yen each in restaurants every year. That's $1,670, which is about twice what Americans and the French shell out.
Such figures shouldn't come as a surprise, says food consultant Masako Ogawa, who recently returned from a tour of France and Italy devoted exclusively to visiting exotic cheesemakers. "I believe Japan has a highly developed culinary sense - at least as high as the Chinese or the French," she says. "We're surrounded by wonderful flavors from the sea and the mountains, so we've learned to appreciate fine tastes."
For many Japanese, eating out a lot is a necessity because they usually live far from where they work and have tiny apartments. Streets in some densely packed neighborhoods have nothing but small restaurants and bars for several blocks.
But it's also Japan's love of fine food and willingness to pay top yen to get it that built this country's restaurant industry into a $210 billion colossus - an amount larger than the entire economy of South Africa.
Japan's top chefs study with Europe's masters. France's top-ranked Cordon Bleu culinary school has a branch in Japan. And even Japan's cheaper fare is held to high standards.
"Tampopo," a modern film from satirist Juzo Itami, is the story of a quasi-religious quest for the perfect bowl of ramen noodles. Still, "Iron Chef" takes the cake for unbounded exuberance about food. It gives ordinary viewers a chance to drool over concoctions made by top chefs whose restaurants most people can't afford.
"No one can afford fancy cars or houses here," says Yukio Hattori, an "Iron Chef" commentator. "Fine food is one of the only ways the Japanese have to enjoy themselves."