“Potato… apple… cucumber… cabbage…,” I mouthed quietly flipping through my flashcards on the train to Osaka to take the Japanese Junior Vegetable Sommelier exam. The exam lasted nearly three hours and tested my detailed knowledge of a wide variety of topics ranging from types of sweet potatoes to food regulations to the proper temperature for steaming vegetables. One month later, I got the exciting news that I passed! I am now a certified Japanese Junior Vegetable Sommelier.
Vegetable Sommelier?? What is that? You might ask. Yep, you are not the first person to wonder. Here are answers to some of the questions that I get asked most frequently about the certification.
(By the way, this is a work in progress. If you have more questions you want answered, let me know!)
Is a “vegetable sommelier” like a wine sommelier?
Sort of. A vegetable sommelier is an expert about fruits and vegetables, kind of like a wine sommelier is an expert about wine. Vegetable sommelier are expected to have advanced knowledge about fruits and vegetables and the best way to enjoy them. However, the vegetable sommelier certification is much less commonly recognized. As far as I know, only Japan and Korea have vegetable sommelier associations – Japan Vegetable Sommelier Association and Korea Vegetable Sommelier Association. And my impression is that the wine sommelier exam is much more rigorous.
What are the benefits of having a Vegetable Sommelier certificate?
Honestly, there are not so many benefits outside Japan. Since the certificate is granted by a Japanese association, it is not well known or recognized worldwide. Within Japan, having the certificate seems like it can open up career opportunities. Some high end restaurants and luxury hotels hire vegetable sommelier to create menus and offer recommendations for fresh produce. Also, the Japanese Vegetable Sommelier Associate organizes events promoting vegetables. The Association created a program to encourage kids to eat more fruits and veggies through a series of 12 classes that focused on botany, exploring tastes and flavors, and trying different cooking techniques.
How many vegetable sommelier are there?
There are about 13,500 in Japan. As comparison, in the U.S. there are just 149 professionals who have earned the highest title of Master Sommelier.
Can anyone become a vegetable sommelier?
Yes, there are no special requirements for taking the exam to become a vegetable sommelier. However, currently the exam is only offered in Japanese. So if you cannot read and understand Japanese, that would be the first step. I would love to bring the Vegetable Sommelier certificate to the United States. I think that vegetables need some serious re-branding and promoting efforts in the United States. A 2015 report from the Center for Disease Control found that 87% of respondents did not meet daily fruit consumption recommendations, and 91% did not meet vegetable recommendations. Let’s all eat more green stuff!!
What is the structure of the exam?
The exam consists of multiple-choice questions. It lasts 2.5 hours.
Do you have to submit anything else?
Yes, you also have to submit a “report packet” written in Japanese. The packet involves preparing a one-page report on 8 fruits or vegetables of your choice. Each report must include the following information: name of vegetable, where it is grown, when it is harvested, appearance, use, storage, minerals/vitamins, taste, and seasonal context. Also, you have to provide an original recipe. For my 8 vegetables, I chose – eggplant, broccoli, tomato, corn, carrot, zucchini, avocado, and onion. At the time of the exam, you have to bring a hard copy of the packet. During the exam, the proctors checked the packets and marked any errors or unclear portions, which we were asked to correct at the end of the exam.
What material is covered on the exam?
Everything on the exam is detailed in the “Junior Vegetable Sommelier Course” textbook that you receive once you register. There are four sections in the textbook: communication, theory, science, and cookery. The “theory” section is worth 200 points. The other three sections are each worth 100 points. So I focused mostly on the “theory” section when I started studying. Here are examples of the information in each section.
Communication (100 points)
Some of this section covers material related to vegetables. But most of communication is specific to the Japanese language and the Japanese cultural style of interacting. For example, in Japanese there are multiple levels of politeness. The same verb “eat” can be said in different ways depending on who you are talking to. This section covers the proper conjugation of different words and verbs into those different politeness levels.
– Words used to describe the tastes/smells/textures of fruits and vegetables
– Guidelines for proper presentation style (e.g., back straight, arms by sides)
Theory (200 points)
This section is the bulk of the material. It is also the most varied, which makes studying it a bit challenging. There is a lot to memorize.
– Different definitions of “fruit” and “vegetable”
– Varieties of various fruits and vegetables
– Food allergy categories and regulations on GMO
– Japanese laws related to produce and food distribution
Science (100 points)
The “Science” section covers the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables. Plus, it includes detailed information about which vitamins and minerals are found in which vegetables, and the key function of those vitamins and minerals in the body.
– Distinctions between “protein,” “fat,” and “carbohydrates”
– Source and function of 13 key vitamins (e.g., Vitamin A, D, E, K, B1, B2, etc..)
– Info on major illnesses caused by lack of proper nutrition (e.g., diabetes)
Cookery (100 points)
The “Cookery” section covers all the possible cooking techniques used to prepare vegetables from stewing to frying. Some of the information is specific to Japanese cuisine. For example, you have to learn the basic vinegar dressings used to make traditional “sumono” (or vinegar dressed salads).
– Cutting styles (e.g., half moon, quarter moon, rough chopping)
– Techniques (e.g., steaming, simmering, deep frying, stir frying)
Also to learn the techniques, I started my “Make Now & Eat Later” project to cook my way through a cookbook of Japanese meal prep recipes.
Do you have to attend classes?
No but if you are in Japan, you can sign up for classroom instruction to help prepare for the exam. Since I do not live in Japan, I signed up for the remote “DVD course,” which includes videotapes of the lectures. Honestly though, I did not watch any of the lectures.
How much does it cost?
The tuition fee is 148,000 JPY (about $1,490 USD). Plus, each time you take the exam you have to pay an exam fee around $150. Also if you do not live in Japan, you will have to pay for travel to and from Japan, along with food and housing during your visit.
What if you fail the exam?
You can keep re-taking the exam every year. Once you pay the tuition fee, then you are eligible to take the exam. If you fail the exam, you can retake it within 12 months of failing the exam without having to repay the tuition fee. (You still have to pay the exam fee every time.) If you fail the exam and more than 12 months elapses without you retaking the exam, then you have to repay the tuition fee in order to be eligible to take the exam. It is a pretty generous system. Basically after the one-time tuition fee, you can keep taking the exam pretty much indefinitely until you pass.
How many times did you take the exam?
I took the exam 3 times. I failed twice and passed on my third try.
How did you prepare for the exam?
I read and (tried to) memorize the entire textbook that accompanies the exam. The first two times I took the exam, I would study in the evening when I got home from graduate school. I made pretty good progress. I managed to read through the entire Theory section, and about 70% of the Communication section. On the third try, I devote one entire week to preparing for the exam. During that time, I did nothing but study from morning to night.
My studying had a two-pronged approach. First I had to learn all the new Japanese words and characters so that I could just read the exam. Also I had to learn the actual content of the exam. As I was reading the textbook, I wrote down any new characters and created flashcards on my phone using the Japanese-English dictionary app called simply “Japanese.” I drilled those flashcards everyday, when I was commuting by bus to graduate school. I also challenged myself to learn how to write all the new characters (not just recognize them). So I would flip the cards over and try to write the character just by looking at the definition. To learn the content, I used a mixture of English and Japanese. First, I created a condensed version of the textbook, outlining the key concepts and materials. I tried to use Japanese as much as possible, but when it was slowing me down too much I would write my notes in English. From those condensed notes, I created flashcards on key concepts, which I carried everywhere with me.
Also I used this blog “Okusama2010” extensively. It saved me! The blog is written by someone who passed the same exam. The biggest help is that she provides practice questions. Seeing the questions really helped me to imagine what kinds of things I might be asked on the exam and helped me structure my studying to be more efficient.
Any final tips?
- Seriously use Okusama2010’s guide!
- If you have the luxury to take the exam a couple of times, do it! That way you don’t have to worry too much about the first time you take the exam. You can use it as a chance to get familiar with the structure of the exam. The exam changed only slightly between the 2nd and 3rd time that I took the exam, so if you take it once, you can memorize the material that appears on the exam and it is very likely that the same material will appear on the exam the next time too.
- Have fun!
If you want to read the entire saga of my quest to becoming a Junior Vegetable Sommelier, read more about it here:
Read about my journey to learn Japanese, my love of Japanese cooking (especially veggies), and more on my About Me page!