Tastes and Flavours of Japan
As the Japanese archipelago stretches a long distance from north to south, the different climatic conditions have a great influence on differing regional cuisine and local delicacies, thereby producing a very varied dietary culture.
Japanese cuisine is renowned for three qualities: the seasonality of the food; the quality of the ingredients; and the exquisite presentation. This claim is reinforced by the fact that the Michelin Guide has awarded Tokyo-based restaurants more Michelin stars than restaurants in Paris, Hong Kong, New York, Los Angeles and London combined.
Japanese cuisine is based on combining staple foods, typically rice or noodles, with a soup and okazu — dishes made from fish, meat or vegetables to add flavor to the staple food. These are typically flavoured with dashi, miso and soy sauce and are usually low in fat.
According to United Nations data for the years 2005 to 2010, life expectancy in Japan was the highest in the world. UN data said Japanese men have an average life span of 79 years and women 86 years.
Research compiled by Professor Yasuo Kagawa of the Jichi Medical School, Tochigi-Ken, Japan, said this longevity is partially down to Japanese people having an extraordinarily low level of cholesterol in their blood; a fact which apparently also explains the very low death rate from heart disease in the country. Professor Kagawa attributes this to the special diet prevalent in Japan.
Healthy food does not equate to bland food and the cuisine on offer in Japan is among the most innovative and delicious on the global culinary map today.
Styles of cooking
The most famous Japanese food is probably sushi, which is cooked vinegared rice (shari) combined with other ingredients (neta). Neta and forms of sushi presentation vary, but the ingredient which all sushi have in common is shari. The most common neta are tuna, squid and prawns. Other prominent cooking styles are:
Sashimi this is very fresh raw meat, most commonly fish, sliced into thin pieces. It is traditionally served with soy sauce, ginger root, wasabi paste and a citrus-based sauce known as ponzu.
Tempura is a Japanese dish of seafood or vegetables that have been covered in batter and deep fried.
Sukiyaki is a popular dish of thinly sliced beef, served with vegetables, tofu and vermicelli and usually cooked in a sizzling iron skillet at the table side.
Nabemono is a variety of one-pot dishes, usually chicken, fish, tofu, or vegetables, simmered in a light, fish-based broth.
Shabu-shabu is similar to sukiyaki and is prepared at the table with a combination of vegetables, but cooked in boiling water.
Teppanyaki is a style that uses an iron griddle to cook dishes such as steak and shrimp.
Yakitori is made up of small pieces of chicken meat, liver and vegetables skewered on a bamboo stick and grilled over hot coals.
Tourists’ first impressions
Eating in Japan can be an initial culture shock for the first time visitor. Beyond the aforementioned cooking styles, the incredible variety of vegetation used in Japanese cooking surprises most Western palates such as Take-no-ko (bamboo shoots) and the treasured matsutake mushrooms, to name just a few. Although most might feel overwhelmed by this unfamiliar cuisine, with a sense of adventure you can dine quite successfully and experience a gastronomic experience that is unique to this fascinating country.
Essential culinary guidelines
Aside from the content of the meal, the basic formula for a Japanese meal is soup, raw fish, an entrée (grilled, steamed, simmered), then rice and pickles, fresh fruit for dessert and green tea to conclude the meal.
The key issues are freshness; simplicity; and presentation. Fish and sea food are always consumed on the day that they have been caught. Likewise, vegetables are always preferred fresh and not of the frozen variety. The benchmark is: “What is served; is what is in season.”
Regarding simplicity, Japanese cuisine adheres to the concept that the original flavour of the food should remain, rather than be masked through over use of added spices, herbs, etc.
Therefore subtle additional ingredients, such as thinly-sliced fresh ginger, are used to accent original flavours.
The final consideration is tasteful preparation. Simple foods such as fish must appeal to the eye as well as to the stomach, hence the artistic preparation of sushi dishes. In Japanese food, the visual harmony is as important as the balance and variety of natural flavours.
One of Japan’s most famous high-end dishes is Kobe beef, which is meat produced from the black Tajima-ushi breed of Wagyu cattle, raised according to strict production methods in Hyogo Prefecture. The meat is a delicacy and renowned for its flavour, tenderness, and fatty, well-marbled texture. Livestock are fed on beer and grain to produce meat so tender and fatty that it rivals foie gras in texture. Another special procedure in the production of this meat involves massaging the cattle to achieve the tenderness of the steak.
Another of the country’s most celebrated delicacies is fugu (puffer fish.) Literally meaning “river pig” this fish can be lethally poisonous due to its inherent tetrodotoxin. Therefore, it must be carefully prepared to remove toxic parts and a Japanese chef must undergo intensive training of about 7-10 years to become a fugu chef. However, this training may not be needed in the future as some fish farms in Japan are producing a variant of non-poisonous fugu.
Less threatening but equally sought after is the matsutake group of mushrooms. These delicacies have been an important part of Japanese cuisine for the last 1,000 years. A Japanese matsutake at the beginning of the season, when it is at the highest grade, can retail for up to USD$2000/kg.
Feasting on a Budget
Despite the country’s misplaced reputation as being one of the world’s most expensive destinations for tourists, Japanese cities have an abundance of quality restaurants that will satisfy the palate without emptying the wallet.
The traditional and extremely popular bento, literally meaning “convenience”, is a Japanese box lunch available at convenience stores, train stations and department stores. These carry-out meals usually contain rice as a staple, and an assortment of pickles, grilled meat or fish and vegetables in an almost limitless variety of combinations depending on the season.
Buckwheat soba noodles provide a cheap and popular snack. These are served either chilled with a dipping sauce in summer; or in a hot soy-based broth in winter. Toppings are chosen to reflect the seasons and to balance with other ingredients.
The buckwheat udon noodles provide an equally satisfying snack. These are thick and white in colour, compared to the thinner, brown soba variety. Udon is usually served hot as a noodles soup in its simplest form or in a mildly flavoured broth called kakejiru. It is usually topped with thinly chopped scallions, or can include other toppings such as prawn tempura or tofu.
Another inexpensive option is okonomiyaki, which has become known as a Japanese pancake, but is actually a combination of vegetables, meat, or seafood in an egg-and-flour batter cooked at the table.
Another inexpensive, but equally satisfying option, is the robatayaki (grill). Platters of fish, vegetables, tofu, or other ingredients are lined up on a platter. Just point at the ingredients you want and the chef will perform his culinary magic on the griddle. Popular choices include yaki-zakana (grilled fish) and asari saka-mushi (clams simmered in the alcoholic spirit sake.)
Every island in the Japanese archipelago has its own rich diversity of specialty dishes based on regional climatic and supply conditions.
The food of Hokkaido is one of the northern island’s biggest attractions. The vast expanse of coastline provides high quality seafood and likewise the abundance of fertile agricultural land provides superior meat and vegetables.
One of Hokkaido’s local specialties called Jingisukan features grilled mutton, a type of meat that is seldom used in Japanese cuisine.
As befitting an island location, Hokkaido is also famous for the quality and taste of its crab meat, and the most popular crustaceans to look out for are Taraba-gani (king crab), Zuwai-gani (tanner crab) and the Kegani (horsehair crab).
Another local delicacy is “soupy curry”. This dish originated in Sapporo and has become a popular mainstay in many restaurants in the city area. It is served in a variety of spice-heat levels and curry types.
As Japan’s former capital and seat of the Imperial Court for over a thousand years, Kyoto offers a rich culinary tradition befitting its former royal status. A famous dining experience is kaiseki ryori, a traditional multi-course dinner, which is similar in status to the West’s haute cuisine.
This is regarded as Japan’s most exquisite culinary offering.
This elaborate style of dining places emphasis on subtle flavours and local and seasonal ingredients. A kaiseki ryori meal has a prescribed order of dishes which is determined by the cooking method of each particular dish.
An example of a kaiseki ryori dinner might be sashimi (raw fish) to start, served with local vegetables, followed by a grilled fish and miso soup, sushi, a nabe pot which is similar to fondue without cheese, a meat, a rice dish and a dessert to finish. A particular aspect of this form of dining is the incredible artistry that goes into preparing a meal.
The cuisine of this island differs significantly from mainstream Japanese dishes because of the influence of other countries and the regional climate.
Goya Champuru and Okinawa Soba and are two of the island’s greatest specialities. Goya champuru refers to a dish which is prepared by stir frying ingredients. The most popular champuru variety is goya champuru, in which the bitter goya vegetable is stir fried with tofu, eggs and pork.
Although they share the name with noodles of the same name found on the Japanese mainland, Okinawa soba are completely different and made of wheat rather than buckwheat flour. Similar to ramen noodles, Okinawa Soba is served in a bowl of broth with a number of toppings.
Taco rice is a unique dish that is attributed to the US military presence on the island of Okinawa. The meal’s exact origins are uncertain, but it surfaced in Okinawa sometime after the end of the Second World War. A bowl of taco rice consists of typical taco ingredients, such as ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes and salsa, served over rice.