Food Individual to the Country
Traditional Japanese cuisine is dominated by white rice (hakumai), and few meals would be complete without it. Anything else served during a meal–fish, meat, vegetables, tsukemono (pickles)–is considered a side dish, known as okazu.
Traditional Japanese meals are named by the number of side dishes that accompany the rice and soup that are nearly always served. The simplest Japanese meal, for example, consists of ichiju-issai (“one soup, one side” or “one dish meal”). This means soup, rice, and one accompanying side dish–usually a pickled vegetable like daikon. A traditional Japanese breakfast, for example, usually consists of miso soup, rice, and a pickled vegetable. The most common meal, however, is called ichiju-sansai (“one soup, three sides”), or soup, rice, and three side dishes, each employing a different cooking technique. The three side dishes are usually raw fish (sashimi), a grilled dish, and a simmered (sometimes called boiled in translations from Japanese) dish — although steamed, deep fried, vinegared, or dressed dishes may replace the grilled or simmered dishes. Ichiju-sansai often finishes with pickles such as umeboshi and green tea.
This Japanese view of a meal is reflected in the organization of traditional Japanese cookbooks. Chapters are organized according to cooking techniques: fried foods, steamed foods, and grilled foods, for example, and not according to particular ingredients (e.g., chicken or beef) as are western cookbooks. There may also be chapters devoted to soups, sushi, rice, noodles, and sweets.
Since Japan is an island nation, its people consume much seafood including fish, shellfish, octopus, squid, crab, lobster, shrimp and seaweed. Although not known as a meat eating country, very few Japanese consider themselves vegetarians. Beef and chicken are commonly eaten and have become part of everyday cuisine.
Noodles, originating from China, have become an essential part of Japanese cuisine. There are two traditional types of noodle, soba and udon. Made from buckwheat flour, soba is a thin, brown noodle. Made from wheat flour, udon is a thick, white noodle. Both are generally served in a soy-flavored fish broth with various vegetables. A more recent import from China, dating to the early 19th century, is ramen (Chinese wheat noodles), which have become extremely popular. Ramen is served in a variety of soup stocks ranging from soy sauce/fish stock to butter/pork stock.
Although most Japanese eschew eating insects, there are a couple of exceptions. In some regions, grasshoppers (inago) and bee larvae (hachinoko) are not uncommon dishes. Salamander is eaten as well in places.
Traditional Japanese table settings
The traditional Japanese table setting has varied considerably over the centuries, depending primarily on the type of table common during a given era. Before the 19th century, small individual box tables (hakozen) or flat floor trays were set before each diner. Larger low tables (chabudai) that accommodated entire families were becoming popular by the beginning of the 20th century, but these gave way to western style dining tables and chairs by the end of the 20th century.
Traditional table settings are based on the ichiju-sansai formula. Typically, five separate bowls and plates are set before the diner. Nearest the diner are the rice bowl on the left and the soup bowl on the right. Behind these are three flat plates to hold the three side dishes, one to far back left (on which might be served a simmered dish), one at far back right (on which might be served a grilled dish), and one in the center of the tray (on which might be served boiled greens). Pickled vegetables are often served as well, and eaten at the end of the meal, but are not counted as part of three side dishes.
Chopsticks are generally placed at the very front of the tray near the diner with pointed ends facing left and supported by a chopstick holder, or hashioki.
Dishes for special occasions
In Japanese tradition some dishes are strongly tied to a festival or event. Major such combinations include:
• Osechi – New Year.
• Chirashizushi, clear soup of crumbs and amazake – Hinamatsuri.
• botamochi (sticky rice dumpling with sweet azuki paste) – Spring equinox.
• Chimaki (steamed sweet rice cake) – Tango no Sekku and Gion Festival.
• Hamo (a kind of fish) and somen – Gion Festival.
• Sekihan, cooked rice with adzuki – celebration in general.
• Soba – New Year’s Eve. This is called toshi koshi soba (literally “year crossing soba”).
In some regions every 1st and 15th day of the month people eat a mixture of rice and adzuki (azuki meshi).
It is not generally thought possible to make authentic Japanese food without sho-yu (soy sauce), miso and dashi.
• Sho-yu (Soy sauce), dashi, mirin, sugar, rice vinegar, miso, sake.
• Kombu, katsuobushi, niboshi.
• Negi (welsh onion), onions, garlic, nira (garlic chives), rakkyo (a type of scallion)
• Sesame seeds, sesame oil, sesame salt (gomashio), furikake, walnuts or peanuts to dress.
• Wasabi (and imitation wasabi from horseradish), mustard, red pepper, ginger, shiso (or beefsteak) leaves, sansho, citrus peel, and honeywort (called mitsuba).
• Monosodium Glutamate, for better or for worse, is often used by chefs and food companies as a flavor enhancer, as well as being available on the table as a condiment.
Famous Japanese foods and dishes
Deep-Fried dishes (Agemono)
• Korokke (croquette) – breaded and deep-fried balls of mashed potato with creamy vegetable, seafood, or meat-flavored fillings.
• Kushiage – meat deep fried on a skewer.
• Tempura – battered and deep-fried vegetables, seafood, and meat.
• Tonkatsu – deep-fried breaded cutlet of pork (chicken versions called chicken katsu).
• A one-bowl dish of hot steamed rice with various savory toppings, usually includes cooking an egg as an ingredient Katsudon – deep-fried breaded cutlet of pork (tonkatsudon), chicken (chicken katsudon) or fish (e.g., magurodon)
• Oyakodon – (Parent and Child) Usually chicken and egg but sometimes salmon and salmon roe
• Gyudon – seasoned beef
• Tendon – battered, deep fried foods, usually shrimp and vegetables.
• Unatamadon – broiled eel with vegetables.
Grilled and pan-fried dishes (Yakimono)
• Gyoza – Chinese dumplings (potstickers), usually filled with pork and vegetables
• Hamachi Kama – grilled yellow tail tuna jaw and cheek bone
• Kushiyaki – meat and vegetable kebabs
• Okonomiyaki – pan-fried batter cakes with various savory toppings (see also Okonomiyaki restaurants)
• Omu-Raisu – i.e. “omelette rice”, a fried ketchup-flavored rice sandwiched with a thinly spread beaten egg or covered with a plain egg omelette
• Omu-Soba – an omelette with yakisoba as its filling
• Takoyaki – a spherical, fried dumpling of batter with a piece of octopus inside
• Teriyaki – grilled, broiled, or pan-fried meat, fish, chicken or vegetables glazed with a sweetened soy sauce
• Unagi, including kabayaki – grilled and flavored eel
• Yakisoba – Japanese style fried noodles
• Yakitori – chicken kebabs
Nabemono (one pot cooking)
• Kimuchinabe – similar to motsunabe, except with a kimuchi base and using thinly sliced pork. Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish, but it has also become very popular in Japan, particularly in the southern island of Kyushu, which is situated closest to South Korea
• Motsunabe – cow intestine, hakusai (bok choi) and various vegetables are cooked in a light soup base
• Nikujaga, a Japanese version of beef stew.
• Shabu-shabu – hot pot with thinly sliced beef, vegetables, and tofu boiled in a thin stock and dipped in a soy or sesame-based sauce before eating.
• Sukiyaki – thinly sliced beef and vegetables cooked in a special sauce made of soy sauce, dashi, sugar, and sake. Participants cook at the table then dip food into their individual bowls of raw egg before eating it.
• Tecchiri – hot pot with blowfish and vegetables, a specialty of Osaka.
Noodles often take the place of rice in a meal. However, the Japanese appetite for rice is so strong that many restaurants even serve ramen-rice combination sets.
• Soba – thin brown buckwheat noodles served chilled with various toppings or in hot broth
• Ramen – thin light yellow noodle served in hot broth with various toppings; of Chinese origin, it is a popular and common item in Japan
• Udon – thick wheat noodle served with various toppings or in a hot shoyu and dashi broth
• Champon – yellow noodles of medium thickness served with a great variety of seafood and vegetable toppings in a hot broth which originated in Nagasaki as a cheap food for students
• Okinawa soba – a wheat-flour noodle often served with soki, steamed pork
• Agedashi tofu – cubes of deep-fried silken tofu served in hot broth
• Bento or Obento – combination meal served in a wooden box
• Hiyayakko – cold tofu dish
• Osechi – traditional food eaten at the New Year
• Natto – fermented soybeans, stringy like melted cheese, infamous amongst non-Japanese for its strong smell and slippery texture. Often eaten for breakfast. Typically popular in Kanto and less so in Kansai
• Shiokara – salty fermented viscera
• Chawan mushi – meat (seafood and/or chicken) and vegetables boiled in egg custard
• Mochi – soft rice cake
• Ochazuke – green tea poured over white rice, often flavored
• Onigiri – Japanese rice balls
• Sekihan – red rice with adzuki beans
• Kamameshi – rice topped with vegetables and chicken or seafood, then baked in an individual-sized pot
• Kare Rice (see also curry) – Introduced from UK in the late 19th century, it became a staple food in Japan
• Hayashi Rice – thick beef stew on rice; origin of the name is unknown, but may be “hashed rice”
• Om-rice (Omu-raisu) – omelette filled with fried rice, apparently originating from Tokyo
Sashimi is raw, thinly sliced foods served with a dipping sauce and simple garnishes; usually fish or shellfish but can be almost anything including beef, horse and chicken.
• Basashi – sliced horse meat, sometimes called Sakura
• Fugu – sliced poisonous pufferfish (sometimes lethal), a uniquely Japanese specialty
• Rebasashi – usually liver of beef
• Shikasashi – sliced deer meat, a rare delicacy in certain parts of Japan
Soups (suimono and shirumono)
• Tonjiru – similar to Miso soup, except that pork is added to the ingredients
• Dangojiru – soup made with dumplings along with seaweed, tofu, lotus root, or any number of other vegetables and roots
• Miso soup – soup made with miso, dashi and seasonal ingredients like fish, kamaboko, onions, clams, potato, etc.
• Sumashijiru – a clear soup made with dashi and seafood
Sushi is vinegared rice topped or mixed with various fresh ingredients, usually fish or seafood.
• Nigirizushi – This is sushi with the ingredients on top of a block of rice.
• Makizushi – Translated as “roll sushi,” this is where rice and seafood or other ingredients are placed on a sheet of seaweed (nori) and rolled into a cylindrical shape on a bamboo mat and then cut into smaller pieces.
• Temaki – Basically the same as makizushi, except that the nori is rolled into a cone-shape with the ingredients placed inside.
• Chirashi – Translated as “scattered”, chirashi involves fresh sea food, vegetables or other ingredients being placed on top of sushi rice in a bowl or dish.
• Uni – Specifically salt-pickled uni
Japanese influence on other cuisines
Teppanyaki is said to be an American invention, as is the California roll (not to mention the Philadelphia roll), and while the former has been well received in Japan the latter has not and has, at worst, been termed not sushi by Japanese people. However thanks to some recent trends in American culture such as Iron Chef and Benihana, Japanese culinary culture is slowly fusing its way into American life. Japanese food, which had been quite exotic in the West as late as the 1970s, is now quite at home in parts of the continental United States, and has become an integral part of food culture in Hawaii.
Imported and adapted foods
Japan has incorporated imported food from across the world (mostly from Asia, Europe and to a lesser extent the Americas). Chinese, French, Italian and Spanish cuisine is of particular interest to Japanese people. Historically, foods such as castella and bread were originally imported from Portugal, and the name pan for bread is a loanword from Portuguese.
Many imported foods are made suitable for the Japanese palate by reducing the amount of spice used or changing a part of a recipe. For example, the Korean pickle kimchi, usually fermented in Korea, in Japan is instead often simply pickled, without a key Korean ingredient, fermented shrimp. Similarly, Japanese pizza may have toppings such as sliced boiled eggs, sweetcorn, shrimps, nori, and mayonnaise instead of tomato sauce.
Other examples of changed imported cuisine include:
• Spaghetti with creamy shrimp, lobster, crab, Alaska pollock roe or sea urchin sauce, or a non-creamy light sauce topped with seaweed, or made with tomato ketchup, weiners, sliced onion and green pepper (called ‘neapolitan’)
• Japanese-only “Chinese dishes” like Ebi Chili (shrimp in a tangy and slightly spicy sauce)
• Korean barbecue that is unflavored and is dipped in sauce before eating for flavor
• Korean Naengmyun with thicker noodles and a different broth
• Usage of Japanese rice instead of indigenous rice (in dishes from Thailand, India, Italy, etc.) or including it in dishes when originally it would not be eaten together (in dishes like hamburger, steak, omelettes, etc.).
The Japanese often eat at hamburger chains such as McDonald’s or Mos Burger, a popular competitor. Other fast-food establishments are similarly popular. These include doughnut and ice cream shops. Okinawa has a chain of A&W drive-in restaurants featuring the company’s root beer. The Japanese also alter American-style fast-food, serving such items as green-tea milkshakes and fried shrimp burgers at chains like Lotteria.
In Tokyo, it is quite easy to find restaurants serving authentic foreign cuisine. However, in most of the country, in many ways, the variety of imported food is limited; for example, it is rare to find pasta that is not of the spaghetti or macaroni varieties in supermarkets or restaurants; bread is very rarely of any variety but white; and varieties of imported cereal are also very limited, usually either frosted or chocolate flavored. “Italian restaurants” also tend to only have pizza and pasta in their menus.
Washoku and yoshoku
Imported cuisines and foods from America and Europe are called yoshoku, a shortened form of seiyoshoku lit. Western cuisine. Japanese cuisine is called washoku lit. Japanese cuisine and Chinese cuisine is called Chukaryori, lit. Chinese recipe.
A number of foreign dishes have been adapted to a degree that they are now considered Japanese, and are an integral part of any Japanese family menu. Yet, these are still categorized as yoshoku as they were imported. Perhaps the best example is curry rice, which was imported in the 19th century by way of the United Kingdom, and vaguely resembles the original Indian dish. Another example is “Hamburg steak”, which is a ground beef patty, usually mixed with breadcrumbs and fried chopped onions, served with a side of white rice and vegetables. Restaurants that serve these foods are called yoshokuya, lit. Western cuisine restaurants. However, yoshoku basically refers to Japanese-style foreign cuisine of a vague origin.
One of the oldest imported dishes is tempura, although it has been so thoroughly adopted that its foreign roots are unknown to most people, including many Japanese. As such, it is considered washoku. Tempura came to Japan from Portuguese sailors in the 16th century as a technique for cooking fish. Since then, the Japanese have extended its ingredients to include almost every sort of seafood and vegetable. Shrimp, eggplant, squash, and carrots are typical ingredients today. Another food, like tempura, that is now considered washoku is somen.
In a constant quest to adopt and expand Japanese cuisine, Japanese have made hundreds of recipes that are distinctly different from the original recipes but still retain the “air” (and basic taste) of their origins. For example, “curry” from India, imported via the United Kingdom, has fused with varieties of foods to make new recipes. Curry made with fish based dashi is poured over udon, making “Kare Udon”. It is wrapped in dough and deep fried, making “Kare Pan”, curry bread. Curry is often eaten with pickled vegetables called Fukujinzuke or Rakkyo. Other recipes are so exotic by any standard that they remain a local cuisine. Anmitsu, a dish of cream, bean jam, ice cream, and fruits is often served as a dessert in restaurants.