A typical display outside a Japanese restaurant taken on my recent trip to Japan. - Thian
1. WHAT IS JAPANESE FOOD ?
What is Japanese food ? This might be the first question to be answered. As there is a big variety of foods in Japan, it is not easy to tell the foreigners what Japanese food is. However, I personally think that there are 3 important characteristics of Japanese cuisine;
1) First, Japanese are rice-eaters". we eat cooked rice as main meal". All other side dishes" are conceived how to eat rice more deliciously. as japanese rice is short grain and sticky, our ancestors found out that seasoning must be mainly salt and too much oil or spice disturbs good taste of rice. therefore, the prototype of japanese meal is rice with miso-soup, pickles and a few side dishes. a representative side dish is grilled fish seasoned only by salt.
2) second, soya-sauce plays a decisive role in japanese kitchen. present clear type soya-sauce was developed at the end of 18th century. we really cannot imagine japanese food be made without soya-sauce. soya-sauce is used not only as sauce but also as the most important seasoning.
3) third element is soup stock". We usually use either seaweed or dried bonito for making soup stock. Seaweed is simply dried under the sun shine. Bonito must undergo much more complicated process and is a representative soup stock of Japanese cuisine. We have learned to appreciate umami" ... essence of the tastefulness.....which is an important element different from such taste as sweet, salty, hot, sour or bitter. we extract this umami" from bonito, seaweed or certain mushroom. In most cases the quality of Japanese food, especially soup and cooked vegetables is decided by the quality of soup stock.
If you have there three items with you, you can make Japanese food from any materials.
I should here mention a few another elements of Japanese food which I think are less important;
1) First element is the decoration of dishes. It is true that especially in most exquisite restaurants much attention is paid to three dimensional visual effect of the food.
2) I have to also refer to the freshness of materials in Japan. Therefore, in expensive restaurants seasoning is very subtle and you can sense only umami" and the taste of materials. we tend to have mild seasoning.
2 About Japanese restaurants
Quite similar to chinese who have gorgeous banquet food which is served in many courses, daily food with rice and side dishes, and hawker food served in a bowl or plate, japanese have developed many different food styles. so are the restaurants.
Kaiseki" is a formal food with many courses. Japanese formal food is different from Chinese in that the sequence of dishes is not decided by foodstuffs but by cooking methods. It starts with starter, then different dishes in raw, steamed, grilled, boiled and deep fried ( not always in this sequence), and at last you get rice, soup and pickles. You can have dessert either. Proper kaiseki restaurants are very expensive and meals are often coupled with music and other attractions performed by Geisha. In such restaurants you cannot choose what to eat. Menu is decided by restaurants subject to the availability of foodstuffs. There are also cheaper kaiseki restaurants and restaurants where you can order individual dishes.
2) SPECIALIZED RESTAURANTS
As there are different specialized restaurants in Chinese cultural areas, Japan has many specialized restaurants. The representative examples are sushi", soba"(buckwheat noodle, usually wheat noodle is also available), okonomiyaki"(similar to carrot cake), oden" (fish balls and other items in soup. Japanese yon-toufu), tonkatsu" (deep fried pork cutlet coated by bread crumbs, usually other deep fried foods are available), tempura" (deep fried sea food and vegetables) and others. Some of these food items are usually not prepared at home. People believe, it takes professional skill to prepare for example good sushi or soba.
3) EATING HOUSES -> FAMILY RESTAURANTS
There are also eating houses ( taishu-shokudo") where you can eat somewhat degraded restaurants foods as well as foods usually prepared at home. they still exist, but more and more so called family restaurants flourish and replace the role played by traditional eating houses. family restaurants are newcomers. they appeared in 80s and are cheap, tidy and in many cases franchised. you can order many kinds of foods, but in many cases taste is so and so.
3 Background of Japanese eating culture
We introduced many food items from other countries. therefore japanese food has much in common especially with neighbouring countries' food.
1) even those foods which we think are very japanese come from other countries. rice itself was introduced to japan about 2000 years ago from somewhere in east asia. we have fermentation culture common with east and south-east asians. fermented fish or squid (kusaya and shiokara) and fermented soya-beans (natto) are both popular japanese food stuffs which have their roots in asia. many, or rather most, of japanese food stuffs originated in or transmitted through china. they become an integrated part of japanese cuisine. there are then some european elements which are introduced in traditional japanese food. the representative examples are tempura" and kasutera". both were imitations of what portuguese or spanish missionaries used to cook in 16th century.
2) basic style of japanese food was developed till middle 19th century when kaiseki" already existed with its most refined form. But, after Japan opened its door to the world in 1867, Japanese food has been rapidly changing.
First, Japanese started eating meat. Before that time, due to the religious taboo, Japanese did not eat meat. We still maintain the habit to eat less meat and eat more vegetable and fish than other nations. And meat dishes of Japan such as sukiyaki, shabushabu and teppanyaki are all recent invention. We can nevertheless call them Japanese, because we use soya-sauce, I presume. Second, Japanese introduced European foods and adapted them to Japanese taste. Kareh-raisu"(curry rice), hayashi-raisu" (hashed beef rice), tonkatsu" (pork cutlet), omuretu" (omelette), korokke" (croquet) and so on. we then imported chinese food such as gyoza"(dumpling), rahmen"(soup noodle), yakisoba" and chahhan" (fried noodle and fried rice), subuta"(sweet sour pork). There foods became also a part of Japanese food palette. We all know that they originally come from foreign countries, but they were so transformed to fit Japanese taste that many of them can not be identified with original any more. We like them and consume in our daily life.
3) Also quite recently, fast food stores landed Japan. MacDonald, Kentucky, Pizza Hut and so on came together with Coca-Cola. They also changed themselves to adapt to the Japanese taste. Prices were adapted as well! Their impact is traceable in Japan. They also taught Japanese new method of restaurants operation, namely cheap chain stores with cooking manuals and without skilled cooks. After learning this new method so called family restaurants" mushroomed in 1980s. they sell western foods, traditional foods, chinese, korean and other foods which are welcome by young japanese and kids. convenience stores" have also changed the life style of Japanese. Many young couples or singles buy small portions of precooked food there and eat at home. All there commercialization of eating have accelerated eating out, but on the other hand brought about levelling of taste.
4 RECOMMENDATIONS TO NEWCOMERS OF JAPANESE FOOD
4. It's not easy to recommend something to people who have no idea about Japanese food. As I have explained, there are lots of varieties, you can surely find a few dishes you can enjoy. But, before you find them, you must try many dishes. Unfortunately all round restaurants, as are the case of most Japanese restaurants in foreign countries, do not usually offer good food for any of the food they prepare. I can recommend the following. Maybe, it costs a bit, but worth trying. One of the merits of many Japanese restaurants is that they have open kitchen, i.e. you can sit at the counter and talk with the cook who prepares food there. You can then ask cook what is good tody. You can also ask to prepare something subject to your budget. Cooks are usually very helpful (If not, you should leave that restaurants. Unfriendly cooks only make bad foods!) and serve you some good things. In addition to the conversation with cook, what is good for counter is the closeness between where food is cooked and where it is eaten. The shorter the time between cooking and eating, the better is the taste. Once you find your favourite dishes you can try them in another restaurants and you will know whether they are good or not.
MY PERSONAL RECOMMENDATION
Just tell you some of my favourite food. Every Japanese knows them, but I am not sure whether every Japanese restaurant prepares them and even if they are available whether they cook them well or not.
5 ABOUT SWEETS
Japanese traditional sweets are based on red bean paste. Without red bean I cannot imagine any of Japanese sweets. Traditionally people thought that men should be drinkers and drinkers should not eat sweets. Sweets belong to women. But there are many exceptions. I personally like very much ohagi" (glutinous rice ball covered by red bean paste - skinned or without skin) and can eat more than 10 tennis ball size ohagis !
Article by Masaki OKADA.