The World of Food: Japan

By Julia Maish |

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“At its best, Japanese cooking is inextricably meshed with aesthetics, with religion, with tradition and history. It is evocative of seasonal changes, or of one’s childhood, or of a storm at sea.”
— Food writer M.F.K. Fisher

This week’s episode of Check, Please! features the acclaimed contemporary Japanese eatery Momotaro. This blog has already provided a treatise on sushi, but of course there is a lot more to the cuisine of this mountainous archipelago than that.

Served in small portions, food is divided into five color categories — red, yellow, white, black-purple, and green — and six tastes — sweet, sour, salty, bitter, hot, and delicate. This time-honored system is still widely in use by Japanese cooks today, and much emphasis is placed on an artistic and visually attractive presentation.

Japan’s main crop, not surprisingly, is rice — approximately half of the country’s arable land is devoted to growing it, and it is ubiquitous at every meal. When eating rice Japanese-style, it’s customary to hold the rice bowl close to your face with your left hand, rotating the bowl while using chopsticks with the right hand to convey the rice to your mouth (This might take some practice, as it requires coordination.) Another common way the Japanese consume rice is to form it into balls (onigiri) after cooking, after incorporating a bit of cooked seafood or pickled fruit in the center, then wrapping the ball in dried seaweed. Any dish that does not include rice probably incorporates noodles — the most popular are soba (made from buckwheat), udon (white noodles made from wheat), and, of course, ramen (curly noodles also made from wheat flour).

And naturally given its island location, seafood is an everyday staple consumed at most meals; Japan alone is responsible for about eight percent of all fish caught globally, and per capita, the Japanese consume about three pounds of seafood weekly. Varieties include tuna, eel, sea urchin, octopus, squid, shrimp, salmon roe, and many others. Some are not for the squeamish!

In addition to the easy availability of regional ingredients, Japanese cuisine has also been heavily influenced by religion, especially the tenets of Buddhism, which generally promotes vegetarianism. This led to the creation of sushi and Japan’s vegetarian dishes. But most of Japan’s Buddhist sects appear to be fairly lax on the subject of meat consumption.

Like many other regions, Japan has historically taken on the culinary traditions of other countries, especially China, whom the Japanese have to thank for chopsticks, soy sauce, and tofu (one of the main ingredients in miso soup). Later, Portuguese traders brought with them the tempura (frying in batter) method of cooking, and the Dutch contributed several varieties of potatoes and corn.

Japan has several important holidays that have special foods associated with them — chiefly, the New Year (Shogatsu). According to Food in Every Country, “Special holiday foods, calledosechi, are prepared in beautifully decorated stackable boxes called jubako. Each layer of the box has compartments for several different foods…[these can include] glazed sardines, bamboo shoots, sweet black beans, and chestnuts in sweet potato paste.”

“The Girls’ Festival (or Doll Festival) is held in March. Dolls are dressed in traditional Japanese dresses called kimonos and are offered rice crackers, colored rice cakes, and a sweet rice drink called amazake. Everyone in the family eats the foods. Festive foods for Children’s Day (May 5) include rice dumplings stuffed with sweet bean paste.”

“The tea ceremony (cha-no-yu) is an important Japanese ritual that can be held on a holiday or other special occasion.” On this occasion, in addition to tea, the Japanese enjoy sake (a sweet drink made from fermented rice) and beer, usually a light lager with about a five percent alcohol content. There are four major beer producers in Japan, but microbreweries have become increasingly popular.

Here are a few Japanese food terms you may have heard about:

  • Bento (or “o-bento”): You have surely heard of a “bento box.” This, essentially, is a lunch of rice and small servings of side dishes, packed in a wooden or plastic box to eat on the go. Very big in Japan, but in other parts of the world, too.
  • Dashi: This means “broth,” and it is an essential ingredient in many Japanese dishes. The most popular forms of dashi in Japan are made from dried infant sardines (niboshi, often used in miso soup), seaweed/kelp (kombu), or shiitake (mushrooms, of course).
  • Edamame: These are green soybeans, boiled and salted. They make a great appetizer.
  • Matcha: A very popular and finely-milled green tea.
  • Miso: A soybean paste commonly used in soup or ramen.
  • Sukiyaki: This is a hot dish of sliced meat (generally beef, but others are permissible), scallions, tofu, mushrooms, cabbage, and noodles. Each place setting should have a bowl of raw, beaten egg into which the food is dipped before eating.
  • Wasabi: Some people call this “Japanese mustard” due to its horseradish-like taste. It is a plant that is usually ground into a paste and used in cooking.

In general, in this cuisine, the emphasis tends to be on fresh, seasonal ingredients without chemicals or preservatives, and as a result, the Japanese tend to experience fewer diet-related health issues (heart disease in particular) than many of their Western counterparts, and on average, enjoy a longer healthy lifespan. And who can’t get on board with that?

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