TL;DR – This is a supplementary post of research conducted for our main post “On starting with nature“. In this post, I learn about the foundation, styles, and inspiration behind traditional and modern Japanese cuisine. Potential resource.
When I visited Tokyo in the summer of 2014, I quickly found myself in food heaven. And I don’t mean just the $300 per person sashimi dinners either, the food in Tokyo was good just about everywhere: at ramen-yas, street stands, and even at 7-11. What?
Yes, even the 7-11 was a smorgasbord of delectable goodies. I have to clarify that Japanese 7-11 are different from their American counterparts. The automatic doors slide open and you are instantly hit with the smell of fried chicken. There is always a fresh selection of sandwiches, cakes, and onigiris (stuffed rice balls). Some were stuffed with pickled plums (ume), some were stuffed with spicy tuna, and some were stuffed with seaweed (kombu).
I spent all my Yen coins on those onigiris. I regret nothing.
From those onigiris, I started to learn about Japanese food, mainly its focus on simplicity. I mean, how could a simple combination of RICE and SEAWEED taste so delicious? I’ve been downright obsessed with Japanese food since then, and here, I present to you my research.
Japan’s geography had a lot to do in shaping the food of Japan.
1) Japan is an archipelago consisting of thousands of islands. Naturally, the sea provided many of the ingredients for the Japanese diet. An average Japanese person eats over 120 pounds of fish annually, compare that to the measly 14.4 pounds from an average American!
2) Japan’s proximity to China also influenced its cuisine. Notable, the Japanese learned rice cultivation from its westerly neighbor around 300 B.C. Buddhism also spread to Japan from China and became popular in the 7th century, which led to a widespread ban on meat. Thus, fish became the predominant source of animal protein in the Japanese diet.
- Rice: Where would Japanese food be without rice? Without rice, we would not have donburi (rice bowls), onigiri (rice ball), mochi (pounded rice cakes), and even sushi!
- Japanese rice is a short-grained variety with a bit of stickiness and a good bite. It is usually labeled as “sushi rice” in Western markets.
- Rice is so important to the Japanese diet that the word for rice (“gohan” ご飯) also means “meal.”
- Seaweed: as essential to the Japanese diet as mac-n-cheese is to the American diet. Weird comparison? Slightly. The Japanese enjoy a few different seaweed.
- Kombu – I dare say that without Kombu that Japanese cuisine as we know it would cease to exist as Kombu is an essential ingredient for dashi. Kombu is a thick seaweed with a rubbery texture. It is best served chopped into small pieces, and mixed with soy sauce.
- Wakame – this looks like the stuff drying on the beach on the East Coast. Often found in miso soups, Wakame is thinner and more light green in color than Kombu.
- Nori – you’ve probably seen this as the dark green, crunchy wrapper for sushi. Also great as a healthy snack.
- Hijiki – when dried, Hijiki has the appearance of loose black tea. It takes a bit of soaking to get hijiki ready for use, but it makes for a great addition to salads or stirfrys. It has the texture of the stem of a mushroom.
- Fish: Tuna, mackerel, shrimp, eel, squid, salmon…the list goes on. The Japanese love fish and here are the most popular ways they eat it, in no particular order.
- Grilled – Contrary to popular belief, the Japanese do not predominantly eat raw fish. The most popular way is to flavor a fresh fish lightly with salt or soy sauce, then simply grilling.
- Soup – Fish can also be chopped up and added to soups or oden, a popular winter dish with eggs, daikon, and fish cakes in a light broth.
- Sushi – raw fish can be served over a bed of sushi rice. Not just regular rice, sushi rice, which is made with vinegar, sugar, and salt.
- Sashimi – the purist way to eat fish. Bite-sized pieces of the freshest raw fish served with a dab or soy, wasabi, and pickled ginger.
- Fun fact:The largest wholesale seafood market in the world, Tsukiji Fish market, is located in Tokyo, where the fish auction kicks off around 5am.
- Noodles: it seems like some type of Japanese noodle is always in fashion in New York’s food scene. I present to you here the popular types of Japanese noodles. We can be trendsetters together and find American’s Next Hot Noodle.
- Soba – poor soba was the hottest thing in New York five years ago, but its reign has since been overturned by the younger, sexier ramen. Soba is made from buckwheat noodles, and usually appear brown/grayish in color with a slightly nutty taste. Cold soba is a popular summertime dish in Japan.
- Udon – thick, chewy, white and made from wheat flour. Udon is usually served hot in broth. Udon is the chewiest of these noodles.
- Somen – In contrast to the voluptuous udon, somen are super skinny noodles, like thinner than angel hair skinny. They are usually served cold, dipped in a strong broth of soy sauce, sake, and mirin.
- Ramen – Top Ramen is great, but restaurant ramen is even better. Originally from China, where is it called La – Mian, ramen has taken the food world by storm. I count 3 ramen-yas within a 5 minute radius from my apartment. Ramen is usually served piping hot in broth, with egg, bamboo shoots, scallions, chashu, and mushrooms for garnish. There are many regional styles of ramen, so we should really try them all.
- Traditional Japanese Cuisine – Washoku
- The traditional cuisine of Japan focuses on simplicity, freshness, and balance. A meal (Kaiseki) usually consists of rice, miso soup, and a variety of small dishes.
- The interplay of color is important in Washoku. Bright colors such as yellow, green, and red are present in almost every meal.
- In keeping with Buddhist influences, there isn’t a strong presence of meat in Washoku. Soy, root vegetables, fish and rice create a filling meal.
- Modern / Western Influenced Japanese Cuisine – Yoshoku
- Under the Meiji Period (1868-1912), Japan went through a dramatic Westernization, including the adaptation of many Western dishes and an increase in the consumption of red meat.
- Hamburger, fried pork cutlet (tonkatsu), curry, omelet rice (omurice), and spaghetti are all popular Yoshoku dishes.
- There is a lot of fried stuff in Yoshoku. Yum.
- Today, both Washoku and Yoshoko exist in harmony in Japan. It isn’t rare to see someone eat miso soup and rice for breakfast, and tonkatsu over curry for lunch. Diversity FTW.
Let’s go to Japan! Just kidding, back to the main post.