|From sushi’s raw fish wrapped in nori (dried seaweed), to tempura’s batter-fried seafood and vegetables, Japanese cuisine boasts a taste, cooking style, and visual appeal unique to its culture. Although once heavily influenced by China and Korea, Japan has developed distinctive gourmet dishes which reflect Japan’s geographic location and social history. As a cluster of mountainous islands with little farmable land, Japan has long looked towards the sea to provide its primary source of food: this island society’s ancient reliance on the sea can still be found today in Japanese cuisine’s concentration on seafood ingredients, from dried seaweed to various fishes, both raw and cooked.
The variety of different Japanese foods and their distinctive look and taste also reflect a fundamental, cultural insistence on balance and elegance. For the Japanese, preparing food is not just a chore to be completed before your stomach can be filled; for them, cooking is a complex art which demands the freshest ingredients, well-informed technique, and graceful presentation. While some chefs undergo years of rigorous training, you too can master the basics of beautiful and delicious Japanese cooking by understanding the fundamental ingredients that recur in many Japanese dishes.
Rice. The primary staple of the Japanese diet and Japan’s most important crop, rice has been cultivated by the Japanese for over 2000 years. Unlike long-grained rice often consumed in the West and popular in Mexican dishes, Japanese rice is short-grained and becomes sticky when cooked. Most Japanese rice is sold as hakumai, or white rice, with the outer part of the grains polished away. Genmai, or unpolished brown rice, is considered less delicious but more nutritious than hakumai. The Japanese consume rice daily in a variety of dishes: plain, with side dishes; mixed with vinegar and sugar, then rolled into sushi; or shaped into round balls and wrapped in seaweed to make onigiri, or rice balls.
Noodles. An alternative to rice, noodles are a very popular, easy-to-make alternative for your Japanese-style meals. Noodle restaurants are popular throughout Japan for their quick, inexpensive, and great-tasting meals; most noodles restaurants will offer soba, udon, or ramen noodles. Soba noodles are made from a mixture of buckwheat and wheat flour, cut to the thickness of spaghetti. Similar to soba, udon noodles are made entirely from buckwheat flour, but are cut slightly thicker. Japanese ramen traditionally refers to raw, Chinese egg noodles, instead of the packaged, dry ramen now popular throughout the world. Although Japanese ramen restaurants use fresh noodles, dry ramen noodles still provide a quick and easy meal when dining at home. Most packages of dry ramen are sold with soup flavoring and directions. Whether cooking soba, udon, or ramen noodles, the flavor is almost entirely derived from the soup and toppings, so try adding seafood, sliced meat, vegetables, or a boiled egg as toppings.
Tofu. A versatile ingredient, tofu can be cooked in a variety of ways and incorporated into many Japanese dishes. Although tofu may seem bland by itself, it absorbs the taste of other ingredients and sauces when cooked together, resulting in a light and flavorful dish. The variety of tofu, however, may appear imposing to the beginner chef: tofu is now manufactured in a variety of textures ranging from firm and extra firm, to soft or silken. Firmer tofus are generally recommended for grilling or stir-fries, while softer tofus work well in soups. The choice of tofu, however, remains an individual preference based upon the creative discretion of the chef. Regardless of the type of tofu, all tofus are a nutritionally sound choice: not only is tofu rich in vitamins and calcium, but it is also low in fat and sodium, and naturally cholesterol-free. Tofu and other soy products have also been credited with preventing cancer and osteoporosis. When cooking tofu, feel free to experiment: tofu easily picks up the flavor of soups and other dishes, and goes well with both vegetables and meats. When in doubt, try using a medium-firm tofu, and then decide whether a firmer or softer tofu would work best with your dish.
Seaweed. With most of their limited land devoted to growing rice, Japan historically relied upon the ocean to supplement the bulk of their diet. As a cluster of islands, seaweed and other seafood were readily available, and Japanese cuisine adapted accordingly to this plenitude of seafood. Like the Japanese of centuries past, the current-day Japanese continue to use various forms of seaweed in their daily cooking, especially in soup or as seasoning. The three most commonly used types of seaweed are kombu, wakame, and nori. Kombu is a large, thick variety of seaweed most commonly found in soup or cooked with hot pots, such as sukiyaki. Wakame is a thinner than kombu, and is often used for miso soup or sunomono salad. Wakame is usually sold dried, but is soaked in water before usage. Unlike kombu and wakame, which are served in wet strips, nori refers to thin sheets of dried seaweed. Nori is most commonly used to wrap sushi rolls or rice balls; little bits of nori are also sprinkled over noodles or rice as garnish.
Daikon. Also known as the Japanese radish, the daikon is white and has a milder flavor than the red radish commonly found in the West. A versatile ingredient, daikon is served both raw and cooked. When consumed raw, the daikon is most usually thinly sliced and added to salads. Daikon also goes well in stir-fries with other vegetables, or cut into large pieces and tossed into a variety of soups.
Mushrooms. Shiitake mushrooms are the most popular mushrooms used in Japanese cuisine, and they can be included in almost any dish, including hot pots, tempura, and okonomiyaki. Shiitake mushrooms are sold either fresh or dried; dried shiitake mushrooms should be soaked in water before cooking.
Kampyo. Kampyo is made of long, thin, beige-colored strips of dried gourd, usually sold packaged in cellophane. After being softened in water for several hours, these strips are also used as a common ingredient in sushi and simmered dishes.
Sesame. The Japanese use three forms of sesame when cooking: sesame seeds, sesame oil, and sesame paste. Sesame seeds are whole seeds; similar to nori bits, they are usually sprinkled over rice or other completed dishes to add extra flavoring and a decorative touch. Try sprinkling sesame seeds over sushi, rice bowls, or dishes such as salmon or dry noodles. Sesame oil is extracted from sesame seeds, and has a very potent flavor. Add small amounts of sesame oil when marinating meat, or cooking dishes such as a stir-fries. This will add an extra zest to your dish that is uniquely Asian in flavor. Tahini, or sesame paste, is also a common ingredient in recipes for Asian and Far Eastern dishes. Tahini is made from ground sesame seeds mixed with sesame oil and salt. Like sesame oil, tahini also has a very strong sesame flavor, and small portions will suffice to flavor dishes.
Shiso. An aromatic leaf with a jagged edge, the shiso is also known as perilla or the Japanese basil. Related to mint and basil, shiso is commonly used to flavor various Japanese dishes ranging between salads, sushi, and tempura. Chopped bits of shiso are also tossed over cooked dishes as garnish. Green shiso is usually available fresh through the summer and fall seasons.
Mirin. Also known as rice wine, mirin is a low-alcohol wine made from Japanese short-grained rice. This sweet, golden alcohol is commonly used in cooking various dishes, sauces and glazes; it adds a light sweetness and extra flavoring.
Once familiar with basic Japanese ingredients and their common uses, all that remains is to put together this knowledge and create a harmonious Japanese-style meal. Several popular Japanese dishes present quick and easy opportunities to prepare delicious meals with your favorite Japanese ingredients:
Miso soup. Typical Japanese-style meals are usually begun with a bowl of steaming hot miso soup. Miso soup is named after the mixture of soybeans, malted rice, and salt which is used to flavor the soup. This mixture can usually be found pre-prepared at your local Asian supermarket. Tofu, seaweed, and chopped green onions are usually added to the salty soup.
Donburi (Rice Bowl). The donburi, or rice bowl, is probably the most common dish cooked and served in Japan. Any donburi is a complete meal in itself, because they will usually contain rice, meat, and vegetables. As the name “rice bowl” implies, a donburi is essentially a bowl full of Japanese rice, usually of the white, or hakumai, variety. This bowl is topped with various delicious meats and vegetables, which are eaten with the white rice below. Toppings range from beef, deep-fried pork chops, chicken and egg, or tuna sashimi and avocado. These toppings are usually simmered in dashi soup stock, which is then poured over the rice with the toppings to add moisture and flavor. Be creative when cooking and arranging your toppings: common ingredients also include chopped onions, sesame seeds, and dried nori bits for an extra flavorful and decorative touch.
Okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is a mixture between a pancake and a pizza, Japanese-style. The base of the okonomiyaki is like the doughy portion of a pizza, and consists of a simple mixture of flour, egg, and water. “Okonomi” means “as you like it,” which refers the customizable toppings that are added to the flour base. Popular toppings include seafood, fried eggs, thinly sliced chicken, beef, or pork, various vegetables, and seaweed. In okonomiyaki restaurants in Japan, the customers sit around a table with a teppan (black iron hotplate). The waiter or waitress brings a bowl full of ingredients, and the customers cook their own okonomiyaki on the teppan. At home, try cooking okonomiyaki over the stovetop and serving them hot and fresh.
Sukiyaki. Sukiyaki refers to the popular one-pot meal made of thinly-sliced beef simmered in sukiyaki sauce and other ingredients. The word “yaki” in sukiyaki means “sauté” or “grill,” referring to the hot skillet in which the sukiyaki is cooked. Often, many people will share the same bowl, and eat out of it as the sukiyaki is cooking. Like okonomiyaki restaurants, sukiyaki restaurants will serve their food on a hot plate which the diners gather around. Tofu, mushrooms, cabbage, and noodles are often added as extra ingredients.
Of course, besides main course dishes, there are always small side dishes that will complete the authentic Japanese flavor of your dining experience. Many of these can be bought pre-prepared at your local Asian supermarket.
Tsukemono. Japanese-style picked vegetables, tsukemono is traditionally served on the side with every Japanese meal. Unlike Western pickles, tsukemono encompasses a wide variety of pickling techniques and types of food being pickled. Not only do the Japanese pickle fresh, crisp vegetables such as Chinese cabbage, daikon radish, carrots, and bamboo, but they also pickle seeds, fruit, eggs, and fish! Small amounts of several different types of tsukemono are usually served in petite dishes with each meal, adding extra color, texture, and flavor to the Japanese-style meal.
Wasabi and Pickled Ginger. Sushi is traditionally served with wasabi and pickled ginger. Wasabi is a very hot-tasting, light green paste made from Japanese horseradish. Most people dip their sushi or sashimi in a mixture of wasabi and soy sauce for extra flavor. Pickled ginger is eaten between bites of sushi. It is usually sliced into very thin pieces, and comes in a light pink or orange color. Many sushi connoisseurs claim that eating pickled ginger cleans and refreshes the mouth between different kinds of sushi.
Endamame. Literally translated to “beans on branches,” endamame is a green vegetable soy bean that grows on a cluster of branches. Soy beans are a favorite source of protein for many Asian diets, and can be processed to create various popular foods and drinks, such as tofu and soy milk. A popular and healthy Japanese snack, endamame is often served at casual gatherings of guests, or after dinner as dessert. To prepare endamame for eating as a snack, boil the soy pods in salt water for a short period of time. Let the endamame cool after removing it from the boiling water, then use your hands to pop the soy beans out of the green pods and into your mouth!
Green tea. Green tea has always played an important role in Japanese culture as one of the most popular beverages, and as the centerpiece of the Japanese tea ceremony. If you visit a home or a business in Japan, the host will invariably offer you green tea; this is a basic form of hospitality. Likewise, Japanese restaurants serve green tea free of charge. When drinking green tea, the proper way to hold the cup is with one hand around the top, and the other hand supporting the bottom. Unlike English tea, no sugar or cream is ever added to Japanese green tea.
Green tea ice cream. Green tea ice cream is often served after dinner as dessert. In Japan, green tea ice cream is called maccha ice cream; maccha is the name of the green tea powder used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. An easy way to make green tea ice cream, if it’s not available at your local Asian supermarket, is to mix maccha powder into vanilla ice cream. To sweeten the ice cream and add extra flavor, a spoonful of sweet red bean paste is sometimes served on top of the ice cream, similar to the common Western practice of adding chocolate over vanilla ice cream.
However you combine these popular Japanese ingredients, or whichever dishes you choose to prepare, remember these last few pointers: No Japanese-style meal is complete without steaming cups of green tea to welcome your guests and a bowl of miso soup to start. Try spoiling your friends and family with a final bowl of green tea ice cream for dessert. When serving sushi, always provide soy sauce and wasabi for dipping, and pickled ginger to clear the palate. Most importantly, however, don’t forget to enjoy your experience with Japanese cuisine! Whether cooking or eating Japanese food, always remember to enjoy the unique ingredients and dishes that make Japanese cuisine distinctively elegant and delicious.
Now that you’re familiar with various types of Japanese ingredients and dishes, it’s time to apply this knowledge in your own kitchen! Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen carries basic groceries and cooking supplies necessary for cooking Japanese-style meals. For those interested in obtaining recipes, our Books section contains a wide selection of Japanese cookbooks. We also carry an extensive line of dishware tailored for serving sushi in an elegant setting, including small dishes for mixing wasabi and soy sauce. We encourage you to further explore the unique art of Japanese cuisine, and to share this knowledge and the delicious food with your family and friends.
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