Japanese Cuisine: the Aesthetics of Food
There aren’t too many cuisines in the world that have been designated as UNESCO World’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. The jewel of this collection is Japanese cuisine. Small plates of all kinds of shapes on the table, small pieces of food that are easy to grasp with chopsticks and put in your mouth, clear appearance of the ingredients that make up the meal – this is the desire of the Japanese for elegance of design and aesthetics. Japanese attention to detail can also be traced in their attitude towards food: young people are served larger portions than the elderly because of the different metabolism, the food in the winter season is different from the summer, the design of dishes becomes an art.
Simplicity, ease of preparation, fresh products – the basics of Japanese cuisine. A regular grocery store on the corner or a high-end restaurant in the city center will offer their customers the same fresh food. In Japan, food packaged and offered for sale has a shelf life of no more than a day. It is hard to believe that the universally loved and famous Japanese cuisine was once closed to the world due to the policy of national seclusion until 1868.
The earliest evidence of Japanese cuisine goes back to Mesolithic and Neolithic times, when the basic diet of the Japanese at that time was fish, various types of millet, and shellfish. Even back then, the Japanese used pots in which all kinds of soups were cooked. The famous Japanese dish shabu-shabu, also called “one pot dish,” dates back to that period. Archaeologists conducting excavations in Japan have noted that even then people used natural refrigerators in the form of deep pits and preserved foods with salt.
The main product of the cuisine – rice – in Japan began to be cultivated in the III century B.C., and rice was not only foodstuff, but also unit of money and measure of reward for samurai until the end of XIX century. Stocks of rice spoke of a family’s material wealth. In the 6th century China influenced the Japanese cuisine and laid the foundation for the tea ceremony.
At the same period Buddhism penetrated into the country, and that’s why in 675 there was a law forbidding to eat meat. Violation of the ban was punishable by death. True, the ban itself did not apply to all kinds of meat. For example, it was still possible to eat the meat of wild pigs and deer with impunity. Fishing was also forbidden in 752. The fishermen were left without work and without a source of food. But to keep the fishermen from starving to death, the imperial house gave them a certain amount of rice each year. Chopsticks are not a Japanese invention. The Japanese borrowed them from the Chinese, much like the recipe for soy sauce and udon noodles.
“Rice was not only a food, but also a currency.”
With the beginning of the aristocratic era, which began in 710 after the establishment of the permanent capital at Nara, Japanese cuisine takes on its inherent characteristics. The dishes at the imperial court are elegant and understated, valuing refinement and the external aesthetics of the dishes rather than their abundance. Everything on the plates takes on a certain symbolism, and the color of the dishes is determined by the season and the events taking place.
Prior to the arrival of the first Portuguese in Japan in 1543, sweets as such were absent from the diet of the population. Although sugar was discovered by the Japanese in the eighth century, it was considered a cure for lung disease and was not consumed. Most often, the sweetener for tea was fruit, chestnuts, honey. Everything changed with the arrival of Europeans in Japan. Candy, caramel, cookies, and lollipops were the “sweets of the southern barbarians,” with which the Japanese tried to induce Christianity. Japan closes itself off from the world again in 1639 and does not open to the West until after 1868. Bakery shops, steakhouses, breweries, ice cream and chocolate stores, coffee and wine shops all came to Japan and became cosmically popular among young foodies and intellectuals. Cheese, milk and butter didn’t appear until the 1970s because of the popularity of the cheesecake dessert.
But the American hamburger was not destined to flood the market. Back in 1958, Ando Momofuku invented revolutionary instant noodles in plastic cups, which were beloved by all Japan, and not only Japan. Japanese food traditions are losing relevance in their own country, but suddenly the Japanese find that it is their cuisine that inspires the whole modern world. People from all over the world poured in for internships with Japanese chefs. After all, the line on your resume that you were trained by a Japanese chef increases your competitiveness.
Eating out became popular in the Edo period in the early 18th century, when the population of the city (which would later be renamed Tokyo) was twice that of Paris at the time, and the bulk of the residents were unmarried men and visiting provincials. Many of them lived in small rooms and had nowhere to cook. This gave a major boost to the fast-food industry. In 1751, the world’s first restaurant opened in Edo. The ability to understand the quality of food became a matter of honor. In Edo, Osaka and Kyoto, the first booklets with restaurant evaluations began to be printed.
In modern Japan, the main feature of catering, which distinguishes it from the rest of the world, has become the tradition of displaying showcases with moults of the main dishes and their prices at the entrance. Green tea is sure to be served with the meal, and tips are considered an insult – it is not customary to leave them here. It is not uncommon to see a Japanese waiter catching up with a European on the street to give him the tip that he left out of habit.
“It’s not uncommon to see a Japanese waiter catching up with a European on the street to give him the tip he left out of habit.”
All active life in big cities runs around subway stations and train stations, so most cafes and restaurants are concentrated there. Prices for food can be both quite reasonable and obscenely high. It all depends on the level of the restaurant, the range of dishes and the quality of service.
Inexpensive and tasty option for a tourist to snack will be institutions with sushi, organized on the principle of a conveyor belt, where small plates pass by you and you can take straight from the belt what you like. The cost of food is determined by the color of the plate. When the meal is over, the waiter counts the number and color of plates and records them in the settlement receipt, which you pay at the cashier when you leave the establishment. Ordering is usually done using the electronic display installed near each table.
Sometimes cafes offer only full meals options and it’s impossible to change anything in the stated combinations. For example, if you want a bowl of soup with meat and vegetables, but without a bowl of rice, do not expect to be understood and comply with your wishes or adjust the price. There’s a menu and that’s it, there are no other items.
“Back in 1958, Ando Momofuku invented the revolutionary instant noodles in plastic cups, which the whole of Japan loved, and not just Japan.”
Superstitions / habits / omens
There are a number of rules associated with chopsticks in Japan. For example, women can only eat food with chopsticks, while men are allowed to eat some food with their hands. Chopsticks should not be inserted vertically into food, especially rice; this is only done at funerals. Chopsticks are not used to move plates, point, clench them in a fist, or place them across the bowl. Chopsticks should be placed on the table before asking for more rice.
Before the meal, a “bon appétit” is always said and a moist, warm, and sometimes hot oshibori towel is served to wipe your hands before eating. It is rude to get up from the table with half-eaten rice in a bowl, the rice is eaten to the last grain.
Japanese dishes can be divided into three groups: dishes with rice, dishes with noodles and dishes with fish and meat. The degree of heat treatment varies from quite raw meat and fish to the products that are fried in batter on high heat.
Japanese noodles come in three varieties: ramen, udon, and soba.
Ramen came to Japan from China. Basically, they are noodles in a broth. Most often, in chicken broth, but also in pork or seafood broth. Recently, vegetarian ramen has also been gaining popularity. Ramen noodles are made from wheat flour and eggs.
Udon noodles are made from wheat flour but without adding eggs. They take slightly longer to cook than ramen noodles because of their composition, but they are also more nutritious. Udon noodles, unlike ramen, are eaten as a separate dish with soy sauce or in soup.
Soba is made from buckwheat flour and sometimes with the addition of wheat flour. It has been a well-known dish since the Nara era, when it was served at tea ceremonies. Soba is usually eaten cold with seasoning and soy sauce, but is sometimes added to hot broth.
When eating noodles of any kind, it is customary in Japan to smack, thus showing that the dish is delicious.
Tampura is shrimp, fish, and seasonal vegetables fried in a batter. It is eaten with soy sauce broth. This crispy dish was brought to Japan by Christian missionaries.
Sukiyaki, a “cauldron dish,” like shabu-shabu, is cooked in a pot right on the table. Thin slices of beef, noodles, tofu, and vegetables. Nothing complicated, but the taste is very exquisite.
Shabu-shabu is similar to sukiyaki, but here the thin slices of meat are dipped in a pot of boiling water which removes excess fat and reduces the caloric content of the dish. The meat broth is traditionally flavored with onions, cabbage, and vegetables.
Sushi, as everyone knows and loves, did not originally look like this. Rice and fish used to be carefully marinated and left for at least a year, most often three, before being eaten. The modern look of sushi was given by the samurai, who appreciated the taste of raw, fresh fish. It was because of their taste preferences sushi became a ball of rice and a piece of fish. Typically, sushi is dipped in soy sauce and seasoned with “Japanese horseradish” wasabi. We are used to seeing wasabi on the table in a separate bowl, but in Japan, wasabi is placed directly inside the sushi. It is believed that different types of sushi should be topped up with pickled ginger in order to fully experience the different tastes.
Sashimi is sliced raw fish fillets of various kinds, which are eaten by dipping them in soy sauce. Sashimi is often accompanied by daikon, a Japanese radish that helps to bring out the full flavor of the fish.
Japanese curry is the only rice dish that is eaten with a spoon. The dish came to Japan from India and was positioned as an English dish (India was a British colony at the time). Later, the Japanese transformed the curry sauce to suit their tastes and now this dish cannot be called a fusion version of the Indian one, the taste of the sauce is completely different.
Yakitori is a favorite snack for alcoholic beverages in Japan. Chicken meat, vegetables and mushrooms on bamboo skewers, grilled with coals. Mini skewers are offered in numerous izakaya pub bars.
Tonkatsu is a super popular Japanese café dish. Just like tempura, it is deep-fried, but it is a pork chop and served with a slightly sweet-tasting sauce other than soy sauce.
It is impossible to ignore the delicacy of fugu fish, which is considered the food for extreme lovers. After all, just a drop of poison, contained mainly in the liver of the fish, can lead a gourmet to complete paralysis and death. All chefs who cook fugu fish have a special license for cooking it. According to Japanese tradition, a chef who poisons a customer is obliged to commit harakiri, but is that really relevant these days? That is the question.
Another well-known Japanese delicacy is the marble meat. The meat of bulls is especially tender and soft due to the fact that they almost never leave the stall and generously fed with beer.
And of course, wagashi are all kinds of Japanese desserts based on rice, beans, and agar-agar. It is difficult to call them sweet in the usual sense, but once you have got used to them and taste the wagashi, it is hard to refuse them.
The technology of making the most famous alcoholic drink, sake, is similar to brewing beer, but the alcohol content of Japanese sake vodka is three times the “degree” of beer. Sake is also called rice wine because of the rice and water in its composition. Sake is drunk heated to achieve a quick intoxication, or chilled, which is more familiar to Europeans. Sake is considered a drink for the smart, because a study by Tokyo scientists has shown that the IQ index of daily drinkers is higher than that of those who abstain from it.
No less popular alcohol in Japan is beer, the ads for which are usually decorated by pretty, smiling Japanese women in short skirts. Whiskey, which comes from outside Japan, is also popular. Low-alcohol fruity drinks are popular among young people. Fruit and berry wines, contemptuously called “ink” in our country, are made in Japan from plums – unlike ours, they have their own subtle and interesting taste.
The most popular Japanese way to snack is to buy onigiri. It is a triangular-shaped rice cake with a filling (salmon, chicken, caviar, egg, vegetables, and so on). Peasants used to take onigiri with them in the fields, but now children take them with them to school and for walks.
Okonomiyaki is “Japanese pizza.” Only its base is not made of dough, but of shredded cabbage, bound with raw eggs. Noodles, seafood, and vegetables are used as toppings. A quick and economical meal, accompanied by sweet sauce and sprinkled with dried fish.
Takoyaki – small balls of flour with pieces of octopus meat inside. The sauce and dried fish are the same as okonomiyaki. Takoyaki are usually sold in 6 or 9 pieces. It seems like a snack to just “soak the worm,” but despite its size, takoyaki are a very hearty meal.
“Many of them were huddled in small rooms and had no place to cook. This gave a big boost to the fast-food industry.”
A bento is a version of a camping lunch. It is a box divided into sections, each containing a different ingredient. Originally, bentos were sold at train station stations for travelers who had a long journey ahead of them. The bento was based on rice and a variety of mini dishes (meat, fish, vegetables). They used to be prepared by caring wives and mothers; now you can buy them in any supermarket. However, you can not take out of Japan wooden bento boxes as a souvenir. They are considered a national treasure and are prohibited for export.
In addition, street food in Japan includes fried calamari, fried corn, crepes like French crepes crepe, fried chestnuts, steamed buns with meat filling niku-man, chicken on a stick kushi-yaki, kebabs of different kinds of meat and bizarre shapes of tofu. You won’t stay hungry in Japan!
Japanese cuisine: national Japanese dishes
Japanese cuisine is not limited to sushi and shrimp in batter. The country boasts a variety of unique dishes. Did you know that the Japanese don’t use forks and table knives, like to combine salty with sweet, don’t use storable products? Everything you wanted to know about the national cuisine of the country of the rising sun and even more, read in our article.
Peculiarities of Japanese cooking
This national cuisine is undoubtedly one of the most exotic. It is fundamentally different from European cuisine – both etiquette, and serving, and products used.
The main features of Japanese cuisine are:
- eating seasonal foods;
- unique table etiquette;
- the use of umami, the taste of protein foods as a base in the preparation of dishes;
- wide use of seafood – a variety of them;
- specific serving with the emphasis on the aesthetics of the dishes and the table as a whole;
- small portions. They give preference to a larger number of dishes rather than a portion size;
- Japanese people do not use canned and storable food, with the exception of rice and various sauces;
- predominant use of fresh products, in the preparation of which the Japanese try to preserve their original appearance;
- unique cutlery – sticks. Some dishes are eaten by hand, very rarely spoons are used. That is why dishes are served in small slices, so that it is easier to grasp with chopsticks;
- Absence of forks and knives in the serving.
Rice in Japan is one of the whales on which the national cuisine is based. Cereals, which are highly glutinous, are mostly used. This is to ensure that the rice, after being cooked, forms small lumps that are easy to pick up with chopsticks.
Rice can be cooked as a separate dish, as well as the basis for various recipes. Rice combines well with seafood, vegetables, greens.
This is a rice ball, which is served with various sauces. The name of the dish comes from the word “nigiru”, which means “to squeeze” in Japanese, which unambiguously refers to the process of cooking the dish.
Warm boiled unleavened rice is carefully shaped into plump triangles, often wrapped in dried seaweed nori. Stuffed onigiri and balloon-shaped onigiri are also common.
The dish became widespread in other countries in the 1980s. According to the Japanese transcription, the correct pronunciation is “sushi,” but the pronunciation has caught on worldwide as “sushi.” For the dish, we use:
- Special fine-grained Japanese sumashi rice, also called “vinegar rice.”
- dried seaweed leaves or nori;
- Fish, only ocean varieties, because they are less likely to contain parasites. Salmon and tuna fillets can only be used after deep freezing;
- pickled vegetables (most often daikon, ginger);
- Wasabi (a special kind of horseradish);
- soy sauce;
- rice vinegar.
Sushi can come in a variety of shapes – thin, large, twisted, pressed, and more.
A peculiarity of Japanese national cuisine is that the seafood is subjected to minimal heat treatment. Shrimp, fish, mollusks are steamed or lightly fried, and according to some recipes seafood is used raw.
This dish is prepared from fish or seafood fillets. Most often used salmon, tuna, shrimp, whale meat, octopus, squid, and more. Products are used in raw form.
Fillets are cut into small pieces and served with wasabi, soy sauce, shiso leaves, and daikon (spicy root) slices.
Noodle dishes are common in Japanese national cuisine. It is used as a side dish, as an ingredient in soups or salads. The most popular dishes are:
- ramen – meat or vegetable broth with noodles cooked on wheat flour mineral water, with the addition of eggs);
- soba – noodles made of buckwheat and wheat flour. They can be served cold or hot, boiled or fried and served with vegetables or only in broth;
- udon – noodles without eggs.
The Japanese began to use beef and pork in cooking quite late. These ingredients were borrowed from Chinese and European cuisines. Most often, cooked meat is served in thin slices, no more than one mm wide.
This is a kind of stew – meat stewed with potatoes, vegetables, and spices. The Japanese are more accustomed to dishes with seafood, so this borrowed dish is not particularly popular in the country.
This type of legume was brought from China. But in spite of that, soy has become very popular in Japanese cuisine. Many different dishes, sauces and cheeses are prepared from it, for example:
- soy milk – it can be a puree of soaked beans or a broth of previously roasted soybeans;
- Natto – fermented soybeans, which are sticky and have a specific smell. A very popular breakfast option in Japan;
- Tofu – cheese made from soy milk. The product is known for its nutritional value and high protein content;
- edamame – boiled young beans with pods;
- yuba, the foam from boiling soy milk while cooking tofu;
- soy sauce – brine obtained by fermenting beans;
- miso – soybean paste. Used as a base ingredient for soups and sauces. The product is a precipitate from soy brine.
A product used in most soups, or as a topping. Shiruko is a sweet bean soup made with red adzuki beans. The beans are fried in sugar syrup, adding pieces of mochi rice cake. The dish is quite popular in Japan, especially in winter time, as shiruko is served hot.
Japanese cuisine has many recipes for first courses. Soups come with various ingredients – seaweed, seafood, noodles, meat, potatoes, and more.
The soup requires seafood, soy sauce, mushrooms (for example, muer – a black wood mushroom used in Asian cuisine, as well as shiitake), vegetables, fish and seaweed.
This soup has several variants of cooking – it is cooked with fish or meat (pork is used more often). The basic ingredients are also Chinese cabbage, onions, carrots, garlic, sesame oil, and so on.
Japanese cuisine is unique not only for its exotic for Europeans dishes, but also for its special traditions of food consumption. For example, men may eat sushi with their hands and women only with chopsticks.
Soups are served in bowls, which are usually raised to chest level. Leaning over the soup on the table is not accepted in Japan and considered unworthy.
( 2 ratings, mean: 5,00 out of 5 ) To rate this entry you need to be a registered site user.