7 facts about Japanese cuisine you didn’t know
Image of a bakery in Japan by Flickr user ohpapercut. (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Traditional Japanese cuisine, washoku, usually consisting of rice, soup and vegetables, emphasizing mild and delicate flavors, has become known around the world. Recently, washoku, the way traditional Japanese cuisine is prepared and served, was inscribed on the UNESCO list of cultural heritage.
Global Voices volunteer Taylor Casella, who recently moved to Japan from the U.S., presents seven unexpected but delicious dishes and culinary trends not to be missed if you find yourself in Japan.
1. bread and Japanese bakeries
In Japan, as in many other Asian countries, rice is a staple food. Rice has played an important role in the social and economic history of Japan and, up to a certain time, was even used to pay taxes. Following the Meiji Revolution, Japanese cuisine became oriented toward the West. Bread became very popular and now occupies an important place in the culture of Japanese cuisine. Step into any Japanese bakery and you’ll find a huge variety of delicious food: everything from melt-in-your-mouth candy and French baguettes to shrimp rolls and sausages in dough.
Ice cream flavored with mattia, or green tea. Photo by Flickr user emrank (CC BY 2.0)
The Japanese also invented new kinds of bread, such as an-pan (a Japanese sweet roll usually filled with red bean paste) and curry bread [ang] (well-fried dough with Japanese curry). In addition to regular bread, some bakeries make rice bread [ang] (a special type of bread made from rice flour) in hopes of increasing rice consumption.
2. Ice cream with Japanese flavor.
Ice cream may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Japanese cuisine. However, Japan is home to some truly unique flavors of this summertime treat – the kind you won’t find with the popular Baskin Robbins ice cream brand. Among the most popular flavors are mattea (green tea), sakura (cherry blossom), satzumeimo (sweet potato), goma (black sesame) and yuzu (which tastes like a mandarin mixed with lemon).
Less common are exotic flavors [yap], which you won’t find anywhere else but Japan. They include basashi (horse meat sashimi), eel flavor, and wasabi (Japanese horseradish). This variety can be found at souvenir shops in places where the aforementioned ingredients are common.
3. Gekikara ramen and other spicy dishes
You can find a wide variety of very spicy snacks in Japan. Image by Flickr user yuichi.sakuraba (CC-BY-NC 2.0)
Japanese dishes are often considered bland in taste, and some might even call them bland. Anyone who thinks so, however, has obviously not tried gekikara ramen, a version of the ubiquitous noodle dish laced with spicy spices. Those brave enough to try this dish will have to sweat it out! Although Japanese curries are usually sweeter and not as sizzling as Indian curries, many stores give you a choice of spice levels, the highest of which can give you the heat.
4. Raw Egg
One of the distinguishing features of Japanese cuisine is the presence of a huge number of fresh ingredients that are often used raw. The best example is seafood in sushi, but there are a couple of other raw foods that appear in Japanese cuisine.
A raw egg, for example, can be found in many dishes. It is usually either served on top of rice or used as a sauce for noodles. This represents one of the great contradictions that Americans experience when they try Japanese food. From an early age, American children are taught to treat eggs with great caution. To prevent food poisoning, Americans always wash their hands after contact with a raw egg, do not mix raw eggs with other foods, keep eggs in the refrigerator, and, of course, never eat eggs raw. Therefore, American tourists in Japan may be shocked to learn that eggs in stores are kept at room temperature and are often served raw in some restaurant dishes.
It is believed that if eggs are laid by healthy chickens, they are perfectly safe to eat. And everyone should try the oyakodon [ang], which consists of cooked chicken and onions that are laid on top of rice with a raw egg on top.
5. Okonomiyaki and traditional cuisine
Japan is a place for foodies from all over the world who are looking for sophisticated and refined haute cuisine. This has led to a distorted perception of Japanese cuisine because traditional Japanese dishes (cheap and delicious food eaten daily by ordinary people) are not so well known abroad.
Okonomiyaki is a great example. There are many variations of okonomiyaki; in fact, the name itself means “cooked as you like.” The basic recipe, however, involves various vegetables (cabbage, carrots and/or onions) and meat (squid, pork, shrimp and/or beef); everything is finely chopped, mixed, grilled as pancakes and served with whatever side dish you like (often with barbecue sauce, mayonnaise, edible seaweed or pieces of dried tuna).
Bars and restaurants that serve okonomiyaki usually have a terrific atmosphere for socializing, as okonomiyaki can be cut into pieces with a metal spatula and shared with friends or family. In fact, many places allow you to make your own okonomiyaki by ordering the ingredients and using a grill built right into the table. This do-it-yourself style is also popular with other Japanese dishes, especially the ever-popular takoyaki (octopus balls).
Image by Flickr user satetsu (CC-BY-SA 2.0)
One might think it unfair to include whiskey in an article about Japanese food. But wouldn’t an article about French food make mention of French wine? There is a close relationship between food and alcohol, but the Japanese love of good whiskey is surprising, given that sake is usually in the spotlight. Nevertheless, Japanese distilleries produce elite whiskey, which often takes first places in international competitions and blind tastings.
Whiskey bars featuring a wide variety of imported and domestic drinks are not uncommon in big cities. And the whiskey highball [ang] (whiskey and ginger ale or soda served with lots of ice in a highball glass) remains the most popular cocktail among Japanese youth and solid businessmen alike. The highball has even recently emerged as part of a buzzword used by the Suntory [ang] drinks company in its marketing campaign: hai kara, which means whiskey highball (haiboru) served with fried chicken (karaji).
7. Otsumami, the combination of alcohol and food
In Japan, alcohol is rarely drunk on its own; it is almost always accompanied by some kind of food. Tourists may be surprised if they order a drink at a bar or restaurant and are served an extra bowl of potato salad or fried chicken. This is perfectly normal, as the unwritten rule states that alcohol should be snacked on. In fact, there is a whole category of snacks that are made and advertised as an appetizer to alcoholic beverages. Such snacks are called otzum [ang]. The word comes from the verb “ttsumi,” which means “to pinch” or “stab,” a reference to eating such food with one’s hands.
Japan is notoriously loyal to alcohol. Alcohol is available in large quantities, to the point where it can be bought in vending machines in many places, and regular consumption of alcohol is considered acceptable. This is why otzumami are very popular and sold in a huge range. Tourists can start with more familiar snacks, such as mixed nuts or edamame [ang] (soy beans); but more exotic snacks such as dried squid or dried anchovies are also good.
Whatever your perception of Japanese cuisine, traditional cuisine encompasses much more than rice and sushi. Japanese cuisine is vast, amazing and ever-changing. And anyone who is willing to explore it is sure to find something spectacular.
New Jersey native Taylor Casella currently lives in southern Mie Prefecture, Japan and works as a language teaching assistant at a high school.
The Bridge features personal essays, commentary and creative reporting that shed light on the differences in perceptions of local and international news coverage through the unique perspective of Global Voices community members. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the community as a whole.
Interesting facts about Japanese food
Japanese cuisine holds a centuries-old tradition. The skill and heart with which the Japanese prepare and serve food, the products they choose and combine, and the exquisite decorations, cannot fail to amaze. But many of us don’t know much about the history of Japanese cuisine. What do we know besides sushi, rice, and seafood? The art of cooking in Japan is so deep, and contains so many interesting facts, that even the casual reader, who is not a gourmet, will be interested in learning about Oriental cuisine.
1. Rice is the most important product, like, for us, bread. In Japan it is almost waste-free, the bran, the husk are widely used in the household.
2. Natural taste. The Japanese are trying to preserve the real taste of food in all dishes, without unnecessary spices, seasonings. After all, we are used to salting, peppering, enhancing the taste, in Japanese cuisine, it is impossible to improve the natural taste of the product.
3. small portion sizes. You will be very surprised and confused by the portions the Japanese eat. We are used to sit down at the table and eat to the brim. In Japanese cuisine all dishes are combined according to their calorie content and to the healthiness of the products, this way they always eat healthy food and do not overload their bodies.4. Fish is not usually fried very much; it is steamed, stewed, or served almost raw (sashimi).
5. Another important thing is to serve the dish, sometimes you can be confused where in front of you is a decoration and where is the dish, so everything looks exquisite.
6. Wasabi, a well-known product (from Japanese cuisine) is not an authentic plant and has nothing to do with it. It is a mixture of horseradish and spices. It is difficult to distinguish from the real wasabi, but the additive does not have the useful qualities of the original.
7. Seafood is an essential part of the Japanese diet. More than nine thousand items of seaweed, shellfish and fish end up on the tables of all Japanese homes and restaurants, which is quite astonishing for us. We are used to meat, which in Japan is eaten in very small quantities, this also applies to bread.
8. Sushi and rolls in Japan are considered the same fast food as in our country hamburgers and French fries, but you must agree that it is quite healthy fast food.
9. Green tea is a traditional Japanese drink. “Tea ceremony” occupies a very important place in Japanese cuisine, a variety of types and varieties of tea are used, one of the most famous is genmaicha. It is a green tea, which is usually mixed with rice and popcorn, and it will end up smelling like fish broth! This is such an unusual drink for us, but for Japanese women it is their favorite.
10. The egg in its raw form is often used in dishes, as well as raw fish and seafood, which is quite rare in our recipes.
11. In Japan it is a custom to drink alcohol with meals, that is even if you go in and order some alcoholic beverage the waiter will bring you a portion of food that you have not ordered. The rule is the same everywhere – alcohol must be snacked! You can buy alcohol everywhere and in different quantities because Japanese people are loyal to alcohol.
12. “Rice vodka” or “Sake” is a traditional alcoholic Japanese drink, which is noticeably different from Russian vodka, because its strength is only 16-18 degrees.
13. In Japan, fruit is very expensive, and they are usually bought not for themselves, but as gifts.
14. Japanese cuisine is divided into seasons and regions. Special foods are used at different times of the year, and in each region you can find foods that are unknown in another region.
15. Pickled ginger is not as red as we are used to seeing it. Its true color is yellow-pink. It turns red after food colorings.
Japanese cuisine is impressive in its variety and useful components, not for nothing the average life expectancy in Japan reaches eighty years, the country ranks first in the world for longevity. This is all because the Japanese are making the right diet, eating only natural foods and not overeating. Those who are interested in Japanese cuisine always learn a lot of new and uncommon in it.