Seasonal ingredients, traditional cooking techniques and unique eating etiquette all contribute to the diverse dishes characteristic of Japanese cuisine.
As an island nation, Japan has developed its own original cuisine, but one can see influences from Portugal, China, and even the United States in some modern Japanese dishes.
The fundamentals of Japanese cuisine include fresh, high-quality seasonal ingredients and the artistic presentation of dishes. Most Japanese dishes are created by combining regional staples, such as rice or noodles, with soup, fish, meat, flavorings and vegetables.
The Japanese consume fresh fish and seafood on a daily basis, but the consumption of other meats is fairly limited. Shellfish, such as squid, octopus and sea urchin, as well as varieties of crab, tuna, and other finned fish are popular ingredients in numerous Japanese dishes - especially sushi and sashimi (see below).
Many Japanese dishes are vegetarian due in part to the large Buddhist influence. Consequently, Japanese vegetarians commonly eat soy products, such as miso, edamame, tofu and seaweed in its various forms. Common Japanese vegetables include daikon, sweet potato, cucumber, eggplant, mushrooms, and pickled gourds and roots.
Traditionalists say that authentic Japanese food is not complete without three essential flavorings: soy sauce, miso and dashi. Dashi is a fish stock made from dried kelp and flakes of tuna, called bonito. Although not essential, sesame seeds and oil, as well as ginger, wasabi and mirin are important flavor elements.
Japanese rice is a short-grain variety and a staple for every meal. Rice can be served in a myriad of different ways, but white rice, brown rice and sticky rice are very commonplace. Congee is another Japanese staple, and it is quite similar to porridge. Donburi is frequently served as a one-dish lunch: a large bowl of steamed white rice topped with vegetables, fish or meat.
If a Japanese meal doesn't include rice, a variety of noodles generally take its place. Soba, udon and somen noodles are traditional Japanese noodles, served with a broth or a dipping sauce.
Grilled and deep-fried dishes are equally popular in Japanese cuisine. Tempura batter is a light and flavorful way to deep-fry vegetables, meat, seafood or tofu. Teriyaki, yakitori, and unagi (eel) are served hot off the grill.
Naturally, every region in Japan can lay claim to certain delicacies. However, there are some universal dishes that are traditionally served in conjunction with major festivals or events. For example, the Japanese serve soba on New Year's Eve and a sticky rice dumpling for the spring equinox.
Green tea is a centuries-old beverage in Japan. In fact, green tea holds an almost sacred role in Japanese society, dating back to the origins of tea ceremonies in Taoism and Zen Buddhism. Sake, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice, is served cold, warm or hot at meals and during certain rituals.
The Japanese are very committed to tradition and ritual; as such, eating etiquette is very important in Japan. Prior to each meal, a diner will be given a hot, damp towel to cleanse the hands before eating. Chopsticks should be used delicately: they should not be left sticking into food, and one should not bite on them. Furthermore, one should eat whatever he is served. According to Japanese etiquette, one should not make special requests of the host and should raise a glass in toast before consuming any alcohol.
Every season brings fresh ingredients and different dishes to the Japanese table. Whether you are a vegetarian, a seafood lover or someone who simply likes to try new things, traditional Japanese cuisine is certainly worth trying.
Sushi and Sashimi
The cuisine of Japan is quite diverse, but sushi and sashimi are possibly the most interesting aspects of Japanese dining. Sushi began many centuries ago as a method of preserving raw fish.
Over the years, it has transformed into a delicate art form. The word "sushi" refers to the rice, but in American society, it can mean the bite-sized piece of raw fish or seafood placed on top of seasoned rice.
If you're worried about consuming raw fish, rest assured that the rising popularity of sushi restaurants in the United States commands stricter regulations and higher grade ingredients.
With any raw ingredients, there are risks of food-borne illness, and people with compromised immunity should avoid any dishes that contain raw fish or seafood.
However, sushi has gained many loyal followers thanks to its healthful properties and great taste. Fish contains healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, which are proven to improve cardiovascular health and benefit people with type II diabetes by moderating blood sugar levels.
Here's what you'll encounter at your typical North American sushi restaurant:
Sashimi: A slice of raw fish, served as-is. With sashimi, you don't get any nori (seaweed wrap) or rice, but it is often served with daikon (radish), pickled ginger and wasabi. Most restaurants serve sashimi a la carte (2 pieces per order).
Sushi (Nigiri-zushi): A slice of raw fish or seafood, served atop a finger-sized bed of seasoned rice, often served with daikon, pickled ginger and wasabi. Most people dip it in soy sauce before eating it. Most restaurants serve sushi a la carte (2 pieces per order).
Sushi maki (rolls): If you've heard of the California Roll, then you know what a basic maki is all about. The roll consists of seasoned rice, nori (seaweed wrap), fish, seafood and/or vegetables.
There are several types of rolls, depending on how they are formed.
Futomaki: These are larger, thick rolls, sometimes referred to as Monster Rolls. Nori is on the outside.
Hosomaki: These are smaller, thinner rolls (such as the California Roll), with nori on the outside.
Uramaki: These rolls are "inside out" - the rice is on the outside of the nori. Uramaki are frequently garnished with black and white sesame seeds.
American sushi restaurants offer rolls with both cooked and raw fish & seafood:
- Ebi - Shrimp
- Hamachi - Yellowtail
- Hokkigai - Surf clam
- Hotategai - Scallops
- Ika - Squid
- Kani - Crab
- Maguro - Tuna
- Salmon skin
- Sake - Salmon
- Shiro Maguro - White Tuna
- Soft shell crab
- Tai - Snapper
- Tako - Octopus
- Tamago - Egg
- Unagi - Eel
- Uni - Sea urchin roe
Other ingredients common in sushi maki include:
- Cream cheese
- Tempura flakes (adds a crunchy element)
- Ikura - Salmon roe
- Masago - Smelt fish roe
- Tobiko - Flying fish roe
- Eel sauce (a sweet, syrupy sauce that accompanies eel - don't worry, it's not made from eel!)
- Spicy mayonnaise
Soy maki: These are very similar to traditional rolls, except you'll find wraps made of soy (usually quite colorful) replacing the usual nori.
Pickled ginger: This is a condiment to be placed atop sushi, sashimi and maki. It has a slightly sweet and tangy flavor.
Soy sauce: Most sushi, sashimi and maki are dipped in soy sauce prior to eating.
Wasabi: This is a condiment to be placed (sparingly) atop sushi, sashimi and maki. It can be very spicy, so go easy if you aren't familiar with its flavor.
Understanding sushi etiquette is almost as important as knowing what to order in a sushi bar. If you are seated at the sushi bar, do not ask the sushi chef to take your order. In addition, asking the chef if something is fresh is considered rude. In addition, you should not rub your chopsticks together or put wasabi in your soy sauce dish. Green tea is the recommended beverage to accompany sushi and sashimi, but sake, served chilled or hot, is also an acceptable choice.
If you run across something on the menu that wasn't mentioned here, don't hesitate to ask your server to explain. Exploring the world of sushi can be an exciting experience for the palate, so don't be afraid to try something new!