Traditional Japanese Foods and Alternatives to Sushi
If I were trapped in one city and had to eat one nation’s cuisine for the rest of my life, I would not mind eating Japanese. – Anthony Bourdain
It could be said that the global popularity of Japanese sushi is the most significant hindrance to discovering the broad scope and variety of Japan’s great culinary heritage. There is not a major city in the world that does not have a restaurant serving sushi, and it has become synonymous with healthy eating and the Japanese lifestyle. However, there is much more to Japanese cooking than raw fish, and it’s worth taking time to explore some of the delicious tastes that come from the island nation.
A little dash of Dashi
The flavor of Japan is undoubtedly dashi, the basic stock which is the beginning of all Japanese cooking. The stock is made from kombu seaweed and dried bonito flakes, with a touch of soya or sake. The quality of the ingredients, and whether using fresh or dried seaweed or flakes can alter the taste dramatically, but will always instill the flavor of Japan.
Soup of the day
Almost all Japanese meals will include a soup of some kind. A staple is miso soup, made from the savory paste produced by fermenting cooked soybeans. It’s a traditional breakfast soup for many people in Japan and is often served as an accompaniment to a meal. The thicker soups or broths called shirumono are favorites with the Japanese and can be meals in themselves. The lighter clear soups known as suimono are often more delicate and are often consumed in restaurants. The suimono traditionally has three elements, ‘the host’ is generally a parboiled piece of fish or meat, ‘the guest’ is some form of green vegetable, or maybe mushrooms of seaweed. The third element is a garnish of ginger juice or maybe a shred of lemon peel to add a frangrance or piquancy to the soup.
Eating out in Japan, or eating at home will almost always include a dish that has been simmered. The portions of meat or vegetables are likely to be small, with some of the seasoned stock in which they were simmered. Because of the subtle variations in the simmering stock, there is an almost unlimited number of taste variations. Generally, the meat, fish or vegetables are parboiled or sometimes fried, before being allowed to simmer in seasoned stock. The stock is based on the dashi, and can be flavored with sake, miso, soy sauce or mirin, the sweet cooking wine of Japan. The simmering is there to impart flavor and not to cook the food so it can be quite quick.
Let’s get grilled
There is usually one grilled dish, known as yakimono, as part of every traditional Japanese meal. Most often the meat will be either chicken or fish. Over the centuries Japanese chefs have developed an art in skewering the meat so that it cooks correctly. Using a high heat, preferably from charcoal, the chefs like to grill the meat or fish, so the skin on the outside is crispy, and the meat inside is soft and tender. As with all Japanese cooking, there is an art to preparing the dish and getting cooked to perfection. As with grilling in other parts of the world, the fish or meat is salted or marinated beforehand to add flavor and tenderize.
In Japan, deep frying has developed into a sophisticated and refined art in itself. The dishes are light and crisp, without a hint of oiliness. Pieces of meat, fish or vegetables are cut into small bite sizes, so the cooking time is reduced, and the flavor and freshness are conserved. The secret of getting Japanese deep frying right is in the oil, and chefs will only use vegetable oil, and never animal fat, adding a little sesame oil to add a nutty flavor. As with all deep frying, getting the oil to the right temperature is imperative. Japanese cooks deep fry in a heavy saucepan with a small rack to hold the pieces of food so any excess oil can drain back into the pan. The classic deep-fried dish is of course tempura. The key to excellent tempura is the batter, which is made from egg yolks and iced water that are mixed lightly. With flour added, the mixture should be lumpy and not smooth. The best tempura is served immediately after cooking.
The true art of Japanese cuisine comes out in the steamed dishes or mushimono. Japanese chefs will take their time arranging vegetables, fish or chicken on the plate it is going to be both steamed and served on. Like Chinese steamers, Japanese cooking uses stacked flat steamers. The food is put in the steamer when it is already hot, and with all Japanese cuisine, it is cooked for as short a time as possible.
Oodles of noodles
Although sushi may be seen by some as the national dish of Japan if you ask a Japanese what dish he or she is likely to eat every day the answer is more likely to be noodles. ‘Ramen’ noodle shops are as ubiquitous in Japan as fast-food hamburger joints are in the United States. The restaurants offer wheat noodles with meat or fish in a tasty broth. It’s a cheap filling and delicious dish. Needless to say, there are huge variations between the noodle dishes offered throughout the islands of Japan.
It’s all gone to pot
The winter favorite for many Japanese families is one-pot cookery or nabemono. It’s a bit like the Japanese version of fondue but with more variety. Everyone gathers around a pot of simmering broth, and a large plate of sliced vegetables, meat, fish, and tofu. Sharing in the cooking the family and guests can pop their chosen pieces into the broth and cook them just the way they like. Once the morsels are cooked and are piping hot, they can be dipped in a small bowl of seasoned sauces or other condiments.