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Japanese Cuisine

A traditional Japanese meal usually consists of three parts: a staple (gohan, white rice), main dishes, and side dishes (ozaku, in Japanese). A miso soup is also usually served.

Individual portions are served in bowls or on small plates. Rice is eaten from chawan, while main courses are placed on sara (small plates) or hachi (bowls). Dishes with different flavors should not be mixed together.

The drinking cup is called yunomi. Nowadays faldstool trays are used for banquets while in the past, dishes were served on napkins called zen.

Highlights

  • A traditional meal is composed of rice, a main dish, some side dishes, and miso soup
  • Japanese cuisine makes use of an incredible variety of ingredients, with seafood the king
  • Seasonality is highly revered, for the freshest ingredients that nature offers are always considered the most precious
  • Enjoying tea and sake can itself almost be considered an art
  • Dining etiquette is important and worth learning for a genuine experience of Japanese cuisine

Classification of Japanese cuisine

Edo is the former name of Tokyo, and is now associated with street food in the capital. Tokyo was the original home of the most common kind of sushi, the nagiri, while Kansai regional food is tasty and famous throughout the country.

Tokyo’s Edo cuisine is dominant, however, in keeping with historical trends, whereby the Kansai region has gradually lost its cultural supremacy.

Edo cuisine

The Edo period (1603-1868) is known for having been both peaceful and prosperous, and its cuisine was characterized both by both high-end meals and street food. Food stalls were extremely common, especially frequented by unmarried men. Ready meals like dried fish and boiled beans were common, as well as soba, eel, tempura, and sushi.

Soba was cut shorter than in other places in Japan; eel was grilled and steamed; and tempura was made with a mixture of oils to enhance the seafood flavor. Sushi as we know it was born in Edo: a hand-pressed ball of rice with fish on top (nowadays called “nigiri”).

Today, around Tokyo, there are many restaurants serving Edo cuisine, especially sushi and eel.

Kansai cuisine

The region of Kansai is famous for its food. During your travels, you should not miss the opportunity to taste delicacies like takoyaki (a ball-shaped snack made of wheat and filled with octopus), okonomiyaki (savory pancake containing vegetables and fish or meat), and udon (thick noodles served with soup).

The famous Kobe beef comes from this region, and 45% of Japanese sake is produced here. When in Kasai, you will notice that the food is sweeter and that dishes otherwise popular in the rest of the country, for example natto, are not so common.

Popular Japanese dishes

Japanese cuisine is increasingly popular all over the world. If sushi and sashimi are most famous, other delicious items are also well-known: sukiyaki, for example, is a tasty hot-pot; while unadon is exquisite grilled eel.

Yaki udon, stir-fried udon noodles, is similar to the Chinese chow mien or to pad-Thai; and yakiniku is famous all over the world as “Japanese barbecue”.

Sushi and sashimi

Sushi and sashimi are the most famous Japanese dishes. Sushi is an apparently simple dish made with rice cooked with sushi vinegar and raw fish. The most common variety is nigiri, a small ball of rice with fish on top (salmon, tuna, shellfish, etc). Norimaki is a roll of rice wrapped with seaweed and filled with a huge variety of ingredients.

Sashimi, on the other hand, is just thin-sliced raw food. Meat can be eaten as sashimi, but seafood is more common. Thin slices are often arranged on top of a bed made of daikon (a Japanese vegetable) and decorated with shiso leaves. Tuna, salmon, and sea bream are the most popular kinds of sashimi.

Sukiyaki and shabu-shabu

For those who love hot-pot, sukiyaki is the dish to try. It is cooked and served in nabemono (Japanese hot-pot), and usually consists of slowly cooked beef and other ingredients, mostly vegetables. When cooked, they are taken out of the pot and dipped in a bowl with raw eggs, and then eaten.

Shabu-shabu is a less sweet and more savory variant of sukiyaki. The dish is prepared in the same way: slices of meat, chicken, pork, lobster, and a huge variety of vegetables are submerged in a pot of broth made with kelp. The cooked food is usually dipped in a sesame seed sauce and then eaten. The broth is consumed at the end, when everything else is finished.

Unadon and yaki udon

Unadon is a bowl of rice topped with fillets of eel grilled in a kabayaki style (i.e. dipped in soy sauce-based sauce before grilling). The fillets are caramelized over a charcoal fire, with the skin becoming crispy and full of flavor. Tare sauce is added so that it seeps through the rice. The eel can also be steamed with sauce before being grilled to tenderize.

Udon noodles are stir fried with soy sauce, pork, and vegetables to make yaki udon. This is a simple and popular dish, frequently eaten as a late night snack. According to legend, the dish was created right after WWII when there was not much food, and a chef had to reinvent the dish when the noodles he had intended to use were not available.

Tempura and okonomiyaki

Tempura was introduced by the Portuguese during the 16th century. It consists of deep-fried vegetables and seafood. A light batter is made with iced water, wheat flour, and eggs. The resulting deep-fried dish will be extremely crunchy and light, as it will be immersed in boiling oil for less than a minute.

Shrimps, prawns, eggplant, mushrooms, and sweet potatoes are the most common ingredients.

Okonomiyaki, a popular snack, is pancake made with batter and cabbage. Virtually anything, from meat to wasabi, can be added on top. In fact, okonomi means “to your liking”. The dish is usually served in restaurants equipped with an iron griddle that customers use to cook it for themselves.

Yakiniku and yakitori

When we talk about yakiniku, we mostly mean grilled meat. Small, bite-sized chunks of meat and vegetables are cooked over a flame on griddles of wood charcoal. In the West, this is known as “Japanese barbecue”. A sauce made with soy sauce, mirin, sake, sugar, and garlic is used as dipping.

Yakitori is made with small chunks of chicken grilled on a skewer. Almost all parts of the chicken can be used: the skin, thighs, breast, liver, etc. Different kinds of yakitori are made with different parts of the chicken: for example, negima, the most popular, is made with thigh meat alternating with pieces of leek.

Soft drinks

Typical Japanese soft drinks can be very creative. Spotting the right refreshing drink can be an adventure by itself: the number of different flavors is incredible. Ramune is one of the most popular carbonated drinks, with a characteristic ball of marble stuck in the neck of the bottle.

Calpis is a milk-based drink inspired by the Mongolian airag (made with horse milk); while Pocari Sweat is a popular sports drink made with grapefruit.

There are literally thousands of different drinks to choose from… the only thing we can tell you is: don’t be afraid to explore!

Table etiquette

For a culture so centered round etiquette and respect, it is not surprising that dining etiquette is important. From the way you sit at the table, to how you should use chopsticks, there are many little rules worth remembering, in order to get the best out of your experience and please your hosts.

Table setting

Both western-style tables and chairs and traditional Japanese low tables and cushions are readily found. When sitting on a tatami, men sit with their legs crossed, while women sit with both legs at the side. Seiza is a formal way of sitting: legs are folded under the thighs and buttocks rest on the heels.

Seating arrangements

In restaurants, the eldest guest usually sits at the center of the table farthest from the entrance, usually on the kamiza, the seat of honor. If there is an alcove (tokonoma), the eldest guest will sit in front of it. The host (or the lowest-ranking guest) sits nearest to the entrance (shimoza in Japanese).

How to order

When you enter the restaurant, tell the waiter how many people are in your group. If you don’t speak Japanese, ask for an English menu, and if you want you can ask for prices. Take your time to look at the menu, and when you are ready, call the waiter to make your order.

Using tableware

Before you start eating, you might be served with hot towels, which should be used to clean your hands before starting the meal. When the waiter offers you a towel, accept it with both hands; and when you are done, fold it and place it on the table.

Bowls should be picked up with the left hand, chopsticks with the right. Bowls should touch the mouth only when drinking soup, and slurping is more than acceptable for broth and noodles.

Chopstick etiquette

Never stick chopsticks into your rice, as you may offend someone (they may resemble incense sticks used for the dead). Don’t use chopsticks to point at anyone and don’t bite the chopsticks. When you are not using them, place them in front of your meal, with the tips pointing left.

Avoid using your chopsticks to pass food directly to someone else’s chopsticks, and don’t use them to move bowls or plates. You can, however, use chopsticks to divide a piece of food into two pieces.

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