Food is always a pleasure, and discovering distant and unknown dishes is even a greater pleasure. When in Japan, this pleasure will be maximized by the famous and much-appreciated Japanese cuisine.
Local and seasonal produce is highly valued in Japan. The food cultures of Tokyo and the Kansai region were in competition for hundreds of years.
The resulting variety is incredible. From sushi to sashimi, from noodle soup to grilled items, an exploration of Japanese cuisine is a never-ending process. What we can recommend is to open your mind and be prepared to indulge in different regional cuisines.
Ingredients of Japanese cuisine
Japanese cuisine makes use of a huge variety of ingredients, but you will have a hard time finding red meat, oil, and dairy products. Seafood, on the other hand, is ubiquitous: tuna, sardine, Japanese amberjack, flatfish, pufferfish, and many, many others are commonly used. Beef (especially the Kobe variety), chicken, pork, and horse are the most common meats.
Vegetables are extremely common, and you'll find everything you are looking for: including cucumber, eggplant, peppers, kabocha, cabbage, and spinach. You surely won't be disappointed. Roots, especially potatoes, lotus roots, and taro are also easy to find.
Oil is mostly used for deep-fried dishes (like tempura), and the traditional seasoning is a combination of dashi, soy sauce, sake, salt, vinegar, and sugar. This flavorful seasoning is mostly used to braise or grill. Fresh herbs can be added once the dish is cooked.
Tofu, seeds, a wide variety of mushrooms, seaweed, and nuts complete the list.
Seasonality and cooking skills in Japanese cuisine
Japanese dishes can be understood as the ambassadors of four seasons; seasonality is fundamental. Shun (seasonality) takes advantage of the best the new season can offer: the fruits of the mountains (yama no sachi) like bamboo shoots or chestnuts; and fruits of the sea (umi no sachi).
As a consequence, the first catch of the best fish is the most expensive. Hashiri is the name given to a food available before the normal time comes.
Some of the cooking skills used in Japanese cuisine are quite common everywhere: grilling, simmering, steaming, etc; while others are unique.
For example, tempura is an extremely quick deep-frying technique, with the batter made using iced water. And sushi represents a world by itself: it is served raw, but to achieve the right texture for the rice, or the right shape of the rolls, requires long training and the mastery of traditional skills.
Traditional Japanese specialties
Kaiseki is a traditional cuisine in which a dozen or more dishes are served to each person, categorized on the menu according to cooking method. Sake is the usual accompaniment. Rice and noodles come in all varieties, featuring grilled seafood. Vegetarian cuisine, called shojin ryori, uses protein-rich tofu and seasonal ingredients.
Kaiseki is a complex multicourse meal originating from imperial, Buddhist, samurai, and tea ceremony cuisine. It can be considered the Japanese equivalent of Western haute cuisine.
The style is minimalist, and appreciation of the meal involves all five senses. Only fresh seasonal ingredients are used, and the meals are served on specially chosen dishes that enhance the natural beauty of the food.
Kaiseki is often served before a tea ceremony (cha-kaiseki): the meal comprises a bowl of miso soup and three dishes (but it can also include an appetizer). The three dishes are: mukzoke, often sashimi; nimono, simmered foods; and yakimono, grilled foods.
Kyoto is considered the best place for kaiseki, and it is possible to find it also in smaller, more informal restaurants.
Tea and sake
Tea is drunk all over Japan throughout the day, and the most common type is green tea. There are different grades of tea, according to the timing of the harvest and the amount of sunlight the leaves are subjected to.
The tea ceremony is an important cultural activity in Japanese culture. Tea used during the ceremony is called matcha: a finely ground powder of green tea leaves (only the highest quality is used). The ceremony revolves around the preparation and tasting of the tea.
Sake is made with polished fermented rice. Its brewing process is closer to that used for beer than for wine. In Japanese, the word sake can stand for any alcoholic beverage: in English, when we talk about sake we talk about nihonshu (literally "Japanese liquor").
The flavor of sake can vary according to the amount of sugar and alcohol, the concentration of acid, and how savory it is (determined by the concentration of amino acids). Sake can be served chilled, heated, or at room temperature. High-grade sake is usually not served hot, because the flavors would be lost.
Rice and noodles
Rice is the staple food of Japan, and its Japanese names, gohan and meshi, also stand for meal. Rice is consumed with almost every meal. The variety used in Japan is short-grained, sticky, and polished. Brown rice is not as common, but it is becoming more and more widespread.
Noodles can be a substitute for rice. Soba noodles (thin and grey), and udon (thick) are the traditional noodles, eaten as standalones. They can come with toppings and are usually served in a bowl with broth made from soy, dashi, and mirin. Scallion, wasabi, shichimi, and nori are usually added to the broth.
Pure vegetarian dishes are hard to find. In fact, vegetables are often flavored with the dashi stock made from tuna. However, it is still possible to taste the exquisite creations of Buddhist monks, the vegetarian cuisine commonly found in many Buddhists countries.
This cuisine follows some rules (like avoiding garlic and strong smelling plants) in order to create delicious karmically-positive food. Rice and noodles are served with almost every meal, seasoning is confined to what is available in the region, and meat is usually imitated using wheat gluten.
Common comments and toasts
Before starting a meal, many Japanese people will say itadakimasu, meaning "I humbly receive". Both hands should be put together in front of the face. Before commencing, it is customary to compliment the host about the appearance of the food.
When the meal is over, it is good to say go-chis-sama deshita (that was a feast), to express your gratitude towards the host and let him/her know that the food served was tasty and sufficient.
When a toast is made, you should pick up your glass with one hand, supporting the bottom with the fingers of your other hand, and raising the cup in salute.
Visit Japan with Asia Highlights
The Japanese often use a region's specialty as a reason for traveling, going out of their way to find a restaurant famed for some particular kind of food. Do as the Japanese do, let Japanese food be a memorable part of your travel experience.
Asia Highlights will help arrange authentic local restaurants in your itinerary, add a sushi-making class to your market-visit, or leave you more free time to explore the city yourself. Just let us know your interests!