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Japanese Cuisine

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Photographer: Melinda Kolk Caption: Bento on the Shinkansen Location: Kyoto, Japan

There are many views of what is fundamental to Japanese cuisine. Many think of sushi or the elegant stylized formal kaiseki meals that originated as part of the Japanese tea ceremony. Many Japanese, however, think of the everyday food of the Japanese people--especially that existing before the end of the Meiji Era (1868 - 1912) or before World War II. Few modern urban Japanese know their traditional cuisine.

Traditional Japanese cuisine is dominated by white rice, and few meals would be complete without it. Anything else served during a meal--fish, meat, vegetables, pickles--is considered a side dish. Side dishes are served to enhance the taste of the rice. Traditional Japanese meals are named by the number of side dishes that accompany the rice and soup that are nearly always served. The simplest Japanese meal, for example, consists of Ichiju-Issai ("soup plus one" or "one dish meal"). This means soup, rice, and one accompanying side dish--usually a pickled vegetable like daikon. A traditional Japanese breakfast, for example, usually consists of miso soup, rice, and a pickled vegetable. The most common meal, however, is called Ichiju-Sansai ("soup plus three")--soup, rice, and three side dishes, each employing a different cooking technique. The three side dishes are usually raw fish (sashimi), a grilled dish, and a simmered (sometimes called boiled in translations from Japanese) dish -- although steamed, deep fried, vinegared, or dressed dishes may replace the grilled or simmered dishes. Ichiju-Sansai often finishes with pickled vegetables and green tea.

This uniquely Japanese view of a meal is reflected in the organization of traditional Japanese cookbooks. Chapters are organized according to cooking techniques: fried foods, steamed foods, and grilled foods, for example, and not according to particular ingredients (e.g., chicken or beef) as are western cookbooks. There are also usually chapters devoted to soups, sushi, rice, noodles, and sweets.

Traditional Japanese Table Settings
The traditional Japanese table setting has varied considerably over the centuries, depending primarily on the type of table common during a given era. Before the 19th century, small individual box tables (hakozen) or flat floor trays were set before each diner. Larger low tables (chabudai) that accommodated entire families were becoming popular by the beginning of the 20th century, but these gave way almost entirely to western style dining tables and chairs by the end of the 20th century.

Traditional table settings are based on the classic meal formula, Ichiju Sansai, or "soup plus three." Typically, five separate bowls and plates are set before the diner. Nearest the diner are the rice bowl on the left and the soup bowl on the right. Behind these are three flat plates to hold the three side dishes, one to far back left (on which might be served a simmered dish), one at far back right (on which might be served a grilled dish), and one in center of the tray (on which might be served boiled greens). Pickled vegetables are often served as well, and eaten at the end of the meal, but are not counted as part of three side dishes.

Chopsticks are generally placed at the very front of the tray near the diner with pointed ends facing left and supported by a chopstick holder.

Essential Japanese Ingredients
Short or Medium Grained White Rice
Vegetables (spinach, cucumber, eggplant, burdock (gobo), daikon, sweet potato, lotus root)
Pickled Vegetables
Mushrooms (Shiitake, Matsutake, Enokitake)
Seaweeds (Nori, Konbu, Wakame, Hijiki)
Noodles (Udon, Soba, Somen)
Processed Seafood (Niboshi, dried Cuttlefish, Kamaboko)
Eggs (Chicken, Quail)
Meats (Pork, Beef, Chicken, Lamb)
Beans (Soy, Adzuki)

Essential Japanese Flavorings
It is not generally thought possible to make authentic Japanese food without shoyu and dashi.

Shoyu, Dashi, Mirin, Sugar, Rice Vinegar, Miso, Sake.
Konbu, Katsuobushi, Niboshi.
Onion, Garlic, Leek, Chive, Shallot -- all discouraged by Buddhism, but popular in modern Japan
Sesame Seeds, Sesame Oil, Walnuts or Peanuts to dress.
Wasabi (and imitation wasabi from Horseradish), Mustard, Red Pepper, Ginger, Shiso (or Beefsteak) leaves, Sansho, Citrus.

Famous Japanese Foods & Dishes
Deep-Fried dishes (Agemono)
Donburi - one-bowl dishes of hot steamed rice with various savory toppings
Oyakodon - Chicken and egg (''Mother and Child)) donburi dish
Tempura - deep-fried batter-coated bite-sized foods.
Tonkatsu - deep-fried breaded pork cutlet
Grilled and Pan-Fried dishes (Yakimono)
Teriyaki - grilled, broiled, or pan-fried meat, fish, chicken or vegetables glazed with a sweetened soy sauce.
Gyoza - savory Japanese dumplings, often filled with pork, tofu or vegetables
Hamachi Kama - grilled yellow tails jaw and cheek bone
Okonomiyaki - pan-fried batter cakes with various savory toppings
Nabemono (One Pot Cooking)
Noodles (Menrui)
Soba - thin brown buckwheat noodles served chilled with various toppings or in hot broth
Ramen - thin light yellow noodle served in hot broth with various toppings; thought to be of Chinese origin, it is a popular and common item in Japan
Udon - thick wheat noodle served with various toppings or in a hot shoyu and dashi broth.
Agedashi Tofu - cubes of deep-fried silken tofu served in hot broth
Bento or Obento - combination meal served in a wooden box
Hiyayakko-cold tofu dish
Osechi - Traditional food eaten at the New Year
Rice (Gohanmono)
Mochi - rice cake
Ochazuke - Green tea poured over white rice.
Onigiri - Japanese rice balls
Sashimi - slices of fresh seafood served with a dipping sauce and simple garnishes
Soups (Suimono & Shirumono)
Miso soup - soup made with miso, dashi and seasonal ingredients like fish, kamaboko, onions, clams, potato, etc.
Sushi - Vinegared rice topped or mixed with various fresh ingredients.
Anmitsu- a traditional Japanese dessert.
Dango - Japanese dumpling
Macha Ice (Green tea ice cream) - green tea flavored ice cream
Oshiruko - a warm, sweet red bean soup with rice cake
Uiro - a steamed cake made of rice flour

Japanese Influence on other Cuisines
United States
Teppanyaki is said to be an American invention, as is the California roll, but they have been successfully imported to Japan. Thanks to some recent trends in American culture such as Iron Chef and Benihana, Japanese culinary culture is slowly fusing its way into American life. Japanese food, which had been quite exotic in the West as late as the 1970s, is now quite at home in parts of the continental United States, and has become an integral part of food culture in Hawaii.

Tsuji, Shizuo. (1980). Japanese cooking: A simple Art. Kodansha International/USA, New York.
Kumakura Isao, (1999). Table Manners Then and Now, Japanecho, Vol. 27 No. 1

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