Japanese cuisine has been beguiling and confounding North American diners ever since the first sushi shops made their appearance back in 1960s LA. Raw fish on rice? Cold noodle soups and batter fried vegetables? The food was a far cry from the Chinese food they were used to, even though the two countries share close geographic proximity.
Japanese cuisine is like no other in the world. Its emphasis on refinement, depth and ancient practices has made it popular in the west, as well as a darling of global food surveyors like the Michelin Guide, who have now awarded Japan more stars than any other country, France included. Many acclaimed western restaurants, like Le Bernardin in New York or SARA Restaurant in Toronto, have also been influenced by Japan’s focused cuisine.
But what’s at the heart of Japanese cuisine? How do you begin to understand a food culture so rich in tradition, yet so open to modern innovation? Fully grasping Japanese cuisine may be a lifelong pursuit, but this article will aim to give a short, beginner’s rundown. As they say in Japan: Itadakimasu, or “Let’s eat”!
As complex and varied as Japanese food is, it returns to certain base flavours in many dishes. Here are a few of the base ingredients worth knowing about, which, when used in combination at different ratios, make a wide variety of Japanese dishes:
- Dashi: this stock, traditionally made from kombu seaweed and dried bonito tuna flakes, add umami to many soups, stews, braises and stir-fries.
- Shoyu: it’s the soy sauce everyone knows and loves. Generally lighter and saltier than its Chinese counterpart, Japanese soy comes in a few different varieties, including a clear “white soy sauce”.
- Sake: This Japanese rice wine isn’t just for drinking, together with the above two ingredients, it forms the base of many sauces.
- Mirin: This sweet cooking wine is also often found in sauces and stocks. It has lower alcohol and higher sugar content than sake and is often found in conjunction with sake.
With those base flavours, you will also find staples like rice (far and away from the most popular), wheat noodles and buckwheat noodles (soba). As far as protein, fish still reigns supreme, though chicken, pork and (to a lesser extent) beef have all become popular options.
Washoku vs. Yoshoku
A key distinction in Japanese cuisine is between Washoku – the traditional food of Japan – and Yoshoku – Western-influenced food. Washoku might include such staple meals as Kaiseki, with emphases on seasonal ingredients and distinctly Japanese forms of preparation. Yoshoku, by contrast, includes dishes like curry rice, ramen (influenced by the Chinese), uni spaghetti and even gyoza dumplings (also influenced by the Chinese, and only gaining popularity midway through the 20th Century).
Trying It at Home
To conclude the article here’s some homework. Cookbooks like Harumi Kurihara’s Japanese Home Cooking or Elizabeth Andoh’s Washoku spotlight Japanese food in easy-to-follow recipes. Series like Adam Liaw’s Destination Flavour Japan also provides a great, thorough introduction to the recipes, techniques and traditions driving this influential cuisine.
Japanese food is truly unlike any other type of cuisine, but that shouldn’t put you off from trying it yourself. Understand the base flavours and the traditional categories of style, and read through a few helpful sources, and you’ll be able to bring thousands of years of Japanese tradition right into your kitchen.