Japan’s food and drinks are as much an experience as is Akihabara’s Otaku or Kyoto’s zen.
Washoku in Japanese means true Japanese food. Talk about washoku, and you will have your Japanese friend turn nostalgic. Traditionally the main Japanese food is rice or noodles with toppings. Japanese rice is usually small grained and sticky, easy to grapple with chopsticks. But that’s a coarse description. Washoku-ians would talk about those specific varieties of rice that grow in so and so prefecture. Rice is often served in a bowl covered with toppings. Toppings vary, a favorite being raw egg. Along side the main dish, there’a a rich choice of side dishes. Side dishes could be fried in batter. Called “Tempura”. Or could be grilled and dipped in sauce. Heard of “Unagi”? Its Eel grilled and dipped in sauce; super delectable for the washoku patron. A soup comprising of tofu and/or green sea weeds (“nori”) usually accompany the main dish. Meal is finished with green tea, hot or cold.
Rice is home food. Rolled into nice triangles with fillers is the quintessential “Onigiri” – the fulfilling lunch for the school boy. Noodles, are well a bit more formal, calls for more work to prepare it, and connotes an office goers lunch option kind of sense. Salarymen in Japan head for a quick bowl of noodles from favorite noodles shop. Depending on type of ingredient rice or wheat can be of several types Soba, Udon and Ramen. Udon topped with shredded roasted beef is “giu-udon”, a popular lunch item for the “salaryman”.
Amongst side dishes, Fries called “Tempura”, could make use of any item one throws at it, kind of. Vegetarian? Try eggplant or gourd tempura. Others could try chicken nuggets, squid ring fries, and “you name it item fried” tempura. Tempura are prepared like French fries deep fried dipped in a batter. When not fried, grilled or barbecued, the item is called Yaki”you name it item” for example yakitori is grilled chicken, a very popular food choice.
Being an island, local palate is also big on seafood. Sea food special restaurants go a long way to serve the bestest available to connoisseurs. For example you can demand to know the origin of each mussel being served, before you so much as squeeze that lemon. Yes each one catch is individually marked with its place of origin, handwritten in Kanji on a chip of wood, to satisfy the connoisseur. Fresh sea food delicately sliced and tastefully served is what makes a special Japanese meal. But in non-special ordinary meal as well, you can expect fresh fish served right to you before you can even utter Fish. Fresh sliced fish is a culinary variety of its own – named “Sashimi”. And when the individual pieces of fish are wrapped around a mound of rice served neatly arranged in an exquisitely designed platter, it’s “Sushi”. The emphasis is on fresh, pure, and low fat. Variety is there even within the sashimi or sushi dishes in the form of tuna, Mackerel, octopus, squid, sea urchins, crab meat, prawns etc. To generalize, Fish and rice makes the ever popular “mamas own” dish, can be taken for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner.
Now as any self-respecting Michelin-star chef would let you know, food when taken fresh in its natural environs of origin, has a different taste. Japan is big on regional food. Rice from Miyagi prefecture is Pearl rice, such shining such special it is. You have to visit Miyagi prefecture to get that fresh shiny rice. Similarly Mussels from the north have that flavor oh so delicious. Beef from south especially Kobe beef has its own brand identity, protected with pride.
Not just regions but seasons have their own sway for Japanese palate. Fall colors bring in the catch of silvery Sanma fish. If walking in the park or river side while taking in the fall colors you get a waft of barbecue, its likely to be Sanma. Barbecue is very popular, and so is Sanma. Similarly after the rains, its mushroom time. Mushrooms of all colors sizes textures show up in dishes but the special one, comparable in prestige to French black truffles, is Shitake mushroom. You can not go wrong if serving shitake to your Japanese guests.
A discussion about Washoku can go on and on, the choices are rich and varied. Some items though stand apart meriting a mention on their own. For example”Natto”. In its simplest form its pure fermented soybean. Valued due to its nutritional value, known due to its rather challenging smell. Adventurous tourists include natto into their “lets try it” list.
In terms of the taste of the food items, Japanese overwhelmingly prefer food dipped in soy sauce, and vinegar. Mayonnaise is a recent entrant to go with tempura. But tomato sauce still tastes ahem foreign. Japanese curry is a more recent innovation, drawn from Indian variety, and is getting quite popular. But if you are one who likes the delicate natural taste with just a punch of twang, without all the spice of a curry, you can add Wasabi. It is like mustard but is actually derived from plant root. Just like chilies of certain fame, wasabi also can bite so readers beware. Next, sweet, as a taste is tolerated, not exactly cherished. Sweets in the form of bean paste rolled inside a thin layer of gelatinous rice or wheat is popular as a candy . People buy these sweets as memento from a distant place visited. Sour taste is mostly had in fruits, and fruit flavored drinks and candies, nowhere else. Bitter as a taste is conspicuously absent. Its place is taken by a taste called Umami, a Japanese taste now recognized as one of the primary tastes apart from sweet sour bitter salty. Its difficult to explain unless you have tasted it. If you have done, then please help explain for readers here…
Like everything else food preferences change, new ingredients come up, or just new tastes develop. Japanese food habits are no exception. Lets take for example, in this fast fast world, you did not have the time to lick your lovingly prepared dish to the end. Do you throw the left over? Nope, not in Japan. “Mottai Nai” waste not is taught to children from early childhood. So necessity for reuse in small family fast life has given rise to a new food – Okonomiyaki. Left overs from “preloved” food sauted and fried together into a pancake is the new food okonomiyaki. Witnesses abound who swear its taste.
Talking about modernization in food, food technology, food storage, one can talk perhaps endlessly. But the really path-breaking breakthrough came through instant noodles. It came in a giant leap, not in just a small step, if you know what I mean. Say yyou have a project to submit, no time to cook, not enough money to buy a good one. Grab a cup full of instant noodles. The sheer varieties ensure its quite likely that the cup is having all ingredients of your choice added. Just open the tap, add hot water and stir for a few blips on the clock. Your supper is ready. Just like toast and baked beans in the hostels of Western Hemisphere, this item has sustained several generations of student population in Asia. Nissin invented instant noodles. It became a legend. It is not just a company that makes “fast food” it touches an emotional chord amongst the Japanese youth.
International food, distinctly non-Japanese, is what is called Ushoku – literally meaning imported food. Italian pasta ingredients are widely available, as are Indian curry spices. Bread and butter may not be quite that “bread and butter” amongst daily food choices but increasing consumption has caused shortfalls lately in the market resulting even in rationing of butter and cheese! All said though, except for dedicated Establishment selling imported European stuff, the quality or the variety of cheese and bread available at your neighborhood may leave you underwhelmed. Milk products generally are available with various degrees of fat, but the general availability being on the side of the less the better, you may not find your favorite thick creamy yogurt around. But you can double on milk extracted from soya bean. As for cheese, Tofu the cheese made from Soybean is by far dominating the foreign ones. Do not assume though that you may have to substitute your mozzarella toppings with tofu, no. You can order you pizza or pasta as you would anywhere elsewhere.
Fruits and vegetables
Fruits though expensive are available aplenty. Apples and cherries are also grown locally apart from importing. Some grapes are also grown in areas around Mt Fuji, mostly in wineries. Strawberries are also a popular produce. Strawberry picking is an annual event encouraging more people to participate in the farm activity. Round pears called Nashi are a seasonal favorite. Kaki A juicy fleshy fruit looking like square shaped tomato deserves special mention for its taste and flavor. Peaches and Plums are a revered traditional local fruit produce, exclusively used for producing fruit liquor. Fruits occupy a special place in Japanese psyche, as a delicacy, as a source of prized alcoholic beverages. But the love for fruits have stepped out of the reigns of home into corporate culture. For the Japanese corporate nothing beats an executive gift like the perfectly round melon. The very best produce is often auctioned and presented as gifts to corporate top shots or political bigwigs.
In the vegetables department, choices are however somewhat short. Most being of the root types. Mushrooms will delight mushroom aficionados. Shiitake mushrooms are particularly prized for its taste and nutritional value. Daily Green vegetable need in balanced diet is provided by seaweed called nori. Eggplant, spinach are the other few types of vegetables commonly available, but often with an uncommon or uncomfortable price!
If the word desserts brings an image of a dollop of chocolate, you will certainly not be disappointed. Chocolate covered this chocolate covered that, this dipped in chocolate, that rolled into chocolate are all there. And there is ice creams. But these are mostly later day imports. Talking about true Japanese there is a variant of ice cream made of crushed ice and syrup, called kaki gori, that you will come across in Summer. Its a ritual to have kaki gori, as a dessert, or simply as a way to enjoy a day out in summer.
Children queue up outside the kaki gori stall. If you are thinking of tasting kaki gori, then try tea flavor. Green tea flavor is indeed a very popular flavor that is available in candies chocolates cakes ice creams.. Other desserts of local origin mostly trace their inheritance to either Tofu or bean paste. For more French Italian type of dessert, you may have to look for expat frequented neighborhoods such as Shibuya /Daikaniyama etc in Tokyo.
So far we have talked only about food, not a drop to drink! Despair not. Japanese drinks are just as rich in variety as Japanese food. The most well known Japanese alcoholic drink is Sake. Distilled from rice, the colorless spirit taken warm or on ice is available in innumerable regional varieties. Good Sake is revered as it should be! It is given as offering to God; is part of all family as well as communal gettogethers. Shochu is another variety of liquor some say distinct from sake due to the ingredients some others say due to the method of processing. Expert opinions aside, shochu is made from variety of sources such as root potato, plum, barley etc. Seasonal varieties are prized, as well advertised, such as cherry blossom liquor during spring season, plum liquor during summer.
Lately beer has become the more popular drink especially for a light-hearted meetup after office hours. Wine and whiskey are also on the upsurge. Especially champagne has touched a stature of class amongst the nouveau rich. It has forced the traditional local distillers to innovate and come up with bubbly sake. Did you know A very typical side dish to go with alcoholic drinks is green peas called Mame!
But in so far as beverages are concerned, nothing is anything like tea. Hot or cold, before during or after a meal, tea is a must. Tea is as much a Japanese tradition, as much a part of life as is sushi or Mt Fuji The ideal lady was supposed to know the art of serving tea. Rich and famous had an outhouse dedicated for tea ceremony. While that is all tradition, and seeped in history, the common person does not go any less in devouring this beverage in every occasion. Tea is supposedly good for blood cleaning, energizing, even for reducing fat. You wanna hear more ? Aha, you must be thinking, that is all nice etc but what do You do Mr tourist when you wake up in the morning. What about coffee? If you were thinking it, do not worry coffee culture is spreading, with Starbucks taking the lead in the big city.
But if you would like to know where to taste the dishes, indulge or experiment, drink your favorite tipple or the cuppa, then search for the article on Japanese restaurants, eateries and food-joints. As for this article iff you would like to add more information or correct any, please drop your comment. We are listening. And yes do not hesitate to share, we appreciate ideas and social exchange. Till then, cheers