The Journey Begins…
I have always been fascinated by other cultures and languages as far back as I can remember. I grew up in Michigan in a city with a heavy auto manufacturing presence; because of this, I had several Japanese neighbors and many Japanese classmates in elementary school. I started studying Japanese in the fifth grade, and studied French, Spanish and Japanese throughout high school and college. Languages have always been something at which I excelled. Living and working in Japan has been a dream of mine since my first introduction to Japanese language and culture in the fifth grade.
In late 2010, I was selected to teach English for six months in a small town near Nagoya in Central Japan. I was responsible for developing and delivering English instruction to nearly 200 Japanese students. I would travel almost every weekend and visited numerous cities including Nagoya, Inuyama, Kyoto (six times!), Nara, Osaka (twice), Hiroshima, Miyajima, Takayama, Shirakawago, Toba, Futami, and Tokyo.
Japanese Food: the Basics
Japanese food has fascinated me since my first okonomiyaki (cabbage pancake) in fifth grade. I had taken numerous general cooking classes before going to Japan, but didn’t really have any books or background on traditional Japanese food.
It turns out that many things I thought I knew about Japanese food from living in the US were incorrect. The most obvious starting point would be sushi. In Japan, sushi refers to vinaigered rice and can include cooked or raw ingredients; raw fish served without rice is referred to as sashimi. Sushi is served in a variety of formats including makizushi (thin cylinders), futomaki, temaki (rolled like an ice cream cone), chirashizushi (ingredients scattered or layered, popular for Hina Matsuri (Girls’ Day Festival), temarizushi, and oshizushi, pressed sushi from Osaka.
Japanese sushi and sashimi are relatively simple: the emphasis is on the quality of the fish and the skill of the sushi chef. The idea is to let the flavor shine through without overseasoning or too many ingredients. American sushi, on the other hand, tends to be much higher in fat and calories, may frequently include fried elements, include some form of dairy (cream cheese, mayo, sauce), possibly avocado, and layers together multiple ingredients and contrasting textures. Many of the “Americanized” sushi rolls (spider roll, California roll, Philadelphia roll, dynamite roll, etc.) are totally foreign in Japan, although American-style sushi can be found.
Another big difference is noodles. Sure, any American college student has likely eaten dirt-cheap instant ramen. Japanese-style ramen shops with homemade noodles are popping up around the US (my city recently got its first Japanese-style ramen shop), but there are a wealth of handmade noodles in Japan, from udon (chewy, thick wheat noodles) and nutty soba (buckwheat noodles, especially good cold with a citrus dipping sauce) to thin, delicate somen. In Japan, noodles are an art form – and loud slurping of noodles is expected as a sign that you are enjoying them, so slurp away!
There is also a large difference in table manners; for example, Americans tend to pour soy sauce over rice, which is not done in Japan (instead, you are given a small dish for dipping your rice into). It’s not polite to slather your sashimi/sushi with wasabi (especially not in front of the sushi chef!), nor should you eat pickled ginger and fish in the same bite (it’s there as a palate cleanser). A lot of Japanese table etiquette, particularly that involving chopsticks, has its roots in funerary traditions; for example, you should never stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice, or pass food using chopsticks; this is how cremated bones are handled at Buddhist funerals. (To pick up food from a communal platter, turn your chopsticks around and use the wide end to pick up an item and put it on your plate.)
In my free time, I researched and took four cooking classes around Japan. The four classes were all hands-on and focused on Japanese homestyle cooking. Two classes were in Kyoto, one was in Osaka with Elizabeth Andoh at her Taste of Culture school, and one was offered by the Komaki International Association (this was the only class that was presented in Japanese). I learned how to make traditional dishes like chawanmushi (steamed egg custard), grilled fish, Japanese omelettes, and a vegetarian meal based around a cherry-blossom-viewing theme.
In addition to cooking classes, I had the chance to visit the morning markets at Takayama and Nishiki market in Kyoto. Because I am so interested in cooking and food, many of the “souvenirs” I purchased for myself were food-related; I brought home a gorgeous Japanese omelette pan (Japanese omelettes are truly an art form that takes much practice to master: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NTIcJ_tdEJM), and the rest of my kitchenware items (plates and chawanmushi cups) I purchased through Korin.
I also had the chance to dine at Shigetsu, a vegan Buddhist restaurant at Tenryuji in Arashiyama (Kyoto). Buddhist temple cuisine is common throughout East Asia with variations in each country; in Zen Buddhist tradition, no animal products are allowed, including fish stock (dashi). Japanese shojin ryori is based on balance; each meal must have five cooking methods (raw, simmered, grilled, deep-fried and steamed), five flavors (bitter, sour, sweet, salty, mild and hot), and five colors (red, white, black, green, and yellow). Tofu products such as yuba and various preparations of tofu (freeze-dried, deep-fried, etc.) and gluten (fu) play central roles.
Much of classical Japanese cuisine was strongly influenced by Buddhism. The old capital of Kyoto had thousands of Buddhist temples and along with Koyasan, is the epicenter of shojin ryori; Kyoto is still famous for the high quality of its tofu products. Yuba, dried tofu “skin,” is used as a wrapper (but it must be softened / rehydrated first), koyadofu, freeze-dried tofu, is simmered and used in soups, inari / abura age are deep fried tofu pouches to hold rice, okara (the pulp used from making soymilk/tofu, etc.) can be used in desserts and breads. Soy is also used in kinako (toasted soy powder used to garnish sweets like dango and mochi) and miso, fermented soybean paste best known as soup but which also makes a stellar marinade for fish. And black soy beans stewed in brown sugar syrup are a traditional New Year’s food that represent a wish for good health and hard work in the coming year.
Japan’s version of haute cuisine, kaiseki ryori (懐石料理), was originally developed as part of the elaborate tea ceremony. Kyoto is still the recognized capital for kaiseki dining, which can easily cost $100 and up a person. Modern kaiseki is descended from several traditions, and the focus is on the freshest ingredients, presentation and the skill of the chef. Servingware is painstakingly chosen and each element serves a purpose.
Much like the Greeks and their wild greens (horta), the Japanese value sansai, or mountain vegetables including knotweed, shoots, and ferns, and place a great deal of emphasis on seasonal produce. Elizabeth Andoh took us to a grocery store and showed us the various types of fresh vegetables that had just been harvested, along with tips for preparing them. It is also difficult to find the fresh herbs like sansho and mitsuba and veggies like myoga (young ginger buds), takenoko (young bamboo shoots), renkon (lotus root), Japanese sweet potatoes and gobo (burdock); there really are no close substitutes for flavor or texture. And many types of dried gluten, seaweeds, etc. are not commonly available even in Japanese stores in the US. This makes cooking from authentic Japanese cookbooks difficult; although I have access to several Japanese grocery stores locally, they do not carry many of the more specialized ingredients (salted cherry blossoms, pickled cherry blossom leaves, etc.).
I loved Japanese breakfasts the best; for me, there is no more perfect meal than grilled fish, omelette, miso, rice and pickles! I also enjoyed trying some of the regional specialties like hoba miso (food slathered with miso paste and grilled/served on a magnolia leaf). My most memorable breakfast was at the Shiraume ryokan in Kyoto; not only was there a huge variety of food, but the presentation belonged in a museum! The woman who makes their omelettes has been doing so for 40 years.
I also enjoy Kyoto homestyle cooking and egg-based dishes (omelet, steamed custards, etc.), and especially shojin ryori, or Buddhist temple cuisine. And bento boxes (even train station bento, ekiben) are a treat, especially on the bullet train when you have beautiful scenery whizzing by!
There is a wide assortment of snack foods in Japan, which run the gamut from sweetened beans (amanatto) and edamame to shrimp-flavored chips, flavored rice crackers (senbei), pizza flavored pretzel sticks, and novelty items influenced by western cuisine. Some of my favorites are the street foods that pop up around temples and shrines, including mitarashi dango (grilled rice dumplings basted in soy sauce, a specialty of Takayama in the Japan Alps) and fried foods on a stick, which gives it an air rather like an American state fair. Japanese convenience stores (“conbini”) are quick places to grab a snack, from prepackaged onigiri and noodles to deep-fried dishes and limited edition treats (Japanese 7-Elevens are notorious for this; see a good article from Bon Appetit here: http://www.bonappetit.com/restaurants-travel/city-guides/article/what-to-eat-for-lunch-at-7-eleven-in-japan)
I loved visiting the elaborate depachika (department store food halls; the name is a combination of “depato,” meaning department store, and “chika”, meaning basement) in the basement of upscale department stores like Takashimaya; two whole floors of specialty imports, gourmet restaurants, and the most exquisite confections and upscale food gifts you can imagine with price tags to match! It’s like an indoor market featuring the best of seasonal and regional foods, prepared foods, and international foods.
I was fascinated by the highly ornate (and highly realistic!) food samples (サンプル) gracing restaurant windows; I vaguely recollect knowing about them before moving to Japan, but made it a bit of a hobby to read up on their history and manufacturing. Samples are truly an art form with a hefty price tag to match, and make great souvenirs. One of the best-known manufacturers is Maizuru in Tokyo (http://www.maiduru.co.jp ), and most food samples are manufactured in the town of Gujo Hachiman in Gifu Prefecture, where you can take a tour and make your own wax tempura for 1,000 yen (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e5933.html).
Another Japanese custom that I appreciated was food souvenirs. In Japan, you are obligated to buy souvenirs for coworkers and superiors on your travels, and this extends to food. Every train station and shop carries some sort of beautifully packaged local food product (frequently sweets) that you purchase and take back to the office. Many of my Japanese coworkers would bring boxes back from their weekend trips and holidays; this really adds up quickly as boxes are typically 20 dollars and up! It’s a wonderful way to offer your friends and family back home a taste of Japan. I really enjoyed the momiji manju (maple leaf-shaped cakes filled with red bean paste) from Hiroshima and Miyajima.
Green tea for dessert?
Traditional Japanese desserts, wagashi, have a long history as part of the tea ceremony. There are various types of wagashi, including higashi (pressed sugar sweets that mimic the current season), jellies (yokan), and monaka, intricate pressed rice cookies filled with bean paste.
An upcoming book on the subject is Chef Yamashita’s Wagashi; I am particularly excited for this as I own his first book “Tanoshii,” and it is difficult to find books on wagashi in English (I even tried to sign up for a wagashi class in Japan, but they are increasingly difficult to find as the more elegant wagashi are all made in shops, not at home). Another promising release is Kyotofu, using soy and tofu combined with Japanese flavors like green tea, yuzu, and red bean paste.
Most home cooks / housewives do not make wagashi, but purchase them from specialty shops. One simple dessert that can be made at home is mochi, a rice flour dumpling that is boiled then served with red bean paste. Mochi is also a traditional food at New Year’s; I participated in a New Year’s rice pounding (mochitsuki) with our school staff. There is also a type of square dried mochi that is served with red bean soup.
Other traditional Japanese sweets include taiyaki, fish-shaped pancakes filled with bean paste, green tea soft-serve and ice cream, tea-infused chiffon cakes, and fancy roll cakes (one of the more prolific Japanese authors, Junko, recently released her first roll cake cookbook in English, Deco Cakes)
Modern Japanese desserts tend to favor French patisserie quite heavily (it is common for Japanese pastry chefs to train in France), so you see lots of Japanese patisseries and offshoots of French patisseries such as Maison Kayser, Pierre Herme and Fauchon across Japan. Other notable examples include Henri Charpentier and Sadaharu Aoki in Tokyo.
This style is so popular that you can find Japanese bakeries around the globe that specialize in French pastry with Japanese twists (green tea, black sesame, sweet potato, red bean, etc.). If you are interested in learning to make Japanese French-style pastries at home, I highly recommend Okashi and Tanoshii.