Simplicity, ease of preparation, freshness of products are the foundations of Japanese cuisine. A regular corner grocery store or a high-end restaurant downtown will offer equally fresh food to their customers. In Japan, food packaged and offered for sale has a shelf life of no more than a day. It’s hard to believe that the beloved and famous Japanese cuisine was once closed to the world due to the policy of national reclusion, carried out until 1868.
History of the kitchen
The earliest evidence of Japanese cuisine dates back to the Mesolithic and Neolithic times, when the main diet of the Japanese of that time was fish, various types of millet, and shellfish. Even then, the Japanese used pots in which all kinds of stews were cooked. The famous Japanese dish shabu-shabu, also called “one-pot dish,” dates back to this period. Archaeologists who conducted excavations in Japan noted that even then people used natural refrigerators in the form of deep pits and preserved food with salt.
The main product of the kitchen – rice – began to be cultivated in Japan in the 3rd century BC. e., and rice was not only a food product, but also a monetary unit, a measure of remuneration for samurai until the end of the 19th century. Rice reserves indicated the financial wealth of the family. In the 6th century, China influenced Japanese cuisine and the foundations of the tea ceremony were laid.
During the same period, Buddhism entered the country, and therefore, already in 675, a law prohibiting the consumption of meat appeared. Violation of the ban was punishable by death. True, the ban itself did not apply to all types of meat. For example, the meat of wild pigs and deer could continue to be eaten with impunity. In 752, fishing was also prohibited. Fishermen were left without work and a source of food. But to prevent the fishermen from starving to death, the imperial house assigned them a certain amount of rice annually. Chopsticks are not a Japanese invention. The Japanese borrowed them from the Chinese, just like the recipe for soy sauce and udon noodles.
With the beginning of the aristocratic era, which began in 710 after the founding of the permanent capital in Nara, Japanese cuisine acquired its inherent features. The dishes at the imperial court are elegant and understated; the refinement and external aesthetics of the dishes are valued, not their abundance. Everything that is on the plates acquires a certain symbolism; the color of the dishes is determined by the season and current events.
Before the arrival of the first Portuguese in Japan in 1543, sweets, as such, were absent from the population’s diet. Although sugar was discovered by the Japanese in the 8th century, it was considered a cure for lung disease and was not eaten. Most often, fruits, chestnuts, and honey were sweetened with tea. Everything changed with the arrival of Europeans in Japan. Sweet candies, caramels, cookies and lollipops – “sweets of the southern barbarians”, with which they tried to persuade the Japanese to Christianity. Japan closed itself off from the world again in 1639 and only opened up to the West after 1868. Bakeries, steakhouses, breweries, ice cream and chocolate shops, coffee and wine shops – all this came to Japan and became cosmically popular among young gourmets and intellectuals. Cheeses, milk and butter did not appear due to the popularity of the cheesecake dessert until the 1970s.
But American hamburgers were not destined to flood the market. Back in 1958, Ando Momofuku came up with revolutionary instant noodles in plastic cups, which all of Japan, and not only Japan, loved. Japanese food traditions are losing relevance in their own country, but suddenly the Japanese discover that it is their cuisine that inspires the entire modern world. Applicants from all over the world flocked to train with Japanese chefs. After all, a line on your resume stating that you were trained by a Japanese chef increases your competitiveness.
The main products of the Japanese table
Rice is the main component of Japanese cuisine with centuries-old cultivation traditions. There are several dozen varieties of local rice, the main characteristic of which is increased stickiness when cooked. This is the kind of rice that is convenient to eat with traditional Japanese chopsticks or hands. Rice can be the basis of any dish; even desserts are prepared from it, and the product of its fermentation is Japanese vodka – sake.
Seafood is the second most important element of the menu in the Land of the Rising Sun. Everything is used for food – vegetation (algae), fish, shellfish. Products undergo minimal heat treatment and are usually boiled or steamed.
Legumes are another important component of the Japanese table, justifying their important place with large amounts of protein, and, therefore, nutritional value. Fun fact: the Japanese borrowed beans from Chinese cooking culture many centuries ago.
Traditions of serving dishes
In traditional Japanese culture, it is customary to eat at a low table, which is not set in advance before the guests arrive. All dishes are served at the same time, but, as a rule, separate dishes are provided for each. There is always tea on the table, which you can drink if you wish, at any time during meals. Dishes, including plates, can have the most bizarre, but at the same time convenient to use shape. More often, the Japanese prefer dishes in dark shades, which favorably highlight the color of rice, as the basis of the kitchen. It is customary to eat with chopsticks or hands, less often with a spoon. If you need to eat with your hands, guests are provided with special hot towels. At the same time, you can wipe them not only on your hands, but also on your face. The concept of a “main dish” in a traditional Japanese meal does not exist; you can always try a little bit of everything.
Features of eating
A traditional Japanese meal begins with words of gratitude to God or the owner of the house. And it ends the same. The main component of a meal is a comfortable atmosphere for everyone present at the table and respect for the interlocutor. All unpleasant conversations and slippery topics are usually discussed after eating.
Chopsticks, as the main tool for eating, should only be used for eating. Moving dishes with them or pointing at objects or people is unacceptable. Guests only pour drinks for each other, not for themselves. If the dish was covered with a lid when serving, then after it has been eaten, the dish must be covered again. The meal is considered complete after the last grain of rice is eaten.
The traditions of Japanese cuisine are amazing, the features are difficult to reproduce in European realities, but the dishes – sushi, rolls, sashimi – have long conquered the world. Perhaps this is the only way available to us to become a little closer to the original and incomprehensible East. But if there are many Japanese restaurants and everyone can enjoy the taste of the dishes, then the art of preparing them is still accessible to few of us. And it is absolutely impossible to learn this on your own. After all, this is not just a set of mechanical actions, but a whole culture! Master classes and culinary courses will help those wishing to enrich themselves with the necessary knowledge, reveal the culinary secrets of the Land of the Rising Sun and give an amazing opportunity to become a real guru in preparing Japanese dishes at home!
Eating out became popular during the Edo era at the beginning of the 18th century, when the population of the city (which would later be renamed Tokyo) was twice the population of what was then Paris and the bulk of the residents were unmarried men and visiting provincials. Many of them huddled in small rooms and there was simply no place to cook. This gave a major boost to the fast food industry. In 1751, the world’s first restaurant opened in Edo. The ability to understand the quality of food began to be considered a matter of honor. The first booklets with restaurant ratings began to be printed in Edo, Osaka and Kyoto.
All active life in big cities takes place around metro stations and train stations, so most cafes and restaurants are concentrated there. Food prices can be either quite reasonable or indecently high. It all depends on the level of the restaurant, the range of dishes and the quality of service.
An inexpensive and tasty snack option for tourists would be sushi establishments organized on a conveyor belt principle, where small plates pass by you and you can take what you like straight from the belt. The cost of the dishes is determined by the color of the plate. After finishing the meal, the waiter counts the number and color of the plates and records them in the payment receipt, which you pay at the checkout when leaving the establishment. Ordering is usually done using an electronic display installed near each table.
It happens that a cafe only offers complex food options and it is impossible to change anything in the stated combinations. For example, if you want a bowl of soup with meat and vegetables, but without a bowl of rice, don’t even hope that they will understand you and fulfill your wish or adjust the price. There is a menu and that’s it, no other items are provided.
Superstitions. Habits. Signs
There are a number of rules associated with chopsticks in Japan. For example, women can only eat food with chopsticks, while men can eat some food with their hands. You cannot insert chopsticks vertically into food, especially rice; this is only done at funerals. The chopsticks are not used to move the plates, do not point them, do not hold them in a fist or place them across the bowl. Before asking for more rice, chopsticks should be placed on the table.
Before the meal, a “bon appetit” is always said and a damp, warm, or sometimes hot, oshibori towel is provided to wipe your hands before eating. It is impolite to get up from the table with half-eaten rice in your bowl; the rice is eaten to the last grain.
Japanese cuisine can be divided into three groups: rice dishes, noodle dishes, and fish and meat dishes. The degree of heat treatment varies from completely raw meat and fish to products fried in batter over high heat.
Japanese noodles come in three types: ramen, udon and soba.
Ramen was brought to Japan from China. Essentially, these are noodles in broth. Most often, in chicken, but it can also be in pork or seafood broth. Vegetarian ramen have also been gaining popularity lately. Ramen noodles are made from wheat flour with the addition of eggs.
Udon noodles are made from wheat flour, but without the addition of eggs. Due to its composition, it takes a little longer to cook than ramen noodles, but it is also more nutritious. Unlike ramen, udon noodles are consumed both as an independent dish with soy sauce and as part of a soup.
Soba is made from buckwheat flour, sometimes with the addition of wheat. This dish has been famous since the Nara era, when it was served at tea ceremonies. Soba is usually eaten cold with seasonings and soy sauce, but is sometimes added to hot broth.
When eating noodles of any kind, in Japan it is customary to smack your lips, thus showing that the dish is tasty.
Tempura – shrimp, fish and seasonal vegetables fried in batter. Use it with soy sauce broth. This crispy dish was brought to Japan by Christian missionaries.
Sukiyaki is a “cauldron dish”, like shabu-shabu, cooked in a pan right on the table. Thin slices of beef, noodles, tofu and vegetables. Nothing complicated, but the taste is very refined.
Shabu-shabu – the cooking principle is close to sukiyaki, although here a thin piece of meat is dipped into a pot of boiling water, due to which excess fat is removed from the meat and the calorie content of the dish is reduced. The broth with meat is traditionally seasoned with onions, cabbage and vegetables.
Sushi, known and loved by everyone, originally looked completely different. Previously, rice and fish were carefully marinated and left for at least a year, and most often for three, before being eaten. The modern look of sushi was given by the samurai, who appreciated the taste of raw, fresh fish. It was thanks to their taste preferences that sushi became a ball of rice and a piece of fish. Typically, sushi is dipped in soy sauce and seasoned with wasabi. We are used to seeing wasabi on the table in a separate bowl, but in Japan, wasabi is placed directly inside the sushi. It is believed that different types of sushi should be eaten with pickled ginger in order to fully experience the different tastes.
Sashimi is sliced fillets of raw fish of various types, which are eaten dipped in soy sauce. Daikon, a Japanese radish, is often served with sashimi, which helps to fully reveal the taste of the fish.
Japanese curry is the only rice dish that is eaten with spoons. The dish came to Japan from India and was positioned as English (at that time India was a colony of Great Britain). Subsequently, the Japanese transformed the curry sauce to suit their taste and now this dish cannot be called a fusion version of Indian, the taste of the sauce is completely different.
Yakitori is a favorite snack to accompany alcoholic drinks in Japan. Chicken meat, vegetables and mushrooms on bamboo skewers, grilled over charcoal. Mini-kebabs are offered in numerous izakaya bars and pubs.
Tonkatsu is a super popular dish in Japanese cafes. Just like tempura, it is deep-fried, but it is a pork chop and served not with soy, but with another, slightly sweet-tasting sauce.
It is impossible to ignore the delicacy – puffer fish, which is considered food for extreme sports enthusiasts. After all, just a drop of poison, contained mainly in the liver of a fish, can lead a gourmet to complete paralysis and death. All chefs who prepare fugu fish have a special license to prepare it. According to Japanese tradition, a cook who poisons a client is obliged to commit hara-kiri, but is this still relevant today? That is the question.
The second famous Japanese delicacy is marbled meat. The meat of the bulls is especially tender and soft due to the fact that they are almost never allowed out of the stall and are generously fed with beer.
And of course, wagashi – all kinds of Japanese desserts based on rice, legumes, and agar-agar. It’s difficult to call them sweet in the usual sense, but once you get used to it and discover the taste of wagashi, it’s difficult to refuse them.
The technology for preparing the most famous alcoholic drink – sake – is similar to brewing beer, but the amount of alcohol in Japanese sake vodka is three times higher than the “degree” of beer. Sake is also called rice wine because of the rice and water it contains. Sake is drunk warmed up – to achieve quick intoxication, or chilled, which is more familiar to Europeans. Sake is considered a drink for smart people, since research by Tokyo scientists suggests that the IQ of those who drink this drink daily is higher than that of those who abstain from it.
No less popular alcohol in Japan is beer, the advertisements of which are usually decorated with pretty, smiling Japanese women in short skirts. Whiskey that came from outside also found favor. Low-alcohol fruit drinks are popular among young people. Fruit and berry wines, which we contemptuously call “ink,” in Japan are made from plums – unlike ours, they have their own sophisticated, interesting taste.
The most popular Japanese way to snack is to buy onigiri. This is a triangular-shaped rice pie with filling (salmon, chicken, caviar, egg, vegetables, and so on). Once upon a time, peasants took onigiri with them to the field, but now children take them with them to school and for walks.
Okonomiyaki – “Japanese pizza”. Only its base is not made from dough, but from shredded cabbage, held together with raw eggs. Noodles, seafood, and vegetables are used as filling. A quick and economical meal, topped with sweet sauce and topped with dried fish.
Takoyaki are small balls of flour with pieces of octopus meat inside. The sauce and dried fish are the same as in okonomiyaki. Usually takoyaki is sold in 6 or 9 pieces. It seems that this snack can only “kill a worm,” but despite its size, takoyaki is a very filling meal.
“Many of them huddled in small rooms and there was simply nowhere to cook. This gave a powerful boost to the fast food industry.”
Bento is a camping lunch option. It is a box divided into sections, each of which contains different ingredients. Bentos were originally sold at train stations for travelers who had a long journey ahead of them. The basis of a bento is rice and various mini-dishes (meat, fish, vegetables). Previously, they were prepared by caring wives and mothers; now they can be bought in any supermarket. However, it is not possible to take a wooden bento box out of Japan as a souvenir. They are considered a national treasure and are prohibited from export.
In addition, Japanese street food includes fried squid, fried corn, pancakes such as French crêpes, fried chestnuts, steamed dough buns with niku-man meat filling, kushi-yaki chicken on a stick, skewers of various types of meat and fancy forms of tofu. You definitely won’t go hungry in Japan!