Back to Japan
Although dairy products have been known in Japan since ancient times, they
have never been an important part of the diet. More recently (since the
American occupation after World War II) more milk is consumed but still
not significantly. Perhaps in its place, the many products derived from
soybeans are used. Broths made from simmering bones, and the eating of
tender fish bones all add calcium and phosphorus to the diet.
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
Japan's variable climate and the careful cultivation of the soil is
responsible for a wide variety of fruits and vegetables enjoyed both in
season and later when dried, salted, pickled, and more recently, frozen.
Fruits familiar to other temperate and subtropical areas are common. Many
varieties of oranges form the staple fruit. Loquats, berries, persimmons,
summer mandarins (natsumikan), and pear apples (nijusiki)
are among the favorites for simple refreshing desserts.
Japanese enjoy all available vegetables, seed, and bean sprouts, and they
enjoy them not only cooked by many methods (stir-fried, steamed, boiled in
soup) but also as salads. Japanese salads are actually lightly cooked
vegetables chilled, thinly sliced, slivered or grated and dressed with
seasonings. Vegetables may also he salted or pickled and used as
appetizers or separate courses like the salads to be served after the main
Yams and taro were introduced to Japan in ancient times and often form the
staple food in mountainous areas, as well as in times of famine when rice
and grain crops have failed. Burdock, lotus roots, leeks, onions, and
white radish (daikon) are great favorites, but it would be difficult to
find a vegetable not enjoyed. Several types of seaweed and many varieties
of local mushrooms such as shitake (tree mushrooms), shoro, kotake.
shimeji, and hatsudake are also used. Tsukemono is the name given to
pickled vegetables, while sunemono refers to vinegared vegetable dishes.
MEATS AND ALTERNATES
Meats are available and used according to means. These include all
varieties of cuts – including offal – of beef, pork, veal, and lamb. Some
poultry is used, as well as game meats, as available. Japanese kobe beef
has gained a great reputation; it is beef fattened on beer shipped from
the port of Kobe. Also famed and even more expensive is wadakin or
matsuzaka beef raised in special dark sheds, fed on hot mash and
even massaged regularly.
Although the precepts of Buddhism have been gently bent to permit
meat-eating, the Japanese still eat only small quantities; their fish
intake is reputedly five times that of North Americans. Unquestionably the
abundant supply and the great variety of seafood from nearby waters makes
the harvest from the sea the Japanese staple. Edible seaweeds, abalone,
clams, squid, shrimp, prawns, oysters, cuttlefish, blowfish, as well as
salmon, cod, sardines, trout, herring and shark, tuna, flounder, sea bream
(tai), and bonito all find their way into delectable dishes.
In areas distant from the sea, fish is most often prepared from dried or
salted varieties. In fact, it forms such an important part of all festive
occasions that where marine food could not be obtained or afforded,
seaweed or even salt was then substituted.
Sashimi is a dish of sliced varieties of raw fish, arranged in a pattern
on a plate and eaten by dipping into a sauce. Sometimes slices of raw
chicken are also called sashimi and eaten in the same manner. But most
dramatic of all is the daring Japanese custom of eating raw blowfish
called fugu. Fugu-eating is dramatic because each year many people die
from consuming raw portions of this fish (the liver and ovaries are
poisonous, so the fugu chef must be especially skilled).
Eggs are consumed in quantity often as appetizers in the form of fried egg
yolk squares, boiled or pickled quail, duck or pigeon eggs, garnishes and
Bean pastes are used as seasoning and as ingredients in desserts. For
instance, red bean cake is a type of candy made from agar-agar and red
bean paste. But most widely used are the products made from soybeans,
which include shoyu, a sweetish soy sauce made from wheat and barley,
soybeans, salt and water; and miso, mostly used for flavoring thick soups
and made from fermented bean paste.
Tofu or soybean curd is so widely used in Japanese cuisine that it can
safely be considered a staple. Its smooth, white custard-like texture and
bland taste make it an ideal ingredient. So versatile is it – it happily
absorbs any other flavors – that restaurants in Japan take great pride in
their tofu dishes.
Chestnuts and ginkgo nuts are enjoyed by themselves but more frequently in
desserts and main dishes.
BREADS AND GRAINS
Rice is the staple grain in Japan. But rice is more than food, it is also
an indispensable symbol in Shinto religious ceremonies. It has always had
a place of reverence and has sometimes been considered medicinal. However,
contrary to wide belief, rice is not the only important grain in the
Japanese diet. Noodles made from wheat or buckwheat flour are so popular
that they often form not only a main dish, but also a snack food. Rice may
be eaten as a base for other foods or it may be eaten from its own
separate bowl. Red rice is rice that has been cooked with the juice of red
beans, then served cold garnished with salt and black sesame seeds.
Perhaps most popular is sushi, the rice sandwich. Basically, sushi is
vinegared or sweet and sour cooked rice wrapped around colorful and
flavorful food tidbits. Sushi is eaten with the fingers, often as a snack,
picnic food, or appetizer with swallows of tea in between. It is sold in
shops and by street vendors. Many types exist, each with a specific name
indicating the ingredients. There are three main types of sushi:
Nigiri-Zushi: vinegared rice with raw or cooked fish, seafood, or eggs
garnished with Wasabi (grated horseradish).
Norimaki-Zushi: vinegared cooked rice and tiny tidbits of fish, seafood,
or meat and edible seaweed or laver rolled up like a jellyroll then sliced
into bite-sized pieces.
Chirashi-Zushi: the most artful and complex sushi of all, made from nine
ingredients prepared in nine special steps.
Japanese noodle dishes are very popular and may be served hot or
cold. Noodles are served in one of two ways: kake, which means the
cooked noodles are placed in a bowl and hot soup poured over; and mori,
which means the cold or hot cooked noodles are served on a bamboo plate
and mouthfuls picked up with chopsticks and dipped into sauce before
eating. Soba means fat noodles, while udon refers to thin
noodles. Usually the name preceding either soba or udon indicates the
garnish. Buckwheat noodles (toshikoshisoba) are believed to be good
luck, are eaten on New Year's Eve, and are considered an appropriate house
gift, especially when wrapped in red paper and ribbon. In eastern Japan
buckwheat noodles are favored, while wheat noodles are most popular in the
western part of the country.
Besides rice and noodles made from wheat or buckwheat flour, barley and
millet are also grown and used in Japan. Barley is also used to make a
mild refreshing tea. Roasted barley grains are brewed in a pot and served
either hot or cold.
Little fat is used in food preparation as many dishes are eaten raw,
pickled, steamed or boiled, barbecued, or as soup. Few dishes are fried
and this is mostly done in seed oil.
SWEETS AND SNACKS
Japanese do not eat many sweets in the sense of consuming candies, cakes,
pastries. However, much sugar is used in the seasoning of dishes rather
than in actual sweet desserts. Sugar came into use in Japan in the late
1500s and has been an indispensable ingredient ever since. Even the
Japanese soy sauce called shoyu is considerably sweeter than the
Chinese version. Japanese snacks are not sweets. Most often they are
snacks of skewered broiled meats, sushi, or noodle dishes.
Since the goal of Japanese cuisine is to present foods with artful
simplicity and natural beauty, seasonings are always subtle. Any flavor
that is pronounced, such as horse radish or scallions, is most often added
by the diner at the table so the powerful tastes do not override the
delicate ones. It is also interesting to note that in Japanese cookery
seasonings are added only one at a time and in a strictly specified order,
never all at once.
Shoyu, miso, dashi, and ajinomoto are the most
popular seasonings. Shoyu is slightly sweetened soy sauce. Made
from fermented bean paste, miso is mostly used to flavor thick
soups called misoshiru. Dashi is clear base made from a
broth of dried fish and dried seaweed. It can be purchased commercially
prepared but is usually made at home. A small square of kombu
(dried kelp) is placed in water and brought to a boil then removed.
Shavings of katsuobushi (dried piece of bonito with green mildew on
it) are then added and removed as soon as the broth returns to a full
boil. The resulting liquid, seasoned with a dash of ajinomoto
(Japanese monosodium glutamate) is dashi.
Vinegar and sugar are widely used. Sansho, a native pepper, and
yuzu, citrus flavoring from peel, as well as sesame seeds (black and
white), red peppers, hot mustard, horse radish, shiso leaves and berries,
fresh ginger root, and occasionally peanuts, ground walnuts, and ginkgo
nuts round out the seasoning "shelf" of the Japanese kitchen.
Rice wine called sake and fortified rice wine called mirin or
toso are often used to enhance flavors as well.
Tea is the number one drink in Japan. Tea accompanies meals, is taken as a
refreshment, and is the indispensable ingredient and symbol in the
exquisite Chanoyu (tea ceremony). Green teas are favored and there
are many different types. Matcha is the fine powdered green tea
reserved especially for the Chanoyu, while gyokuru
(literally, "gem-dew") is considered next to matcha. Other green
teas include aoyagi or aoyanagi, sen-cha and
ban-cha, which are coarser, and habu-cha. Kombu-cha is a
tea made from seaweed, while mugi-cha is a tea brewed from toasted
wheat or barley grains and taken cold, especially in hot humid weather.
Sake is made from fermented rice in a process similar to beer making. This
mild yeasty-flavored wine is served warm in tiny cups called sakazuki
and poured from an individual porcelain or pottery flask called tokkuri
to accompany meals. Mirin is the type used in cooking. Toso
is used for special occasions. Sake contains about 20 percent
alcohol – most wines are about 10 percent – so despite its gentleness on
the tongue, it is potent. Beer is also enjoyed, usually brewed from
inferior rice or sweet potatoes, called sochu. There is also a
growing demand for Scotch whiskey.
Coffee enjoys some popularity in Japan. Water is never drunk as such, milk