Food Culture and Tradition

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Glossary of Foods and Food Terms in Japan


Aji-No-Moto: The Japanese name for monosodium glutamate, white crystalline powder prepared from wheat gluten and sugar beet residue, that heightens flavors without adding one of its own.

Cha: Tea. In Japan, green tea is commonly used.

Chanoyu: Ancient Japanese tea ceremony strongly influenced by the principles of Zen Buddhism.

Chawan-Mushi: Most famous of the individual steamed custard dishes. It is made of layered chicken, shrimp, ginkgo nuts, greens all covered with beaten egg then steamed. Eaten with lemon garnish.

Daikon: Long white radish. Turnips make a good substitute for daikon.

Dashi: A basic broth and seasoning used to enhance flavor in many dishes, sauces, and soups. It is made from dried fish (Katsuobushi) and seaweed (Kombu) briefly boiled in water and the flavor is heightened with Aji-No-Moto. Aji-No-Moto may be used as a substitute for Dashi.

Dipping Sauces: Served in tiny individual dishes, these accompany most main dishes and may include a simple vinegar, soy sauce and salt mixture, (e.g. Nihai-Zu) to a more complex cooked sauce thickened with egg yolks and cornstarch (e.g. Kimi-Zul)

Fu: Wheat gluten.

Ginnan: Ginkgo nuts.

Gohan: Rice meal or may refer to rice dishes.

Hakusai: Chinese cabbage. The appearance is similar to celery except stalks are succulent, smooth, and white and the leaves are pale to deep green. Taste somewhere between cabbage and radish.

Hashi: Name given to the chopsticks used at home. They are cleaned after eating and are often valuable.

Hibach or Hibachi: Small portable earthenware or cast-iron grill heated by charcoal embers or sometimes gas. Used for table cooking.

Japanese Ways of Cutting and Slicing: It is an art and each technique has a name. Artistic cutting and slicing to form designs and special shapes has its own vocabulary distinct from routine ways of cutting –

  • Hangetsu-Giri: cutting round slices in half to form crescents.
  • Icho-Giri: cutting round slices in quarters to form wedges.
  • Kakumuki: cutting to remove both ends and then peeling in thick slices.
  • Katsura-Muki: using a broad cutting blade to slice off thin wide sheets.
  • Koguchi-Giri: slicing.
  • Kushigata-Giri: slicing to form quarters, as in slicing an apple into quarters.
  • Men-Tori: peeling the surface thinly.
  • Mijin-Giri: slicing food into long thin strips, bunching them together then slicing finely crosswise to form a fine mince.
  • Naname-Giri: cutting long narrow food strips diagonally, the piece of food is rolled with one hand while it is cut with the other.
  • Sainome-Giri: chopping food in chunks or coarsely by slicing into strips then slicing the gathered strips into rounds or squares coarsely.
  • Sen-Giri: slicing thin sheets of food into narrow strips.
  • Tanzaku-Giri: cutting flat sheets of food into narrow rectangles.
  • Wa-Giri: slicing long round food like carrots, parsnips, etc., in round slices.

Kabayaki: Eels split and broiled on skewers.

Kaiseki: The natural and appealing foods artfully prepared for Chanoyu (tea ceremony), said to be the epitome of excellence.

Kama: Name for the pot used for rice cooking. In many Japanese homes today this has been replaced by the electric rice cooker which is accurate for rice cooking and excellent for re-warming rice.

Kamado: A cooking range built from baked mud, used in rural areas especially to hold the deep iron rice pot called Kama.

Katsuobushi: Dried bonito fish with a residual greenish mildew. It is shaved and used especially for making Dashi.

Kombu: Tangle or dried kelp, a species of seaweed used in many dishes as a seasoning but an especially basic ingredient for making Dashi.

Matcha: The finest-quality highly prized powdered green tea used in Chanoyu (tea ceremony).

Mirin: Sweet rice wine.

Miso: A fermented soybean paste with added salt and malt used as a basic seasoning. Comes in two types: Shirumiso, which is white, and Akamisu, which is reddish.

Misoshiru: A strong broth of Dashi and Miso served with various garnishes, enjoyed most often for breakfast. Aji oil may sometimes be added; this oil is spicy hot because of the addition of Aji peppers.

Mushi Imo: Steamed sweet potatoes lightly seasoned with salt and pepper. Sometimes a quick, inexpensive meal, most often an after-school snack for children. The children’s food is often prepared separately from the adults’ and made milder, less seasoned, and often sweeter.

Mushimono: General category of foods prepared by steaming.

Nasubi: Japanese eggplant.

Negi: Leeks.

Nimono: General category of foods prepared by boiling. Most often this refers to the boiling broth pot set on the table. Slivers of meat, fish, and vegetables are cooked separately and served over rice. The clear broth completes the home meal.

Okazu: Relishes or salads of fresh vegetables lightly dressed with Shoyu and sesame seeds or a mixture of egg yolk and vinegar.

0-Shinko: Japanese version of sauerkraut. Pickled shredded Hakusai (Chinese cabbage).

Owanrui: Soup stock.

Oyatsu: General name for snacks. Most recently these may be tea and pastries or carbonated drinks.

Sashimi: Sliced raw fish usually although sometimes may be raw breast of chicken, or seafood, and occasionally the raw slices may be dipped in boiling water before eating. Most commonly the term refers to thinly sliced fresh raw fish dipped in relish or sauce before eating.

Shabu-Shabu: Like Sukiyaki and Mizutaki (made with chicken), this is a winter dish. Named for the sound of the chopstick-held beef slivers as they are swished in a broth of Dashi and chicken stock. Morsels are dipped into various condiments; finally Tofu and Hakusai (Chinese cabbage) are cooked in the broth and eaten. The last step of the ritual occurs as noodles are added and the soup is enjoyed as a finale to the meal. Many restaurants specialize in this.

Shoyu: Japanese soy sauce, sweeter than the Chinese version.

Shumai: Steamed filled dumplings. Can he made with filled dough or with a thin flour batter poured over the mounded fillings before steaming to cook. A Chinese dish much enjoyed in Japan.

Soba: Buckwheat noodles, considered symbolic of luck and happiness, therefore eaten on festival clays and given as gift to people in new homes.

Suimono: Clear broth soups.

Sukiyaki (pronounced Skee-yah-kee): Suki means plow, yaki means roasted. But, in Japan, “roasted” really means grilled or broiled, and in the case of this famous dish, stir-fried. Thinly sliced meat, fish, or seafood plus vegetables are cooked in specified order in a nabe (frypan) at the table. The meal begins with clear broth, sake served throughout, and white rice eaten with or after the main dish.

Sunemono: Relishes or salads of cooked or raw vegetables, finely sliced, grated or shredded and prepared with vinegar.

Suribachi: A wooden bowl with finely grooved lines on the inside. When ingredients (especially herbs or seeds) are rubbed against the grooves with a wooden pestle, they are quickly reduced to a pulpy mass.

Sushi: The name for the general category of vinegared rice snacks or appetizers – classical Japanese foods – made in many forms – wrapped, sliced, cakes, halls. Their different names indicate their style and ingredients. Because they are picked up and can he eaten with the fingers, they are a favorite snack or picnic food.

Tai: Sea bream, a common fish, widely used.

Tamago: A rectangular pan with a handle, used to prepare rectangular omelets.

Tempura: Batter-fried shrimp. Both the batter and the frying oil in the Japanese cuisine are light and delicate in appearance and flavor. Sliced meats, fish, and vegetables are in turn batter-dipped and fried right at the table. Diners may dip the foods in sauces before eating. Originated from Portuguese traders.

Teppanyaki: Japanese cooking technique common in restaurants. Sliced foods are cooked by the stir-fry method in front of diners. The table center is actually a huge gas or charcoal-heated plate on which the food is cooked.

Teriyaki: Generally refers to morsels of foods marinated in Shoyu and Mirin then broiled on skewers. But it may also refer to the process of spit-roasting or barbecuing. In any case, it is the sauce used as marinade, cooking, and dipping sauce that gives the foods an appealing brown glaze.

Tofu: Soybean curd, used in soups and dishes, much loved. A staple in the Japanese diet.

Tsukemono: Vegetables that have been pickled with salt or a salt and bran mixture to hasten fermentation. Used as relishes or salads.

Udon: Japanese macaroni.

Unagi Domburi: Popular dish of split grilled eels served over rice and with dipping sauces.

Warihashi: Chopsticks used in restaurants. Sometimes paper-packed, they are made from one piece of wood and must be pulled apart – this ensures that no one else has used them. They are inexpensive and discarded after use.

Yakitori: Spit- or skewer-roasted pieces of marinated chicken.

Yuba: Dried soybean curd.

Yuzu: A lime like citrus fruit, the peel of which is often dried and powdered and used for flavoring and garnish.

Zensai: Appetizers.

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