Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

Japanese Cooking Methods


There are abundant opportunities for creativity in Japanese cooking. There is great joy in tasting something for the first time and a concentration of skills in producing an original dish or garnish. It is considered commonplace to repeat what was a successful dish — one must always strive to improve. It is for this reason that Japanese cookbooks stress cooking methods rather than recipes, techniques rather than ingredients.

The following are some of the basic methods:

Tempura or Tendon: In 1550, batter-dipped and fried shrimp was introduced to the Japanese by Portuguese traders. The Portuguese did not eat meat on Catholic Ember Days (four times annually); these days came to be known as Quatuor Tempora and the fried shrimp that became the specialty was called Tempura. Tempura now refers to the Japanese cooking method of coating cleaned cut or sliced foods in a light batter and frying quickly in a light vegetable oil. Tendon refers specifically to fried crustaceans. These foods so prepared are served with a base of rice or noodles, accompanied by sauces for dipping.

SAUCES: Aside from those sauces providing obviously contrasting flavors – for instance, shoyu, hot mustard or grated horse radish – most sauces are made from the boiled stock of trimmings and entrails. Sauce is well reduced then finished with a small amount of dashi, shoyu, grated fresh ginger-root, or horse radish.

Sushi: Refer Breads and Grains in Japanese Foods section.

Sashimi: a method of preparing thinly sliced raw fish or chicken and sometimes raw lobster, shrimp, or clams garnished with paper-thin slices of raw vegetables. They are eaten by dipping into a light sauce seasoned with shoyu or horse radish. Sometimes sashimi is prepared by dipping the raw slices of fish or vegetables very briefly in boiling water before eating. Fresh ocean fish is best for this method.

Fugu Sashimi: the highly skilled preparation of raw blowfish. Since the liver and ovaries contain a lethal poison, incorrect handling or preparation could contaminate the meal. More than 100 dead each year are mute testimony that eating this delicacy is fraught with danger.

SOUPS: There are basically three types of soups:

Suimono: clear broths made from bits of meat, fish, bones, trimmings, entrails, skins, etc. These are strained and flavored lightly with salt, shoyu, and dashi.

Misoshiru: thicker and heavier soups made with the addition of miso, fermented bean paste. Substantial soups that are more like chowders or thin stews and make a meal in themselves, these may be made from fish or chicken.

Zoni: this is a special soup made for New Year’s, comprising a rich chicken broth with slivers of chicken meat but flavored with Japanese herbs (nanakusa) and fish paste (kamaboko). Threads of lemon and spinach and sprinkles of shoyu and dashi complete the soup. To serve, Zoni is poured over specially made cakes called o-mochi.

SUKIYAKI: suki means a plow and yaki means roasted. This dish is cooked at the table in front of the diners, with the ingredients artfully sliced and arranged on a platter. Sukiyaki is usually made with prime quality tender beef and an array of vegetables which may include onions, leeks, types of seaweed, carrots, radishes, squares of tofu, shirataki (Japanese noodles), spinach, bean or bamboo shoots or sprouts, konnyaku (devil’s loot squares), and mitsuba (marsh parsley). The liquids to be added are water, sake, and shoyu. Nabe is the frying pan which is placed over a hibach or hibachi, an earthenware cooking pot heated with charcoal embers.

The cooking ritual of Sukiyaki begins with the sauces heating in the pan, then the meat slices are browned, and finally the vegetables, pushed each to one side as they are cooked.

The meal is begun with a clear soup, sake or beer served throughout, rice served before or after the Sukiyaki. Foreigners like to eat the rice with the sauces; to the Japanese this is unthinkable. Rice is revered and is savored usually by itself. The meal concludes with fresh fruit and then tea.

Beef is the classic meat, but any other fish, meat, or seafood and any vegetable variety may be used.

YAKITORI: Spit-roasted meats or foods grilled on tiny wooden skewers are prepared by this process. Often the meats are marinated first, basted with the marinade while roasting (miso or dashi-shoyu marinade), and dipped in sauces while eating. Finely minced ginger or horseradish may enhance the flavors. Teriyaki is one version using shoyu and mirin as marinade.

NIMONO: This refers to boiled foods. This is also called one-pot cooking and may be done at the table or in the kitchen. Meats or seafood (in appropriate pieces) are boiled in the broth then removed and kept hot. Vegetables are then added and boiled until done, then removed. The cooked, slivered vegetables and sliced meats are well drained, placed on a plate, and served with a little broth as sauce.

MUSHIMONO: This is the classification that includes all steamed foods. There are three main methods:

  1. Various ingredients are steamed in individual bowls and served in the same dishes.
  2. Foods are steamed in one large platter or in layers of platters in a large steamer and then portioned out individually.
  3. Prepared foods are arranged over hot coarse salt in a special earthenware (unglazed) dish called a horoku. The fresh foods placed on the scalding-hot salt release their own moisture to steam-cook the foods. The dish is covered during cooking time.

Dobin: a small teapot used for steaming single dishes.

Chawan-Mushi: Classic dish of sliced chicken, shrimp, mushrooms with chestnuts or ginkgo nuts layered in individual dishes with an egg custard poured over. After steaming till set, the dishes are garnished with a sprinkle of lemon juice and lemon slivers.

Odamaki-Mushi: Similar to Chawan-Mushi except that on the bottom is a layer of noodles that are topped with ham, sliced fish paste, vegetable slices, and finally the egg custard. A sprinkle of lemon juice sharpens the taste before eating.

AGEMONO OR KARAAGE style: Kara means empty and age to fry. Tendon and tempura are part of this style, although generally the term refers to foods pre-dipped in cornstarch and lightly fried in a little oil.

SALADS: Japanese “salads” are made from pre-cooked vegetables, meats, fish or seafood, cooled and dressed and served as zensai (appetizers), side dishes, or small separate courses. Each of the ingredients may be arranged in little mounds and sliced, chopped, grated, or shredded. The dressing is called aemono (or mixture). Tsukemono refers to pickled vegetables while sunemono means vinegared dishes. These are usually eaten accompanied with many rounds of sake. Pickling is done with salt or salt and rice bran to aid fermentation.

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