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The Top Flavors Of Japan

Updated on December 31, 2009

Other than picking up soy sauce from the Chinese in the sixth century A.D., the Japanese with their islands insulated from neighboring culinary influences, have been left to develop their cuisine undisturbed. The result: sophisticated, subtle fare that makes astonishing use of the foods easiest to grow on the rocky terrain.

Soybeans appear in one form or another at every meal. Soy sauce seasons everything, as does miso, a fermented paste of soybean mash used in soups and marinades. Soy milk that has been curded and pressed becomes tofu. The Japanese make marinades for tofu, but often the bland mass is let alone to float in soup, or fried whole in blocks and served with a thick dipping sauce. One popular dish in the humid summers is plain silken tofu, sprinkled with soy sauce, ginger and bonito flakes (shavings from dried blocks of a type of tuna).

Japanese food also depends on seaweed for seasoning. Thick straps of kombu flavor broth and stocks, and add flavor to sushi rice. Nori makes its appearance around rolled sushi or crumbled into seasoned flakes atop rice and soups. And seaweed makes a delightfully briny addition to the crisp vinegared salads called sunomono.

Amidst otherwise mild-mannered food, Japanese condiments provide an unexpected jolt of flavor. Piquant tsukemono (pickles of cucumbers, plums, radishes and eggplants) are a frequent presence on the dinner table, while the pungent pickled ginger, piled in pink wispy heaps on sushi plates, is essential to cleansing the palate between bites. On the far end of the heat scale, we find wasabi, the green-tinted horseradish paste, and mustard, mixed from straight mustard powder and water.

Essential dishes Seafood is an essential part of Japanese meals. Bonito goes into the ubiquitous stock dashi, but it is also sprinkled on rice, strewn over savory pancakes (okonomiyaki) and included in many kinds of gomasio, an all-purpose shake-on seasoning. Sushi is the most well known fish dish, but in Japan it is not a common home dinner, reserved instead for restaurant meals. Pieces of seafood may be sauteed, broiled lightly or simmered in broth at the table, sukiyaki-style. However it is prepared, the fish used in Japanese cookery must be absolutely fresh.

Rice is the final key component of Japanese food, so essential to the definition of a meal that the word gohan means both "a meal" and "boiled rice." Short- or medium-grained white rice is adequate for all purposes in Japanese cooking; in the United States, look for Nishiki or Homai brand rice, raised by Japanese farmers in California.

Japanese food is served with careful attention to its appearance. At the top of this ladder is tea ceremony food (kaiseki). A tea ceremony is a highly ritualized occasion in which all the senses are involved in contemplating the tea, the food and the surroundings. Small courses are garnished and arranged to stimulate the taste buds and appeal to the diner's artistic sensibilities. But even everyday meals are served with an eye to the elegant: the host might select clear dishes in summer to suggest ice, or serve light food on black plates to heighten contrast. Japanese cuisine and its presentation take their cues from the season and the food itself.

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