The food of Japan varies considerably throughout the country, which stretches from the cold north to the subtropical south. The dominant crop is rice; and fish, rather than meat, is the most important protein food. An indispensable part of the national diet is the giant white radish, or daikon.
Japanese cooking is subtle, emphasizing the natural aroma or taste of the food being prepared, with little seasoning added. Since it is considered barbarous to have a cutting utensil on the table, food is always served in bite-size pieces so that it can be picked up with a chopstick, the only utensil used at the table.
Ingredients and Preparation
Rice is the staple food, and since ancient times it has been served at virtually every meal in delicate bowls. Though bread is now widely consumed in Japan, the careful cook still prefers to serve rice.
The soybean is another important staple. From it are derived such products as miso (semi-fermented soybean paste), shoyu (fermented and brine-digested soybean sauce), and tofu (soybean curd, a firm white custard). These foods are used in many dishes, including soups. Other culinary favorites are bamboo shoots, fresh ginger root, lotus root, and wasabi (Japanese horseradish), as well as daikon. For distinct flavors the Japanese use sesame seed, burdock (oyster plant or salsify), sen (Japanese parsley), shungiku (chrysanthemum leaves), kuwai (arrowhead bulb), and fungi.
The shitake (mushroom), which is grown on the bark of oak logs in the humid forests, is the most commonly used fungus and is readily available fresh or dried. The matsutake (wild mushroom) is found in pine forests, where the fallen pine needles retain the moisture and heat necessary for its growth. The shooro (puffball) grows at the base of pine trees.
Other foods indigenous to Japan are varieties of seaweed. The nori (laver), which is dried in sheets of about 8 by 10 inches on a wooden lattice, is used as garnish. Dried konbu (tangle or kelp) is used mainly for soup stock. A dish of rice topped with pickles and moistened with hot tea frequently ends a meal.
Fish is prepared in a wide variety of ways. Fresh fish is sometimes marinated in shoyu and broiled over charcoal. Sashimi (thinly sliced raw fish filet) is dipped into a mixture or shoyu and wasabi paste. Vinegared cold rice topped with slices of raw fish, shrimp, or other seafood, is known as sushi. The popular tempura is composed of shrimp, seafood, or garden vegetables dipped in a light batter of flour and egg and fried quickly in deep fat. Dried bonito is the basic ingredient of many soup stocks.
Beef, pork, or chicken are used in sukiyaki, which is prepared in a heavy iron pan over a flame at the table. The meat is mixed with onions or scallions, spinach greens, bean curd, and vegetables, and is quickly cooked in a blend of shoyu, sugar, and sake (rice wine). The commonly used Japanese beverages include sake, beer, and green tea.
Changes in season are reflected in the choice and manner of serving food. On hot days tofu is cut in cubes, placed in ice chips, and served with chopped scallions, grated fresh ginger, and shoyu. In winter it is served in hot water.
A striking element of Japanese culinary art is the service, which is formal and in keeping with the good manners for which the Japanese are noted. Special ways of slicing and cutting food enhance its appearance and bring out its texture and color. Vegetables are often cut in the shape of flowers. Lemon rind, in the form of a leaf or a flower, garnishes clear soup. Each food is served in a separate container, with the color, design, and shape of the bowl or plate harmonizing with the contents. Soups always come in covered lacquer bowls; sashimi, in an oblong dish. Earthenware servers are used in winter; green chinaware or porcelain in spring; cool-looking glassware in summer; and baskets and basket-styled plates with tinted leaves in autumn.
The entire meal is served at once, but the dishes are eaten in any order. Tradition decrees that a morsel of rice must be eaten first, followed by a sip of soup. A typical Japanese menu might include suimono (a clear, delicately flavored soup, with a vegetable and a piece of fish as garnish) or miso shiru (a soybean paste soup); sashimi; sunomono (a salad containing rice vinegar, a sweet rice called mirin, crabmeat or other cooked sea food, and salt); teriyaki (chicken, beef, pork, or fish marinated and then broiled); Japanese pickles (cabbage or daikon sprinkled liberally with salt and pressed); fresh fruit; rice (semiboiled and then steamed); and green tea.