Japanese cookery has developed over the centuries as a result of many political and social changes. The cuisine finally changed with the advent of the medieval period which ushered in a shedding of elitism with the age of shogun rule. In the early modern era enormous changes took place that introduced non-Japanese cultures, most notably Western culture, to Japan.
Japanese cuisine is based on combining staple foods generally rice or noodles, with a soup and okazu dishes, made from fish, meat, vegetable, tofu and the like, to add flavour to the staple food. They are typically flavoured with dashi, miso, soy sauce and tend to be low in fat and high in salt.
A standard Japanese meal normally consists of several different okazu accompanying a bowl of cooked white Japanese rice (gohan) a bowl of soup and some tsukemono (pickles).
The most standard meal comprises three okazu and is termed ichiju-sansai ("one soup, three sides"). Different cooking techniques are applied to every one of the three okazu; they could be raw (sashimi), grilled, simmered (sometimes called boiled), steamed, deep-fried, vinegared or dressed. This Japanese vision of a meal is reflected in the organization of Japanese cookbooks: Chapters are devoted to cooking techniques as opposed to ingredients. There may be chapters devoted to soups, sushi, rice, noodles and sweets.
As Japan is definitely an island nation its people eat much seafood. Meat-eating has been rare until fairly recently because of restrictions of Buddhism. However, strictly vegetarian food is rare since even vegetable dishes are flavoured with the ubiquitous dashi stock, usually made with katsuobushi (dried skipjack tuna flakes). An exception is shojin ryori, vegetarian dishes developed by Buddhist monks. However, the advertised shojin ryori at public eating places consists of some non-vegetarian elements.
Noodles are a vital part of Japanese cuisine usually as an alternative to a rice-based meal. Soba (thin, grayish-brown noodles containing buckwheat flour) and udon (thick wheat noodles) are the principle traditional noodles and are served hot or cold with soy-dashi flavourings. Chinese-style wheat noodles served in a meat stock broth generally known as ramen became extremely popular over the last century.
With its stunning natural landscape and strong cultural identity, Japan is a once in a lifetime holiday destination. The East Asian island is also home to some deliciously fresh cuisine. Unique and beguiling, Japan is a country of binaries. It straddles both the traditional and ultra-modern, and hosts buzzing cities alongside stunning natural landscapes. Its food is notoriously nutritious, with a diet based around super-fresh, seasonal products. We've picked ten dishes to seek out when visiting Japan.
Sushi - Put simply, sushi is raw fish served on rice seasoned lightly with vinegar. It’s in the variety of flavours and textures – like tangy, creamy uni (sea urchin roe) and plump, juicy, ama-ebi (sweet shrimp) – that things get interesting. Despite sushi’s lofty image, it has a humble origin: street food.
Ramen - Ramen, egg noodles in a salty broth, is Japan’s favourite late night meal. It’s also the perfect example of an imported dish – in this case from China – that the Japanese have made completely and deliciously their own. There are four major soup styles: tonkotsu (pork bone), miso, soy sauce and salt. Fukuoka is particularly famous for its rich tonkotsu ramen; pungent miso ramen is a specialty of Hokkaido.
Unagi - Unagi is river eel grilled over charcoal and lacquered with a sweet barbecue sauce. According to folklore, unagi is the ideal antidote to the heat and humidity of Japan’s stultifying summers. It’s a delicacy evocative of old Japan and most restaurants that specialize in eel have a wonderfully traditional feel. Fresh, wild-caught unagi is available May through October.
Tempura - Light and fluffy tempura is Japan’s contribution to the world of deep-fried foods (though it likely originated with Portuguese traders). The batter-coated seafood and vegetables are traditionally fried in sesame oil and served with either a tiny pool of salt or a dish of soy sauce-flavoured broth spiked with grated radish for dipping. Do not miss out on ebi-ten (tempura prawns).
Kaiseki - Part dinner, part work of art, kaiseki is Japan’s haute cuisine. It originated centuries ago alongside the tea ceremony in Kyoto (and Kyoto remains the capital of kaiseki). There’s no menu, just a procession of small courses meticulously arranged on exquisite crockery. Only fresh ingredients are used and each dish is designed to evoke the current season.
Soba - Soba are long, thin buckwheat noodles – has long been a staple of Japanese cuisine, particularly in the mountainous regions where hardy buckwheat fares better than rice. The noodles are served in either a hot, soy sauce-flavoured broth or at room temperature on a bamboo mat with broth on the side for dipping. Purists, who bemoan soup-logged noodles, prefer the latter.
Shabu-Shabu - Shabu-shabu is the Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound of thin slices of beef or pork being swished around with chopsticks in bubbling broth. It’s a decadent dish, with platters of marbled meat brought to the table for diners to cook themselves – it takes only a moment – one mouthful at a time.
Okonomiyaki - Literally “grilled as you like,” okonomiyaki is Japanese comfort food at its best, and a clear violation of the typical refined image of Japanese food. It’s a savoury pancake filled with any number of things (but usually cabbage and pork) and topped with fish flakes, dried seaweed, mayonnaise and a Worcester-style sauce. It’s also a lot of fun: At most restaurants, diners grill the dish themselves at a hotplate built into the table.
Tonkatsu - Tonkatsu, breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet, dates to the late 19th Century when Japan threw open its doors to Western influence. But never mind the European origin: the ingredients and attention to detail are thoroughly Japanese. Tonkatsu – especially when it’s kuro-buta (Berkshire pork) from Kagoshima – is melt-in-your-mouth tender, served with a side of miso soup and a mountain of shredded cabbage.
Yakitori - A cold beer and a few skewers of yakitori – charcoal grilled chicken – is an evening ritual for many of Japan’s weekday warriors. Nearly every part of the chicken is on the menu, all grilled to perfection, seasoned with either shio (salt) or tare (a sweet soy sauce-based sauce) and served with a side of friendly banter.