Please Your Palate the Japanese Way
By “Awake!” correspondent in Japan
HAVE you ever eaten at a Japanese restaurant? If so, you may have eaten sukiyaki, a dish that includes small pieces of beef along with vegetables, or tempura, which is breaded meats and vegetables that are fried. But did you know that in Japan we seldom eat these dishes, except in restaurants? It reminds one of Chinese chop suey, which is not a typical dish of that country either.
What, then, do we Japanese people in Japan usually eat on an everyday basis? And how do we prepare this food?
A Japanese Breakfast
Our main dish in the morning is hot, steaming, fluffy rice. Along with this we have miso soup, as important to the Japanese diet as rice. To round off our breakfast, we may have several types of pickled radish, known as tsukemono, and green tea. Also, many families will enjoy a side dish of baked fish. Now, would you not say that this is a nourishing meal with which to start off the day?
Of course, the preparation of the rice is what makes the meal appetizing. Japanese rice is practically always soaked before it is cooked. In fact, the last thing a Japanese housewife will do before she goes to bed is wash the rice for the next morning and leave it to soak overnight.
Most modern Japanese housewives have electric rice cookers. These indicate the amount of rice and water to add, and they automatically turn off when the rice is finished. However, many Japanese housewives still use a pot with a heavy lid that will not come off when the rice boils. For our family of five, I use three and three-quarters cups of rice.
I cook the rice in about four cups of water. If softer rice is desired, more water is added; for harder rice, add less water. After the rice and water are brought to a boil, the heat is lowered, and the rice is allowed to simmer about twenty minutes until all the water is absorbed. In the middle of cooking it is a good idea to turn the pan several times so that the rice is cooked evenly. Now the heat is turned off, and, without removing the lid, the rice is allowed to steam for ten to fifteen minutes. It is now ready to eat.
The base for miso soup is made from soybeans, wheat or rice, and salt. This mixture is put into a wooden tub to ferment, forming a thick paste.
To make the soup, we first prepare a broth, either from dried fish or from dried seaweed. Then we add some of this miso paste to the broth. While the soup is good this way, some like it better when a sliced radish or onion or perhaps fish is added. As the Japanese diet is quite starchy, this miso soup provides the vitamins needed to keep us healthy. Miso soup is so popular in Japan that there are some restaurants here that sell only this soup.
For lunch, frequently the rice left over from breakfast is packed into a small box, or bento. A few pickles, some leftover bits of meat and vegetables may be put on top of it. This makes a fine take-with-you box lunch.
For lunch at home, I may make ochazuke. All that I do is pour hot green tea on the leftover rice. The Japanese love the taste of this green tea and rice together. It is a warm dish in the winter, and when a person prefers to eat lightly in the summertime, it is quite delicious.
As you can see, the average Japanese family eats lots of rice, usually for breakfast, lunch and supper. And Japanese cooks have developed some unique ways of preparing it too.
“Sushi,” a Popular Dish
Sushi can best be described as seasoned rice that is shaped. In a large bowl, we place about six cups of cooked rice. In a small bowl, we mix together a half cup of vinegar, two and a half teaspoons of salt and three tablespoons of sugar. The vinegar mixture is added little by little to the rice while, at the same time, a wooden spoon or spatula is used to mix it into the rice with a cutting motion. At this time it is a good idea to fan the rice to cool it so it will be easy to handle.
Now, when it is cool enough, the hands are wet with the remaining vinegar mixture, and a handful of rice is taken up in one hand. Then, with the other hand’s index and middle fingers, the rice is molded into an oblong shape. If the rice is not too cold, it should stick together nicely.
Placing a dab of green horseradish and a thin slice of one’s favorite raw fish on top of the shaped rice completes this type of sushi. There are many different types of raw seafood used in making sushi, including tuna, shrimp, octopus and squid.
Sushi must be dipped in soy sauce and eaten with green tea to be really tasty. The inexperienced one eating sushi may find that it takes two or three bites to finish off just one sushi. So a person may be surprised to see even the most dainty Japanese lady stuffing a whole sushi into her mouth with chopsticks and still managing to carry on a conversation.
Another popular type of sushi is made by rolling the rice in a sheet of dried seaweed, with a strip of pickled radish or raw cucumber in the middle. These “rice rolls” are then sliced and arranged on a plate with the cut side up.
It requires an expert to prepare sushi properly. Therefore, many families here have their favorite sushi shop, where they call at almost any time and order fresh sushi delivered to their door. Among Japanese, young and old alike, sushi is a favorite.
Typically Japanese Foods
Seaweed is a very basic taste in our Japanese cooking, and is often part of the daily diet in one form or another. It is generally dried and used as a base for delicious soups, or is used in making a variety of rolled sushi.
Also, fish is usually served every day in one way or another. Since our country is surrounded on all sides by the sea, one can understand the prominence of seafood in the Japanese diet. Various types of fish are dried and used in making soups, or held over a flame until crispy brown.
Raw fish is especially delicious, at least to our taste. The average family will buy sliced fresh fish from the nearby fish market. The fish is generally dipped in soy sauce and seasoned with horseradish. Some of the more common types are carp, tuna, bonito, and flatfish.
When some persons first think of eating raw fish, it may not sound appetizing. However, when the fish is seen attractively arranged on a platter, thinly sliced and accompanied by a pretty array of vegetables, it becomes quite appealing, even to one who may not have tried it before.
While rice is basic in our diet, there are also several types of noodles that are popular among Japanese. These are cooked briefly in a soup made from soy sauce, sweet rice wine, and with perhaps a few vegetables added. The soup is served in a bowl, and is eaten with chopsticks. Some seem to feel that the noodles are much tastier when they are eaten with great speed and a slurping noise.
The outstanding flavoring in Japanese cooking is soy sauce, often with sugar added. Soy sauce improves the taste of the food and, being made from soybeans, wheat and salt, has much nutritional value. Foods cooked in soy sauce with sugar added can be preserved longer than foods cooked in just soy sauce.
Preparation for Supper
Most Japanese housewives buy their food fresh every day. So around 4 p.m. the housewife will stop whatever she may be doing, pick up her market basket and money, and without even taking off her apron, set off for the nearest vegetable and fish markets. She will often go to several different shops, where vegetables may be reasonably priced. Many housewives prefer the small shops to the modern supermarkets.
Back at home, a high-pitched sound may be heard getting louder and louder. Sure enough, here comes a man blowing a horn as he peddles his bicycle. His rickety bicycle is piled so high with trays that one would think he was in danger of tipping over. He brings to the doorstep an important item in Japanese food—tofu, or bean-curd cake. It may be described as a soybean jello, a fine addition to an evening meal.
In the kitchen, the meal is prepared simply, but with attention to making it appealing to the eye.
The Main Meal of the Day
The morning and noon meals are usually rather light; however, the evening meal is the one to which everyone looks forward. It is a time for our family to spend some time together, discussing the day’s activities. At this meal we eat slowly, really savoring the flavor. And, for many Japanese men, it is a time to enjoy some sake or rice wine.
As the family waits, the table begins to fill up with each person’s assortment of small bowls, saucers and plates. What is in all these dishes?
One small bowl holds hot, steaming rice; another has the miso soup. There is a small bowl containing boiled seaweed, with a dressing of miso paste and tiny whole fish. Another plate holds several varieties of pickled radish; still another has tofu. Also, there is a plate with dried and baked fish, complete with heads, eyes and tails. As a special treat, there is a platter of raw fish, sliced octopus and squid—all delicacies for the evening meal.
The table becomes crowded, but the family keeps adjusting and readjusting the bowls until they all fit. Here is a tiny saucer for the soy sauce, which is a must at all meals, and for each one there is a small handleless cup for green tea. It can be a real delight to eat from a number of bowls, taking a bite here and there, and flavoring everything with a mouthful of rice and a sip of tea.
A Japanese Speciality
A Japanese speciality is nabe ryori, or “cooking in a pot.” The cooking is done in a pot or pan on a burner in the center of the table. Vegetables and meat are cooked in a broth, and everyone takes from the one pot with his or her own chopsticks.
One kind of nabe ryori is called mizutaki. To make it, we use a widemouthed cooking pot about six inches deep. In the pot, we first make a stock from fried seaweed, dried tunny fish, or from either fresh or dried mushrooms. If these are not available, bouillon will serve the purpose. The stock should not have a strong flavor or it will override the flavor of the vegetables to be added later. Salt may be added.
Vegetables commonly used are Chinese cabbage, either round or long green onions, long or round mushrooms, and any type of green vegetable that will cook quickly, such as raw spinach. If it is available, tofu is added. Thinly sliced meat, such as pork, beef or chicken, even white fish, can also be used. All the vegetables and meat should be cut and arranged attractively on platters.
When the stock is boiling, some of each type of vegetable and meat is added in an eye-appealing way. Then when something is cooked to one’s liking, it is taken from the pot with one’s chopsticks, and the hostess adds some more vegetables to take its place. In this way there is a continuous pot of boiling meat and vegetables. The steaming-hot vegetables and meat are dipped into a mixture of soy sauce, lemon juice or vinegar and grated radish. What a relaxing and enjoyable way to eat! At least we here in Japan think so.
However, regardless of what country one lives in or what type of cooking one may prefer, there is one element important to good cooking everywhere. This is love, which motivates one to want to prepare something delicious and nutritious for one’s family. Perhaps sometime out of love you will want to try pleasing your family’s palates the Japanese way. If you try, you may find they will like it.