The traditional Japanese cuisine is based on the combination of one staple food, and one or more main dish and side dish. Also, clear soup or popular miso soup can be consumed in addition to these. Yet, there is a saying for this: ichiju sansai, which means “one soup, three sides”.
A staple food can be rice or noodle and side dishes generally are fish, pickled vegetables or vegetables cooked in broth. Seafood and fishes are very common in Japanese cuisine because the nation consists of many islands which are surrounded by the ocean. Fish and seafood are consumed as grilled, raw or deep-fried. For example, if it is not cooked, it is called sashimi (but also can be found in sushi) or if it is deep-fried, it is called tempura. Other than these, most commonly used words in Japanese cuisine are soba and udon (noodles), oden (simmered fish cooked in broth), sukiyaki and nikujaga(same for beef). If you would know at least these basic words, it should not be hard to order food in a Japanese restaurant even if you do not know the language.
Generally, each dish is served in different bowls or plates like the staple food, rice. Even at homes, the meal is served like this. This is also related to Japanese food etiquette and table manners. When having a meal, as each individual has its own bowls/plates, the person should eat only from his/her portions. If there are shared food placed on the middle of the table, it should be moved with the opposite end of chopsticks because it is rude to touch food with used chopsticks.
Typical Japanese recipes include soy sauce, miso, and umeboshi (pickled plums) rather than red meat, oils and fats, and dairy products. Even though the low-sodium versions are available, these commonly used ingredients have high salt content. Nevertheless, Japanese cuisine may be considered as healthy. Because the meals always consist of vegetables (prepared in different ways) which provide vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants, and fibre all at the same time. Commonly used seaweed products are rich for calcium and iron. Also, by consuming fish, daily intake of high-quality protein, omega 3, and vitamin D can be easily fulfilled. This is the other reason why of serving Japanese dishes in separate bowls; to control the portion sizes and calorie intake. Other than this, some meals and especially desserts are served with green tea to provide antioxidants.
On the other hand, the Japanese food culture gives much importance to seasons and its colourful ingredients at the same time. Even the dishware is changed according to the season. Did you know that in order to become a sushi chef, years of training must be completed! The reason for this is being capable of highlighting the colours of various ingredients are not an easy thing to do and this is what is taught during those training years.
1. Ramen: Noodles which are based on either meat broth or fish broth. To enrich the flavour, soy sauce or miso are used. Typical toppings can be pork, dried seaweed, and green onions. Also, many variations do exist.
2. Tempura: Meaning of deep-fried vegetables or seafood. There are many different ingredients that can be made such as prawn, fish, crab, broccoli, green beans, etc.
3. Gyoza: Commonly preferred as a starter or side dish. This type of dumplings are filled with meat and vegetables, and the shape of it looks like a half-moon.
4. Sushi: This very-popular dish is made from vinegared rice consists of sugar and salt, seafood, and vegetables.
5. Sashimi: Much like sushi but made without the rice. This thinly sliced salmon or tuna is served along with soy sauce, ginger, and wasabi.
6. Mochi: Well-known dessert made from pounded glutinous rice. In order to make it sweet, red bean paste is used and because of this, the texture becomes sticky.
7. Kakigori: An original shaved-ice dessert made with syrup, sweeteners and condensed milk. Strawberries, cherries, lemons, and green tea might be the most commonly consumed ones.
8. Anmitsu: In order to make the agar jelly, red algae is used. It is basically made by mixing this into water or fruit juice. It is served in small cubes which are served in a small bowl along with sweet Azuki bean paste, peas, and fruits like peach, pineapple or cherries.
9. Namagashi: Is known with its top decoration motifs (leaves and flowers) which changes according to each season. It is made from fruit jellies and other sweets like red bean paste.
10. Bento Box: Home-packed meal, that holds rice or noodles, fish or meat, with pickled and cooked vegetables, all in a box. Bento boxes are becoming more and more common in Malaysia and almost every restaurant offers this set, especially for lunch.
Besides these mouthwatering traditional Japanese recipes, there are typical don (literally means bowl) rice bowl dishes which should be tried at least once. There are many variations consisting of different ingredients of meat, fish, and vegetables. The key point of making a donburi is steaming the ingredients together which are served over rice in oversized bowls. The simmering sauce may change according to the ingredients of each season. The most common version consists of fish and seaweed stock which is flavoured with soy sauce and mirin (sweet rice wine).
1. Katsudon: The most typical Katsudon is prepared with breaded and deep-fried pork and onions. After simmering these ingredients together, it is mixed with a beaten egg and finally served over rice.
2. Gyudon: This time beef is simmered with onions along with a mildly sweet sauce. The sauce is also flavoured with dashi, soy sauce, and mirin. It may also include shirataki noodles and an egg (raw or poached) on top. A Gyudon is generally served with pickled ginger, ground chilli pepper, and miso soup on the side.
3. Unadon: Is made with a famous fish, eel. Also known as the first invented donburi dish. Fillets of grilled eel are first steamed, later grilled and then sweetened in soy sauce and served over rice. Also, tare sauce is poured over on top along with Japanese peppers.
When we look at the ingredients of Japanese dishes', the similarities leap to the eye. So what are the most commonly used and popular ones? The first one could be the soy sauce for sure! It is either used in the cooking process or as a dipping sauce for many recipes. Soy sauce has an important role in Japanese cuisine and generally consumed instead of salt. On the other hand, soybeans are not only used for making soy sauce but also used to make soy milk and tofu as well. Even the paste of it is made from the fermented ones.
If you are going to have sushi as a meal, be ready to see the triples; soy sauce, ginger, and wasabi! Yes, ginger and wasabi are the other must-have ingredients in Japanese food culture. Other than these, different kinds of seaweeds are much preferred like wakame and nori. They can be seen especially in soups or as being a wrap for maki sushi rolls.
Apart from these, since fish is very much consumed in Japanese cuisine, the smell of some fishes can be strong and needed to be removed. In order to do it, mirin is used. It is a type of rice wine, similar to sake but not exactly the same. The difference between the two is the intensity of alcohol and sugar level. Mirin has a lower rate than sake. Except these, rice and red bean paste could be the most inevitable ingredients of this cuisine. Almost every main dish includes rice in different ways, and most desserts and sweets are based on or include red bean paste.
Dining and table manners
If you haven’t had a meal with your Japanese friends at home or at a restaurant, the first time might be shocking since the culture has a lot to say even when dining. For example, making noises like burping while eating is considered as rude but slurping the noodles is definitely a good thing. It is believed that you are enjoying your food and showing your appreciation.
Wasted foods are considered a bad manner and not acceptable (even if it is soy sauce). When ordering, you should think of how much you could eat and not order more than you need. Plus, if the food you would like to order has ingredients that you do not like, replacing them is a good idea.
For the last, there are some “don’ts” that should be known about chopsticks. For instance, the highest level for a chopstick can reach should be your mouth. Holding your chopsticks higher than your mouth is not polite. Besides, sticking chopsticks into a dish or leaving it in a bowl vertically after finishing a meal is not acceptable. It could be left on a chopstick rest.
These manners could seem much when first learning but it is very easy to adapt. We are sure that you would really enjoy having a proper Japanese dish with learning traditional manners that express this meaningful Japanese cuisine.