Rice and seafood are Japanese staples, but there is much more to this Asian cuisine.
These days, when people think Japanese food they almost always think of sushi. A whole subculture has grown up around this mindset, with sushi bars sprouting up all over the country.
As important as these foods are, however, they are not all that Japan has to offer. Anyone who has ever attended the Japanese Food & Restaurant Show, held each fall in New York City, knows how much the availability of artisanal foods from Japan has grown in recent years. Restaurant chefs are becoming more familiar with items such as Kobe and Wagyu beef, cherrywood-smoked sea salt, purple sweet potato vinegar and shoyu, a soy sauce that actually is made with 80% wheat.
Sushi: That being said, sushi is a must for operators looking to satisfy increasingly savvy customers. Here are some things you should know about sushi. First of all, sushi doesn’t have to come in a roll. Only maki sushi is the stereotypical rolled sushi. Sushi refers to any dish made with the sticky sushi rice, which is rice that has been cooked with sushi vinegar, a type of rice vinegar prepared with sugar and salt. Bara sushi is actually a rice salad, chirashi sushi is a bed of rice topped with various ingredients and fukusa sushi is rice wrapped in a thin omelet.
But rolled or not, sushi often is served with sashimi—sliced, raw seafood. (Grilled seafood is known as yakizakana.) Among the popular choices for sashimi are tuna, salmon, eel and shrimp. Soy sauce and wasabi as condiments complete the meal.
Other types of rice dishes include domburi, a rice bowl topped with any variety of foods; onigiri, which are rice balls wrapped in nori seaweed and often filled with some other food and kare raisu, or curry rice.
As ubiquitous as rice may be in the Japanese diet—it is served at every day part—it is not the only starch in the Japanese diet. Noodle dishes are also popular in Japanese cuisine. Among the most common noodles are soba, spaghetti-like noodles made with buckwheat flour; udon, a thicker noodle made with wheat; somen, a wheat flour noodle rolled very thin and ramen, a Chinese import that has become “Japanized.” In Japanese meals, noodles can be served either hot or cold.
Hot pots: Nabe dishes are another popular Japanese meal, particular in colder months. Nabe are prepared in hot pots, usually at the dining table. The ingredients will vary by region and personal taste, but usually include vegetables, mushrooms, and meat or seafood. Some popular nabe dishes are:
—Oden, prepared with fish cakes, daikon, boiled eggs and seaweed, boiled in a soy sauce-based broth
—Sukiyaki, made with sliced meat, vegetables, mushrooms, tofu and noodles
—Shabu-shabu, fondue of hot soup into which meat, vegetables, mushrooms and tofu are dipped. After the soup, the items are dipped into a ponzu or sesame sauce and then eaten
Meat-ier meals: Although much has been written recently about Japanese-raised beef, meat has not been a strong player in Japanese cuisine for much of its history. But since the late 19th century it has become more popular. Its perceived popularity is due to the rise of Japanese hibachi restaurants that, for many years in the U.S., were viewed as the quintessential Japanese restaurant. Hibachi restaurants use the teppanyaki method of cooking meat and fish.
Ironically, in Japan teppanyaki restaurants most often prepare dishes such as okonomiyaki, a pancake-like dish made with meat, seafood and or vegetables; monjayaki, similar to okonomiyaki but made with a thinner, more liquid dough; and yakisoba, noodles stir-fried with pork bites and vegetables and served with a variety of condiments.
Meat dishes most common in Japanese cuisine include yakitori, grilled chicken on skewers; tonkatsu, deep-fried pork cutlets, and nikujaga, literally a meat-and-potatoes meal for the Japanese.
Must have miso: Miso is as important as rice to Japanese cuisine. Miso is made by combining soybeans—sometimes along with another grain—with salt and a mold culture and aged for up to three years, traditionally in cedar vats. The paste that results is dissolved in hot water to make miso soup, a staple of the Japanese diet. Miso is also used to flavor other sauces and condiments.
Other dishes and cooking styles that make up Japanese cuisine include:
—Gyoza, which are dumplings filled with minced vegetables and ground meat and then fried. Gyoza are another dish adopted by the Japanese from China
—Tempura,an import from Portugal, is made by dipping seafood or vegetables in a simple batter of egg and flour and then deep-frying them
—Tsukemono, or pickled vegetables, which often accompany Japanese meals