Go to that Japanese dinner without fear because, Sushi is not raw fish, Japanese cuisine is not all Sushi and you won’t leave a Japanese restaurant starved even if you are vegetarian!
Raw fish, elaborate, expensive… Japanese cuisine lives under a multitude of misconcetions. With precepts much like Indian cuisine; use of the freshest seasonal local produce, cooking methods that retain natural flavour and presentation that appeals to the eyes, palate, stomach and health, Japanese cuisine need not be shunned as too foreign, just better understood. A primary reason for Japanese cuisine being circumvented is it’s deep connection with seafood. But if the foundation and distinguishing factor of any cuisine is ingredients then being surrounded by the sea as Japan is, it is only natural that Japanese cuisine is seafood based. Underlining this is the fact that red meat was never a part of the Japanese diet and only came in at end of the nineteenth century. Go past the fish dishes however, and you will find that a large number of traditional Japanese dishes an be vegetarian.
In Japan, sushi is considered a luxury typically served only on special occasions. Traditional Japanese fare abounds with steamed, grilled, deep-fried, broiled, one-pot and one bowl dishes; Teriyaki, tempura, Kushiyaki, Donburi and Teppanyaki to name a few, but it would be rare for all of these to be eaten together at the same meal. Each of these are a style of cooking, by itself and would have dedicated restaurants serving just one kind of meal in Japan. For example Sushi-ya or Sushi restaurants would specialize in sushi, Soba-ya would specialize in soba and udon noodle dishes, Tempura-ya in tempura dishes and so forth. It is only because Japanese cuisine is at a nascent stage in India that we are fortunate to find everything under one roof at Japanese restaurants like Sakura, Wasabi or Origami. So order yourself a bowl of Edamame (boiled tender green soybean), green tea and a platter of Sushi and select your meal with a little help from us….
Sushi is the most misrepresented food in the world. “Sushi” refers to the vinegared rice that is the most important ingredient in this dish and not raw fish. Raw fish might be the most popular ingredients used to top or stuff Sushi but it is not the only one. There are many varieties of sushi vegetarians can enjoy including Nigiri-zushi in which toppings - including vegetarian options such as cucumber, asparagus and fried bean curd - are placed on a block of rice and Maki-sushi or “rolled sushi," in which rice and other ingredients are placed on a sheet of seaweed or Nori, rolled into a cylinder with the help of a bamboo mat and cut into smaller pieces. Futo Maki are larger rolls. Vegetarian offerings include rolls made with just vegetables such as cucumber, carrot, shitake mushrooms, avocado and asparagus, pickled vegetables such as Tukuan or Japanese daikon radish, Ume or Japanese plums, pickled cucumber and dried vegetables such as Kanpyou or dried gourd.
While Japanese restaurant menus in India might be course wise it would be unwise to dine on Japanese food by the course. The standard traditional Japanese meal, “Ichiju-sansai” meaning "one soup, three sides" consists of soup, rice, pickles and three dishes or accompaniments is meant to be eaten all together and served all at once - diners wait till all the dishes are assembled at the table - and then eat from their individual bowls of rice, adding soup, pickles and condiments to taste and alternating with morsels of accompaniments. These could be a selection of dishes that each employ a different cooking technique and could include raw Sashimi, grilled foods called Teriyaki, deep fried foods such as tempura and a host of simmered, steamed, vinegared and dressed (with sesame oil or paste) dishes made with meats, and seafood as well as with vegetables and Dofu or Tofu which is an important ingredient in Japanese cuisine.
Table settings follow the ichiju-sansai formula and are laid with five separate bowls and plates. Nearest to the diner are a bowl for rice on the left and another for soup on the right, behind which are three flat plates meant for the accompaniments. Chopsticks are at the very front near the diner, pointed ends facing left and supported by a chopstick holder. This allows diners to appreciate the philosophy behind Japanese dining where the act of eating isn't just about nourishment but begins with the eyes - which is why Japanese dishes are beautifully presented in attractive serving ware - and ends with the palate -it is also the endeavour that natural flavour and texture of the ingredients be preserved, flavours and textures within each dish harmonise and each dish in turn harmonise within the meal as well as with the surroundings, nature and the diner.
Rice is the primary staple of Japanese cuisine possibly due to the high yield it provides in the limited agricultural land available. Usually served boiled, accompanied by a Miso soup and accompaniments in a full meal, rolled into Sushi or topped with a simmered dish in a one bowl meal called Don which is short for a Donburi, rice also has another prominent use in Japan. It is used to make Sake or "Japanese rice wine" which plays the part as grape wine in the West. You could do without Sake but chances are once you taste Japanese food with a small cup of sake, you will never quite forget the combination… Served chilled or warmed, depending on the food it is drunk with, it has an alcohol content of about 16% and comes in a variety of flavours ranging from dry to sweet. Rice wine and vinegars are also popular for cooking, Sake is a popular choice of ingredient for savoury flavours in dishes while Mirin a sweet rice wine is important in Teriyaki's rich flavours.
Japanese cuisine is particular about it’s vegetable quotient. Commonly consumed vegetables include Nira (Chinese chives), Spinach, Cucumber, eggplant, gobo (burdock), Daikon radish, sweet potato, renkon (Lotus root), Takenoko (Bamboo shoot), Negi (Welsh onion), Fuki (butterbur), Moyashi (sprouted mung and soyabean), Kaiware (Radish), Konnyaku (a gelatin producing plant) Sansai (wild vegetables) and a variety of mushrooms including Shitake, Matsu take, Enokitake Shimeji and Eringi. Japanese food also incorporates a variety of Seaweed including Nori, Konbu, Wakame, Hijiki. Vegetabls and seaweed would be served in many ways. Su No Mono are vegetables and/or seaweed, dressed with rice vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, and salt and considered refreshers or palate cleansers after oily dishes. Goma Ae are vegetables dressed with a nutty-flavored sesame paste. Ni Mono are boiled vegetables, especially root vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, or daikon (a kind of radish) cooked with soy sauce, sake, and mirin. Tsukemono are pickled vegetables, usually accompanied with riceand are pretty versatile but at restaurants, they usually serve nukazuke or pickled rice bran, Umeboshi sour pickled plums, Takuan, a strongly flavored yellow pickled daikon and Shiozuke or vegetables pickled with salt.
Noodles, originating from China, are also an important part of Japanese cuisine, usually (but not always) as an alternative to a rice-based meal or in ramen-rice combination sets. There are two main traditional types, Soba, made from buckwheat flour, are thin and brown and served chilled with various toppings or in hot soy-dashi broth and Udon thick white wheat flour, noodles served with various toppings or in a hot soy-dashi broth. Fried versions of Soba and Udon are Yaki soba and Yaki udon. Other lesser known Noodle dishes include Champon which originated in Nagasaki as cheap food for students, Somen which are thin wheat noodles served cold, Okinawa soba which are thick wheat noodles, and Ramen - thin light yellow noodles served in hot broth with various toppings that have grown to b Japan‘s national dish. Noodles are usually served with a soy-flavoured broth and various vegetables and accompaniments.
Just like olive oil is essential to Italian cuisine it is impossible to make authentic Japanese food without Sho yu, Miso and Dashi. Sho yu is Japanese Soya sauce, Miso is a salty, thick, cholesterol free paste made of fermented soybean and is available from white, mild and slightly sweet to and strong salty spicy and dark brown. Besides flavouring Miso soup, it is also used for seasoning stir-fried vegetables sauces and dressings. Dashi is one of several simple stocks fundamental to Japanese cooking. These form the base for miso soup, Japanese noodle broths, and simmering liquids. Most common is a Dashi made by heating Kombu (edible kelp or seaweed) and dried fish in water and then straining the resultant liquid but a vegetarian Dashi is made with Kelp and dried shiitake mushrooms as well.
A handful of Japanese condiments are available to personalise flavours. Wasabi is the pale green powdered root of the Japanese horseradish plant is used to garnish Sushi and add pungency (like Mustard or Mooli but with far more impact) to homemade dressings or sauces. Karashi is mustard, hotter than it’s western counterpart and used as a garnish or added to dressings and sauces. Shichimi or Ichimi Togarashi are Japanese chili powders used for sprinkling over noodles, miso soup, and stir-fried vegetables. Ichimi means one taste and consists of only Japanese chili pepper while Shichimi means seven tastes, and contains seven spices that include chilli, black sesame seeds, poppy seeds and hemp seeds among others. Sesame seeds, sesame oil, Gomashio (sesame salt), Furikake, Walnuts, Peanuts, red pepper, ginger, shiso (a flavourful herb), sansho (Sichuan peppercorn), citrus peel, Mitsuba (a fresh herb) and Monosodium Glutamate are other ingredients used in cooking or as table condiments.
Japanese sweets are called wa-gashi in Japanese, and made of rice, sugar, and red azuki beans. Yokan are sweet azuki bean confections, made from azuki beans, sugar, and agar-agar, Manju are sweet buns made from wheat-or rice-flour, azuki bean, and sugar and the beautiful Higashi which are little dry confectionery, served at the famed Japanese tea ceremony made from rice flour and sugar, tese are often colored and molded into natural figures such as a leaves or flowers. Wa-gashi can be very sweet and go well with bitter green tea.
First came “Indian” Chinese, then Italian and Thai and as India is poised to enter what seems to be a culinary revolution, Japanese cuisine seems to be the new flavour on the menu. The Sakura restaurant at the Metropolitan hotel Nikko New Delhi was the first Japanese restaurant in India but rather upscale. Recent times have seen an increase in the availability of Japanese food with the opening of Wasabi by Morimoto at the Taj Mahal Hotel, and Sushi appearing on the menus of the Pan Asian at the Maratha Sheraton, Spices at the J W Marriott, Tiffin at the Oberoi, Spices at the J.W.Marriott and Japengo at CR2, Seijo and the Soul Dish but with the opening of India’s first stand alone Japanese Origami at Atria mall shows that Japanese is here to stay.
This article first appeared in ME magazine on 31 dec 2006
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Buri Nazar Wale - TERA MU KALA!!