Japan and Tokyo are the crowning country and capital of the culinary world, surpassing France and Paris with their number of restaurants with Michelin Stars. However, as the dust settles from the usurping of the crown from the traditional king, it is important to remember that the finest food from the finest chefs always has a humble beginning. In my opinion, some of Japan’s best kept food secrets can be found in its traditional country inns and within the homes of loving families.
Principles of Japanese Cuisine
No other country on Earth places as much importance as Japan on the process of preparation and the presentation of food.
Being famous in the modern world as the home of technological innovation, the quest for perfection naturally has made its way onto people’s plates. I don’t think that it is just the ingredients, seasoning or techniques alone that set our cuisine apart, but also the combination of appearance and presentation of food.
We have a saying that you enjoy a meal with your sight first, and with taste second. The skillful arrangement of food on appropriate and beautiful tableware adds so much to the enjoyment of the meal that it sometimes cannot be stressed enough. You may find in many Japanese restaurants, foods are often served in small portions, artfully arranged on individual dishes. We love to give consideration to how the colours and textures of foods served together complement each other, and this adds to the richness and depth of the dining event. However, in my personal opinion, it’s the company that rounds off the dining experience the most.
Principle of Five Key Ingredients
The five key ingredients that are essential to Japanese cooking are: soy sauce, cooking sake (ryorishu), mirin, miso and daishi (Japanese stock). Every Japanese household will have these ingredients in its pantry. If you want to expand your repertoire, my recommendation is to add rice vinegar, Japanese mayonnaise (affectionately known as yum-yum sauce) and wasabi. With these core ingredients you can pretty much create the vast majority of popular Japanese dishes.
The Secret to Long Life
People often comment to me that Japanese people don’t seem to put on weight and are renowned for long life - especially people from Okinawa! One of the secrets is the diet the Japanese people have eaten for the past thousand years.
The three main dishes in a Japanese meal are rice, miso soup and pickles, with a high consumption of fish, vegetables, seaweed and soy bean products. Rice is one of the major food groups but we make sure our meals are very well-balanced with these accompaniments. Often a meal is also proportionately heavy with vegetables, fish and other seafood, which are non fattening foods compared to meat. Often these are grilled, steamed or made into a soup, so have no or low fat content.
Also, Japanese cooking does not traditionally use much oil - this is to allow the natural flavour of the ingredients to make their way to your taste buds. While we do enjoy a multitude of different techniques to cook fish (such as grilled, pan-fried, in a stew, in a soup or dried), sashimi or raw fish is an iconic delicacy enjoyed by Japanese and Japanophiles.
My mum says that when people are young, they need lots of energy to run around and be boisterous - that is, be kids! - so they have a massive craving for meat and substantial meals. However, as people age, this craving changes. We tend to move away from meat - beef, pork and chicken - to a diet heavy in fish and seafood. When a Japanese person hits 30 to 40 years of age, they tend to eat seafood-based meals two to three times a week.
A Cooking School Favourite - Sushi
Sushi is now one of the most popular snack foods in the world and has iconic status globally. Interestingly, sushi actually originated in Southeast Asia rather than Japan. I read that over 2,400 years ago, fish was preserved by fermenting it with a combination of rice and salt. Somewhere along the line Japanese started consuming the rice with raw fish and this has consequently found its way to becoming the national dish of Japan.
One thing I found fascinating is westerner’s obsession with sushi - one can go to almost any city in the world, stand in the CBD at lunchtime and watch office workers carrying full or half-eaten plastic boxes with sushi inside! Prior to arriving in New Zealand, I only eat sushi on special occasions such as Autumn festivals, birthdays and New Year’s celebrations.
Salmon is a very popular seafood in Japan and is very easy to cook with. Click here for my take on a sushi recipe using Regal Salmon, Sashimi Plate or for something extra special try my Beetroot and Plum Wine Cured Regal Salmon.