The traveller's guide to Japanese cuisine

The menu takes practice, but none of the flavours get lost in translation


ISN'T JAPANESE FOOD ALL RAW FISH AND SUSHI?

ISN'T JAPANESE FOOD ALL RAW FISH AND SUSHI?

Not at all, but with 33,000km of coastline on an archipelago of approximately 1,000 (mainly mountainous) islands with little land for grazing cattle and a long tradition of Buddhism which prohibited the eating of land animals, Japan has relied on fish as an important part of the diet for centuries.

The Japanese consume around 8.5 million tonnes of seafood a year, that's over 70 kilos per person - over a kilo every week in fact. Not all of this is eaten in sushi bars. However, the Japanese love of eating fish raw comes from the importance they attach to freshness of ingredients. There is a saying in Japan, that the best cooking is the least cooking, and when fish is really fresh that's how they prefer it: uncooked, the better to savour the natural taste of the fish itself. Raw fish is called sashimi, not sushi which actually refers to the vinegared rice ( su meaning vinegar) on top of which the raw fish or other ingredients sit.

HOW WILL I KNOW WHAT TO ORDER?

You'll be pleased to know that conveyor belt sushi ( kaiten-zushi) is as popular in Japan as it is here, and the system is the same. Just select what you like the look of as it trundles past. Prices are indicated by the colour of the plate, and the bill totted up according to the number of plates.

For an authentic Japanese experience a visit to a traditional sushi bar is a must. For one thing you get to watch the chef (called ita-mae, meaning the one who stands in front of the chopping board) demonstrate his skills. Observe him carefully as he slices the fish and makes the rolls - a free sushi-making lesson!

You'll also discover that freshly cooked rice, still ever so slightly warm, takes sushi onto an altogether different plane from the chilled supermarket stuff we have inflicted on us here. And if you're going to become an aficionado, bear in mind that lunchtime, not evening, is the best time to eat sushi - the fish will be fresher. Better still, have it for breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market itself.

WHAT ELSE CAN I TRY?

Even the Japanese don't eat sushi every day. What they do eat every day, however, is rice. Rice is considered the main dish in Japanese cuisine, and the word for cooked rice, gohan, also means meal. A Japanese mother will say to her family "Gohan desu yo!" - "Rice is ready", meaning "Grub's up!" Incidentally, rice is always served hot, but many other dishes are meant to be eaten at room temperature, so don't be disappointed if cooked food isn't always hot. A formal meal will finish with rice, soup and pickles, but in casual restaurants and at home everything is served together.

WHAT ELSE CAN BE SERVED WITH RICE?

Rice is accompanied by a variety of small dishes, rather like a parade of hors d'oeuvres, and the key word is variety - of ingredients, cooking style, colour and texture. Rice and three dishes is about standard, but it can be served with many more. So you may have one grilled dish (for example, meat or fish), one simmered dish (root vegetable), one dressed dish (such as a salad or green vegetable) and one soup. The other big player in Japanese cuisine is the soy bean, the protein-rich source of soy sauce, tofu and miso.

MISO? WHAT'S THAT?

Miso is a thick savoury paste made from a mixture of fermented soy beans and grain - usually rice but also barley. Rich in protein, miso is used in dressings and sauces, stews and soups, adding a rich savoury taste. Soy sauce, the salty seasoning used in all Japanese cooking, was originally a by-product of miso-making. The dark liquid is given off during the fermentation process.

Tofu is a protein-rich food made from the coagulated curds of soy milk, eaten cold, hot, deep fried and simmered in a variety of dishes.

WHAT ABOUT A TASTY SALAD?

Vegetables are rarely served raw. Green vegetables are lightly cooked, then chilled to preserve their colour, and dressed with a variety of ingredients, such as sesame and miso, pickled plum, dried bonito flakes or simply soy sauce. A common alternative technique to cooking is lightly to salt and press vegetables, which extracts water while maintaining crispness. Root vegetables, such as carrots, daikon, burdock, taro and potatoes, are often simmered in a slightly sweet soy broth, or sautéed with "sea vegetables" (seaweed to you and me) such as hijiki and arame. Seaweed has been an important source of nutrition for centuries, containing essential vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, iron, iodine and potassium.

HOW DO YOU EAT SEAWEED?

Kelp, or kombu, is dried (dried food makes a great present to take home) and an essential ingredient in the basic stock called dashi, which is used in all Japanese cooking. Kombu contains naturally occurring glutamate which boosts flavour, creating umami (deliciousness). Laver, or nori, used to wrap sushi, is made by spreading a thin layer of cooked and prepared seaweed paste onto bamboo mats, where it dries into paper-thin sheets. Wakame is a common ingredient in miso soup, and is often combined with cucumber in a vinegared salad. Hijiki and arame, after re-hydrating, are often used in salads and sautéed dishes.

ISN'T THERE ANY MEAT?

Yes. But meat-eating only became acceptable after the Americans opened Japan to trade in the 1860s. Soon, a nation who had previously not eaten meat at all because of religious beliefs, were converts (it was considered "modern"). However, because people didn't have ovens they couldn't roast large joints of meat, so other ways of cooking it were devised, such as sukiyaki (thinly sliced beef hot-pot) and ton katsu (deep-fried pork cutlet). Lamb, however, never became popular, and you still can't find it easily. Nowadays most people eat meat, although it's still eaten in small quantities, as a sensible part of a balanced diet.

SO IT'S ALL PRETTY HEALTHY THEN?

The Japanese are famous for their longevity and low rates of heart disease, often attributed to the traditional diet. The largest component of a meal is rice rather than meat, with vegetables, sea vegetables and protein (such as fish) making up the rest. This tradition of not eating large amounts of meat and dairy products means that saturated fat consumption is minimal, whereas health-giving fish oils are abundant.

I'M A VEGETARIAN. HOW WILL I GET ON?

Although Buddhism has been a strong influence on Japanese cuisine, vegetarianism is usually associated with religion and not seen as a lifestyle choice. So although meat and fish-free dishes are available, don't expect vegetarian options. Vegetarian tempura (deep-fried in batter), however, is common, and stir-fried noodles with vegetables are good choices.

For a spiritual as well as gustatory experience go to a restaurant in a Buddhist temple and try shojin ryori, Buddhist vegetarian cuisine (see page 6). Some sell only tofu fishes, while others specialise in fu (wheat gluten) and yuba (soy milk skin). All are first class, and not cheap.

HOW WILL I KNOW WHAT TO ORDER IF I CAN'T READ JAPANESE?

Don't worry. Lunchtime in particular is easy. Head for shopping malls and the top floors of department stores, where you'll find an enticing array of eating places, most of them offering a set lunch at a fixed price. For example rice, miso soup, pickles, a vegetable side dish and a piece of grilled fish or meat for around £5 is common. To make ordering even easier, there will often be a wax model of the meal in the window. These models, so useful to the hungry visiting foreigner, were in fact originally conceived to show the Japanese what Western food looked like when it first made an appearance, back in the 19th century.

WHAT ELSE SHOULD I REMEMBER WHEN I EAT OUT?

One useful feature of eating in Japan is that restaurants, especially more expensive ones, often specialise in only one type of food. So when you go to a tempura or sukiyaki house, or noodle or sushi bar, you'll have made a choice even before you set foot in the door.

Noodles are a healthy and cheap quick lunch, and you'll often see office workers standing at open counters with bowls of steaming hot noodles. Buy a ticket at the machine outside, choosing udon (wheat noodles) or soba (buckwheat), then in two minutes you'll be slurping away with the best of them. All for a couple of pounds or so.

HOW ELSE CAN I ORDER AND EAT LIKE THE LOCALS?

For a traditional Japanese breakfast of grilled fish, rice and soup, stay in a ryokan, a traditional inn, or even better at a minshuku, a cheaper, country-style B&B. But don't be tempted to order a western breakfast, as Japanese interpretations of it can be often be rather strange (cold fried egg anyone?).

In the evening, the most relaxed way of meeting locals is in an izakaya, a small unpretentious bar where drinking is always accompanied by eating and laughter. Fun, informal and noisy, these are great places to try out Japanese food because, like tapas bars, food is served in small portions, so you can eat a selection of dishes all night long to accompany your sake, shochu, beer or whisky. Then be like the locals and round off the evening with toasted rice balls ( yaki- onigiri) or hot rice in green tea ( O-chazuke).

Department stores' food basements are another great way to try out unfamiliar foods. They're like indoor markets: noisy and crowded, with assistants eagerly thrusting small mouthfuls of food at you to sample. (Look out for regional promotions, which showcase foods from a particular area or prefecture.)

Street-food vendors, called yatai, are Japan's original fast-food sellers. Early evening sees the streets around Yurakucho in central Tokyo full of swirling smoke from charcoal braziers used for grilling yakitori, and the chatter of office workers as they stop for a quick bite before the long journey home. Join them. The food is cheap and your new companions will probably even offer to buy you a drink. The friendliness of the Japanese people, along with the aromas of grilled fish and simmering dashi broth, will remain in your memory long after you return home.

EATING ETIQUETTE

The first thing about chopsticks (hashi) is: learn to use them (you'll have 12 hours on the plane to practise). Forks and knives are not generally available. Don't pass food from your own chopsticks to another's or leave them embedded in food in a bowl - both of these gestures are associated with funeral rites. Don't gesticulate or point with chopsticks, or suck or chew them. And if you have a communally shared bowl of food, turn your chopsticks round and use the reverse points to take food from the bowl.

If you are lucky enough to be eating at someone's home, it's considered rude to ask for second helpings - unless it's rice or soup. Leaving rice is not acceptable.

And don't blow your nose at the table.

GLOSSARY

Menu terms

Yaki - Grilled; as in Teriyaki, and Yakitori

Shio-Yaki - Salt grilled

Age - Deep-fried

Ae - Dressed, as in Shira Ae (in a tofu dressing), Miso Ae (in a miso dressing), and Goma Ae (in sesame dressing)

Ni - Simmered, as in Miso-Ni, simmered in miso

Itame - Sautéed

Mushi - Steamed

Shiru - Soup

Su - Vinegared

Zuke - Pickled

Cooking terms

Ankake - In a thick sauce, dashi or water mixed thickened with starch

Atsukan - Hot sake (atsu meaning hot)

Bento - Lunch box

Gomoku - A mix of ingredients Meshi Rice stir fried with bits of chicken, tofu and vegetables

Moriawase - A selection or assortment, as in sashimi moriawase, a selection of raw fish

Teishoku - A meal at a fixed price

Teriyaki - Grilled with a soy sauce and ginger glaze

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