The Flavours Of Japan

Sushi and sashimi may have become synonymous with Japanese cuisine, but their range of culinary extravagance extends far beyond these bite-sized delicacies. LIVING tantalises the tastebuds with takoyaki, ramen, okonomiyaki, tonkatsu, tempura and other gastronomic delights from the East Asian continent.


There still may be some confusion over what they are, but almost everyone knows that sushi and sashimi are Japanese foods. Internationally, the two dishes have become synonymous with Japanese cuisine in the same way that pasta and pizza are identified with Italian and curry and tandoori are with Indian.

While internationally sashimi is most commonly served with pickled ginger called gari, daikon or pickled cucumber and wasabi paste, in Japan you’ll find some additional garnishes. Like wasabi, most of these have anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties which keep the fish fresh and safe to eat. The sashimi is often served on a minty tasting perilla leaf, garnished with purple perilla flowers and the mildly peppery, red water-pepper leaves or benitade.

Sushi in many ways epitomises the heart of Japanese cuisine. The two main ingredients used for sushi are the mainstay of the cuisine: rice and seafood. Being an island nation, seafood is an abundant and easily available resource and for centuries was the primary form of protein for the Japanese.

With such a penchant for seafood, it’s not surprising that Japan’s Tsukiji Market is the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. The centuries old market, which was rebuilt in 1923 after an earthquake, handles more than 400 different types and over 2,000 tons of seafood per day. Early every morning, at around 5am, auctions, which are restricted to licensed participants only, are held for the catch of the day. These bidders include intermediate wholesalers who operate stalls in the marketplace and agents for restaurants, food processing companies and large retailers. The seafood that comes through Tsukiji will not only find its way to local markets and but, because the quality is so high, will also find its way to the tables of Japanese restaurants across the world.

Much of Japan’s precious little arable land is given over to rice cultivation, and rice is so important that the word for cooked rice (gohan) also has the general meaning of meal. At one time, rice was even used as currency. But Japan was never able to produce sufficient rice to feed her population, and three very common dishes, takoyaki, ramen and okonomiyaki, are actually wheat based.

Takoyaki, which takes its name from tako meaning octopus and yaki meaning ‘to bake or grill’, are golf ball-sized dumplings usually sold by street vendors, most famously in the city of Osaka. Trying to eat a whole takoyaki can be a bit messy, but the soft dumplings with chewy pieces of baby octopus, crisp tempura scraps (tenkasu), and flavoursome chopped red pickled ginger and green onion are quite a treat. To make the takoyaki, you need special cast iron takoyaki pans with a round depression that evenly heats the batter.

Grilled till they turn a light golden brown, the dumplings are topped with okonomiyaki sauce (a thicker, sweeter version of Worcestershire sauce), ponzu (a tarty citrus-based sauce), mayonnaise, green laver (aonori) and katsuobushi (fish shavings). Believed to have first been invented in 1935, takoyaki is a typical example of modern Japanese food which incorporates western concepts like batter and mayonnaise.

Okonomiyaki Stall at Sensō-ji Temple, Asakusa
Okonomiyaki Stall at Sensō-ji Temple, Asakusa

Often called Japanese pizza or Japanese pancake, okonomiyaki uses the same toppings as takoyaki and its modern form developed at around the same time. However, since okonomi means ‘what you want’ or ‘what you like’, the fillings for this grilled round pancake are fairly customisable. Broadly though, there are two styles of making okonomiyaki: the Kansai or Osaka style in which the ingredients are all mixed into a batter and then grilled and the Hiroshima style in which a small crepe-like pancake is grilled and then the other ingredients are layered on top. While the batter is generally made of flour, grated yam, water and eggs, there is no set rule for the fillings or toppings.

The variations are tremendous: apart from shredded cabbage and chopped green onion which are commonly used, the other ingredients could range from pork or bacon to octopus, squid, dried or fresh shrimps to corn, kimchi, rice or cheese. Okonomiyaki is usually prepared on a teppan table similar to the ones used for teppanyaki. Some of the restaurants that specialise in okonomiyaki have dining tables that are equipped with teppans where customers are given the ingredients and can cook the meal themselves.

Though originally Chinese, ramen is so ubiquitous in Japan that virtually every street boasts a ramen shop and almost every locality has its own variation. Essentially a one-dish meal, ramen consists of noodles served in a flavoured soup of which there are four main flavours: miso (bean paste), shoyu (soy), tonkotsu (pork bone) and shio (salty). Vegetables such as garlic, ginger, leek and onion are added for additional flavour. Office workers often have their lunch at ramen shops as the food is served quickly and the menu is quite limited.

As a result of the Buddhist influence combined with the scarcity of pasture land, red meat was not traditionally eaten in Japan. Beef and pork are relatively new additions to Japanese cuisine and most of the dishes date to the 19th and 20th century.

Katsudon pork cutlet

Japan however produces the most expensive beef in the world in the city of Kobe from a breed known as wagyu. Prized for its wonderful marbling, the beef is so succulent that its soft and cottony texture literally melts in the mouth. Wagyu is very briefly cooked and is always served rare. A 100 gm piece of wagyu beef is sold for approximately Rs 2,500 in Japan.

Japanese pork doesn’t reach such stratospheric heights in quality and price. One of the common forms of eating pork is in a cutlet called tonkatsu. Thinly sliced, bite-sized pieces of pork are coated with bread crumbs and deep-fried; the cutlets are generally served with a large bowl of thinly shredded crisp cabbage and miso soup. Katsudon is a one-dish meal where the tonkatsu and its accompaniments are served with rice along with ponzu, a thick, sweetish tonkatsu sauce and pickled vegetables. Though it looks quite heavy, katsudon is surprisingly light.

Prawn Tempura
Prawn Tempura

Of course, the most famous deep-fried food of Japan which matches sushi and sashimi’s fame is tempura. One of the few Japanese dishes suitable for vegetarians, tempura is usually made with either soft seafood or vegetables that are coated in a flour batter and deep-fried. Introduced to Japan by the Portuguese, the trick to making a good tempura is in ensuring that the batter has the right consistency. The tempura batter, kept cold by adding ice or by placing the bowl inside a larger bowl with ice, is traditionally prepared in small quantities and mixed with chopsticks for a few seconds to ensure that the coating is fluffy and crisp. The cold batter prevents the flour from acquiring a chewy soft texture.

Umami: The Fifth Taste
Ajinomoto productsFirst discovered in Japan in 1908 by Dr Kikunae Ikeda, umami is now widely accepted as the fifth basic taste alongside sweet, sour, salty and bitter.

A little hard to pin down, umami can be described as a rich, mouth-filling, dense taste of savouriness. Though not a strongly detectable taste by itself, the presence of umami tends to enhance and accentuate other tastes.

Initially observed by Dr Ikeda in stock made from the konbu seaweed, umami is imparted through protein-rich foods particularly those with a strong concentration of a naturally occurring amino acid called glutamic acid. Any food with a naturally high level of free glutamic acid will therefore have a lot of umami. Many ingredients that have historically been used both in western and oriental cuisines to flavour foods have been discovered to be rich in glutamates.

Konbu, nori, parmesan cheese, soy sauce, marmite, fish sauce, oyster sauce, green tea, anchovies, cured hams and even tomatoes are all good sources of umami.

Dr Ikeda was able to crystallise monosodium glutamate (MSG) from konbu stock and the seasoning quickly became popular in Japan and East Asia. Today, MSG, known commonly under the brand name Ajinomoto, is used the world over.

There have been some health concerns related to the use of MSG in cooking, but decades of research have conclusively proved that the body suffers no ill-effects from MSG. After all, if glutamates were unhealthy why would human milk contain them?!

Published Hi! Living June 2010. See the print version here

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