By MM Pack
Blue Noodles, Japanese woodblock print, by Kylie Budge
Seasonal. Local. Healthful. Sustainable. Mindful. We’ve learned to embrace these concepts when sourcing, cooking, eating and thinking about food. However, there’s a cuisine that’s embodied this culinary approach for centuries. With a tradition of microseasonality and a profound respect for local ingredients, Japan’s food culture actively engages all five senses and focuses on the subtleties of food’s inherent flavors and textures. Its adherents have enjoyed some of the longest, healthiest lives in the world.
Cuisine within Culture, Culture in Cuisine
If you ask most Americans what they know about Japanese food, odds are they’d answer “sushi.” But sushi is only one facet of Japanese cuisine; although, as in sushi, the primary ingredients in most traditional preparations are simply rice, vegetables and fish. Using the five principal methods of Japanese cooking (steaming, grilling, sautéing, simmering and deep-frying), dining styles can range from exquisite multicourse kaiseki dinners to quick bowls of ramen from a street cart; from serial snacks in a rollicking izakaya bar to the simplest family meal of soup, rice and pickled vegetables.
Of course, Japanese cuisine is more complex than ingredients and cooking methods. Virtually all aspects of Japanese culture are integrated into food preparation, presentation and consumption, the cornerstone being affinity with nature. Shizuo Tsuji, founder of Osaka’s Tsuji Culinary Institute, wrote in his book, Japanese Cooking, that, “like Japanese painting and poetry, our cooking, too, is simply the result of an acute awareness of the seasons.” There are 24 culinary seasons in Japan—each with optimal foods—and parallel to this seasonality is an intense localism. Japanese cooks and diners are knowledgeable about of an ingredient’s provenance and qualities.
Presentation is essential, as well. “Each item is an artistic composition in which the receptacle, the food and its arrangement are all carefully brought together to complement one another,” Tsuji wrote. “The whole meal is a composition, too—a symphony of carefully orchestrated flavor, color, texture and seasonal appropriateness.”
In teaching Japanese cooking, author Elizabeth Andoh explains washoku—traditional food culture that balances color, flavor and preparation method for optimal nutrition and aesthetic satisfaction. Integral to washoku is kansha (appreciation), which encourages avoiding waste, conserving energy and sustaining natural resources. “A Japanese meal begins and ends with formal expressions of appreciation and respect,” says author and teacher Hiroko Shimbo. “Before eating, every diner says, ‘itadakimasu’ [we are going to receive the meal]. Itadakimasu implies great respect for everyone from the farmer to the truck driver to the shopkeeper and the cook who helped to make the meal happen.”
Diet and Health, Japanese Style
If for no other reason, the Japanese diet attracts our attention because Japanese people have some of the longest life spans and lowest obesity, cancer and heart disease rates on the planet. The Japanese government’s food guide, The Japanese Food Guide Spinning Top, includes water, tea and exercise components along with proportions of recommended daily foods.
Dr. Lawrence Kushi, a cancer epidemiologist at Kaiser Permanente, recently addressed this topic at the Culinary Institute of America’s 2010 “Worlds of Flavor: Japan.” Kushi summarized the health-promoting components of Japanese cuisine as “high consumption of whole soy foods, fish and seafood, tea, sea vegetables and mushrooms, and low consumption of meats.” Dr. Donald Abrams, professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, chief of hematology and oncology at San Francisco General Hospital and a follower of Japanese diet guidelines himself, calls miso (fermented soybean paste) “a gift from the gods—it’s helpful for weak digestion, cancer, low libido, intestinal infections and even hangover.”
Hiroko Shimbo explains that Japanese portions are smaller than those in the U.S., and that cooks there tend to cook more with water and less with oil—helping to preserve natural flavors and textures. She describes traditional dining guidelines taught to Japanese children: eat until eight parts full (it takes 20 minutes to feel sated, so “eat slowly and talk a lot”); chew food well; eat 30 food varieties a day (think about this one!); use and stimulate all five senses and appreciate nature.
Japanese and American health experts agree that the Japanese diet isn’t entirely perfect—typically, it includes too much sodium and not enough whole grains. It’s well documented that the popularity of Western foods has been detrimental to Japanese health, too. And the Japanese taste for certain endangered fish varieties hasn’t been so helpful to the health of the planet.
Umami, the Fifth Taste
It’s impossible to discuss Japanese cuisine without covering umami, the fifth taste (after sweet, sour, salty and bitter) ubiquitous in Japanese foods. Meaning “deliciousness,” umami is the rich, mouth-filling, lingering flavor found in miso, soy sauce and dashi, the stock made with kombu kelp. In Western foods, umami is discerned in roasted and cured meats, mushrooms, aged cheeses and tomatoes.
In 1908, chemist Kikunae Ikeda isolated the amino acid glutamate from kombu; he named it umami because it made everything it seasoned taste better. Not until 2001 did biologists confirm that human tongues indeed have a fifth taste receptor for glutamate, or umami, that signifies both protein and satiety—umami contributes to feeling full and satisfied. Human milk is loaded with glutamate, indicating a developed taste for umami at an early age. And Japanese babies graduate from nursing not to cow’s milk, but to umami-rich dashi.
Eat Local, Cook Japanese
In Japan, it’s typical for restaurants to focus on one aspect of cuisine (ramen, soba, tempura, shabu-shabu). With exceptions on the West Coast, Japanese restaurants in the U.S. often serve a selection of cooking styles with an emphasis on sushi. Austin is graced with many good sushi restaurants, most of which prepare additional types of Japanese fare.
Any discussion of Japanese dining in Austin must include Uchi and Uchiko, the award-winning sister restaurants that have elevated standards and raised local awareness of the delicacy, beauty, creativity and downright deliciousness of Japanese cooking. Chefs Tyson Cole and Paul Qui espouse reverence for washoku and kansha; their beautifully composed dishes feature fresh local ingredients as much as possible and respectfully minimize waste. One winter week, Qui showcased broccoli—featuring dishes made with leaves, stems and florets.
“There is so much respect for food in Japan,” Qui says. “Working under Tyson, I’ve learned to show respect for a product [and] to bring out its best flavor.” Uchi: The Cookbook by Tyson Cole and Jessica Dupuy was recently published by University of Texas Press.
And what about cooking Japanese food at home? Fortunately, Austinites have access to the fundamental building blocks for flavor and structure, and we certainly have abundant and lovely local produce. In 1980, Shizuo Tsuji wrote that “as long as you know the rules, and know what authentic Japanese food is, there is almost no limit to the variations you can make with local ingredients.” Fresh gulf fish prepared simply with local vegetables and Texmati rice? Tsuji-san would approve—beautiful, delicious and mindful eating, Japanese style.
BUILDING–BLOCK INGREDIENTS OF JAPANESE COOKING
In the Japanese kitchen, cooks can’t accomplish much without dashi, a mild, flavorful stock of dried fish flakes (katsuobushi, from bonito in the mackerel family) and kombu (dried giant kelp). Katsuobushi is rich in vitamins, minerals and protein, while kombu provides vitamins, protein, dietary fiber and minerals including iodine. Kombu also contains the natural glutamic acid known as umami that tastes good and enhances the flavors of other ingredients. Vegetarian stock (shojin dashi) is made from kombu and water only. Hon dashi is dried dashi granules, a packaged instant substitute for homemade dashi.
Gohan ni shiyo, said as an invitation to share a meal, literally means, “let’s eat cooked rice.” A bowl of plain cooked rice is the central component of any Japanese meal. Short-grain table rice comes in three forms: hatsuga genmai (unpolished brown rice), haiga-mai (partially polished rice that contains rice germ) and hakumai (polished white rice). Additionally, mochigome (glutinous or sweet rice) is used in sticky rice dishes, in sweets and to make sake.
Miso, a fermented soybean paste (also made with rice and barley), has a deep, rich flavor and exceptional nutritional value. It’s used in soups, glazes, dips and dressings and with sautéed, simmered, grilled and deep-fried dishes. There are myriad varieties (three main types but as many as 1,300 regional recipes) of miso, ranging from white to brown to red—the lighter colored versions are sweeter, the darker ones saltier. One of the most representative Japanese dishes, misoshiru (miso soup), is made from miso and dashi, to which other ingredients like tofu, tempura, green onions, mushrooms and vegetables can be added.
Japanese soy sauce (shoyu) is composed of soybeans, wheat, spring water, koji (starter mold) and sea salt and aged in a complex fermentation process that takes 12 to 24 months. Fermentation increases nutritional benefits as well as flavor and aroma, and the final product is 17 to 18 percent salt. Tamari is made almost entirely of soybeans and is thicker and darker than shoyu.
Daikon, which means big, important or root, is a large white radish contains calcium and vitamin C (as well as vitamin A in the leaves), and is a signature vegetable in Japanese cooking. Served both raw and cooked, its crisp texture and spicy bite enhance many preparations and aids digestion.
Along with rice and soup, pickled vegetables (tsukemono) are fundamental to a Japanese meal. Pickling vegetables like cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, eggplant and daikon in rice bran or salt was the traditional method for preserving produce for winter consumption.
Buckwheat (soba) was introduced to Japan from China in the 8th century, and soba noodles became fashionable fast-food dishes sold from street stalls in Tokyo by the 17th century. Hot or cold, soba is still a preferred quick dish. Buckwheat contains high-quality protein, is rich in B vitamins, iron and calcium and, because it does not contain gluten, is mixed with wheat, yam or rice flour to make noodles.
RESOURCES FOR JAPANESE COOKING
Books and websites with recipes and cooking techniques
Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions by Elizabeth Andoh, kanshacooking.com
Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen by Elizabeth Andoh, washokucooking.com
Uchi: The Cookbook by Tyson Cole and Jessica Dupuy
The Japanese Kitchen: 250 Recipes in a Traditional Spirit by Hiroko Shimbo, hirokoskitchen.com
Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji
The Gohan Society
Fosters the understanding and appreciation of Japan’s culinary heritage in the United States and serves as a resource center for knowledge of traditional Japanese ingredients, techniques and food-related products. gohansociety.org
Finding Japanese ingredients in Austin
Several growers at various Austin farmers markets and farm stands offer vegetables used in Japanese cooking, such as daikon, cabbage, squash, melon and eggplant—available depending on the season. All manner of local produce is suitable for cooking Japanese style.
San Miguel Seafood
Specializes in bringing fresh shrimp and deepwater fish directly from the Gulf Coast to Austin. Available at the SFC Farmers’ Market–Downtown on Saturdays. sanmiguelseafood.com
Austin Sea Veggies
Grows ogonori in a closed aquaculture system in Austin. Ogonori, a delicate sea vegetable typically eaten cold in a salad or as a garnish, is available at the SFC Farmers’ Market–Sunset Valley on Saturdays. austinseaveggies.com
Many Asian grocery stores in Austin stock Japanese condiments, noodles, rice, sea vegetables and other ingredients. A few good options are:
6105 Burnet Rd. 512-453-1850
Specializes in Japanese groceries, including sushi-grade fish, vegetables such as burdock and long onions, teas, condiments and spices, rice, noodles, misos, sea vegetables and Japanese snacks.
New Oriental Market
6929 Airport Blvd. 512-467-9828
Provides a large selection of Japanese products, including snacks, teas, noodles, rice, frozen foods and sea vegetables such as kombu, wakame and nori, as well as a variety of Japanese kitchen implements. Some hard-to-find vegetables, including Japanese yams and lotus roots, are also available.
Morning Glory Farm
Grows Shiso, Chinese Leeks and makes Asian herb blends. Gracy Belle: 830-833-0268 and at Barton Creek Farmers Market and Dripping Springs Farmers Market.