|My experience tells me that when one says "Japanese food" to most Americans, people
usually think only of sushi, chicken teriyaki, and/or perhaps what is known as
teppanyaki (you know, those guys at Benihana wielding knives like circus jugglers). But
what most people don't know about Japanese food is it's amazing diversity. While there
can be no doubt as to the wonderfully vast expanse that is French or Chinese cuisine,
I'm convinced there is no single type of cuisine that can match the diversity of
ingredients, flavors, or cooking methods one finds within the world of Japanese food. In
addition, the thought and care given to quality and presentation of Japanese food
makes eating it an experience superior to any other in the culinary world.
The Japanese people have a great interest and respect for foreign foods, especially
Italian, Chinese, and French, but in general rely on foods that are uniquely Japanese,
even if some of those foods were at one time foreign or at least foreign influenced. This
page is dedicated to the various styles of cuisine that make up the bulk of what would
be considered "standard" Japanese fare, and might give you an idea of just how unique
and diverse the world of Japanese food can be.
Soba is a flavorful buckwheat noodle served with a light broth and eaten for lunch, dinner,
or as a snack. Soba noodles are quite different from other types of noodles we might be
more familiar with in the West. Soba is aromatic, with a rich flavor and a firm texture.
Because of it's innate flavor it is less dependent on sauces to bring it to life. Soba generally
is served in two different ways. The first, called "kake-soba" is served with the noodles in a
bowl of hot broth which also may contain tofu, vegetables, and meat. "Mori-soba" is served
cold and on a bamboo screen. The noodles are then dipped into a cold broth into which
one places green onions and wasabi (Japanese horseradish). Udon is another type of
noodle also sold at most Japanese noodle restaurants. Udon noodles are a thick, pasty,
wheat noodle which are far more bland than soba noodles. Udon is served hot in the same
"kake" style as soba, and is a very popular dish in the Kansai (Kyoto/Osaka/Kobe) region
of Japan, while soba dominates in the areas of Tokyo.
Tempura is the quintessential Japanese food. It reflects beautifully the essence of what is
most significant about food in Japan; freshness of ingredients, thoughtful presentation,
and the demonstrative skills of a master chef. Ironically, tempura is not originally a
Japanese dish. It is actually a manner of food preparation introduced by the Portuguese
missionaries of the 16th century. Over time tempura was changed and refined in order to
meet Japanese needs and tastes, and is now a uniquely Japanese food. If tempura is
prepared just right it is as divine a dish as one can come by. However, it's preparation is an
extremely delicate process that demands perfection in the selection of ingredients, mixing
of the batter, as well as the time and temperature of cooking. Very few restaurants outside
of those specializing in tempura are capable of making it at the required high standard.
Tempura generally consists of a variety of fresh vegetables such as eggplant, green
peppers, sweet potato, squash, shiitake mushrooms, shiso (beefsteak) leaves, carrots, and
onions, along with various seafood items including prawn, squid, scallops, and seasonal
fish. The various items are then dipped very lightly into an egg, flour, and ice water batter,
and then deep fried in oil (a mix of vegetable and sesame oil). Tempura is then either eaten
with a light dipping sauce or with merely a dash of salt and/or a squeeze of lemon.
Kushiage is another form of deep fried cooking popular in Japan. Kushiage is a style
of cooking in which a number of seafood and vegetable items are skewered on a stick,
heavily breaded, then deep fried. Unlike tempura, kushiage has a thick outer layer of
breading and is fried more slowly, giving it a brown, crunchy exterior, while the
internal morsels remain perfectly preserved. Kushiage is a particularly good food to
eat while drinking, so you will find that many kushiage restaurants have a pub-like
atmosphere. Because the preparation of kushiage is so similar to that of tonkatsu it
is common to find both available at the same specialty restaurants. Tonkatsu
(another originally foreign import) is a pork cutlet which is also breaded and then
slowly deep fried. It is then cut into slices and treated with a Japanese style
"barbecue" sauce. Tonkatsu makes for a hearty meal and has become an incredibly
popular dish in Japan. In fact, tonkatsu restaurants are some of the most prevalent.
Yakitori is the accompanying food staple of the beer-soaked drinking culture of Japan. Each
evening as people make their way home from work the street stalls that make up much of the
yakitori "restaurants" in Japan come to life. With aromatic smoke wafting about, and cold
beer waiting to be imbibed, one is hard-pressed to pass up a chance to take a seat and enjoy
the unpretentious yet absurdly delicious grilled chicken dish known as yakitori. The perfect
accompaniment to a cold beer with friends and colleagues, yakitori plays a special part in the
casual foods that are often specifically associated with drinking in Japan. Yakitori is simply
chicken pieces (and sometimes leeks) skewered on sticks and then grilled over charcoal. Most
competition among yakitori restaurants outside of the quality of ingredients is the contents of
the tare (sauce) and the quality of charcoal that is used. Most yakitori restaurants use mainly
a basic sweet soy based tare, but there are some chefs who specialize in using salt. It's
usually pretty easy to find a yakitori restaurant in most good sized American cities. So, grab
some friends, order some cold beers, and discover for yourself the joys of yakitori!
Sukiyaki is the modern version of the traditional beef "nabemomo" which was the first way the
Japanese began to consume beef back in the mid-1800's, and is not far removed from it's
original form. Sukiyaki is generally thought of as a cold weather dish and is usually served at
the table and prepared by the server. Thin slices of beef are initially browned slightly in a
small amount of fat. A cooking stock of soy sauce, sugar, and sake is then added along with
other ingredients such as tofu, shiitake mushrooms, leeks, and transparent noodles. Gently
brought to a boil, each person begins to pick out their favorites (the word "sukiyaki" in fact
means "cook your favorites"). Sukiyaki is served with a side of rice and a bowl with a raw egg.
Crack the egg into the bowl and mix it using your chopsticks. You then may use the egg as a
dipping sauce. Shabu-shabu is very similar to sukiyaki and is usually served at the same
specialty restaurants (often owned by meat companies). Although the ingredients of
shabu-shabu are generally the same, it differs from sukiyaki in that you cook it yourself at
your table, and the slices of beef are cooked individually because the beef used is thinner
than that used with sukiyaki and cookes in mere seconds. Additionally, sauce is not poured
into the pot, but instead the pot contains a light broth and two different dipping sauces are
provided, one being a tart, citrus-based sauce, and the other being a thicker sesame-based
one. Some restaurants specialize only in shabu-shabu, but it can also often be found in
nabemono restaurants as well. It's very addictive! But look out, neither sukiyaki nor
shabu-shabu is cheap, so it's best to treat it as an occasional indulgence.
Teppanyaki refers to the flat iron grill used in this style of cooking, although it is basically a
way to refer to a Japanese steak house. While one might think a steak dinner to be one of the
more straight forward meals to prepare, the Japanese teppanyaki chefs prove it to be a highly
skilled, intricate, and entertaining process indeed. In fact, much of the appeal of teppanyaki
dinning, particularly in the West, is due to the entertainment value provided by these chefs,
who can easily hold their customers attention through constant displays of speed and
dexterity. With the flashing of knives and spatulas these chefs create a fun and tasty
experience for all those gathered around their grills. The focus of the food itself is the steak
(often Kobe beef), though prawns, scallops, and other seafood items are often used alongside
accompanying vegetables such as eggplant, mushrooms, and snow peas. The steak may be
ordered to one's liking from rare to well-done, and dipped into a selection of sauces provided.
Because steak is expensive in Japan, teppanyaki restaurants are priced accordingly, and
again are often thought of as places to celebrate special occasions or entertain business
clients. Also of interest is the fact the most teppanyaki patrons traditionally drink wine with
their meals as opposed to sake. Beer is always an excepted option.
The word "okonomiyaki" literally means "cook what you like," and is often described to
foreigners as a Japanese "pancake," though that would be a very tenuous description.
Okonomiyaki usually consists of diced seafood (octopus and squid being most common),
meat, and vegetables (particularly cabbage) mixed into a batter and fried on a flat grill.
Once it is cooked it is treated with a moderately sweet sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, dried
bonito flakes, and sprinkles of seaweed. While that may sound like a dubious combination,
take my word for it, EVERYONE likes okomiyaki! Another dish with a taste quite similar to
that of okonomiyaki is takoyaki, meaning cooked octopus. Takoyaki is prepared with a very
similar batter to that used with okonomiyaki, and is topped with identical ingredients.
However, takoyaki is cooked by placing the batter into a specialized grilling tray designed
to enable the cook to place a small piece of octopus into the batter and turn the
batter/octopus combination as it cooks into perfect bite-sized balls. These balls are placed,
usually eight at a time, into a tray and then dressed with the sauce, bonito flake, seaweed
toppings. Takoyaki is usually eaten as a snack, and is often sold in small take-away shops
or from street carts often found just outside railway stations in order to cater to people
coming home from work.