The Weird and the Wonderful of Japanese Cuisine
The Japanese are known to have the lowest rates of obesity, as well as one of the highest life expectancies in the world. A typical Japanese diet is high in vegetables and grains, including a fair amount of animal products and soy, but minimal dairy and fruit. A diet that is largely comprised of fresh and unprocessed foods with lean proteins, and very little refined foods and sugar, is going to have a positive effect on your body and general well-being. Being low in calories and saturated fats, but high in nutrients is a huge pro for Japanese cuisine but it’s definitely not the only one, flavour and complexity are also big highlights. Think sushi, ramen and matcha… and deep-fried prawns. Thank you, Japan.
A large portion of Japanese cuisine revolves around rice and soybean, but in many different ways. We’re definitely no stranger to the plain grain and legume, but the byproducts are where we might raise an eyebrow. Luckily for us, these are all staples in a Japanese pantry. The Japanese have introduced so many wonderful foods and flavours into the Western world. We know the standard ones but let’s take a further look into the different components of Japanese cuisine that we didn’t even know we were thankful for.
I’m sure all of us are well-acquainted with the common grain, rice. Japanese rice consists of two different types of rice, namely uruchimai and mochigome.
Mochigome is known as Japanese sweet rice or glutinous rice, and is much stickier, chewier and more glutinous than uruchimai. It is used to make sweets like Mochi and Dango.
Uruchimai is known as Japanese/ordinary/sticky rice, and is used in everyday Japanese dishes. Try our Sticky Asian Rice Bowl recipe and make rice the Japanese way – it just tastes better.
Dishes Made With Rice
The versatile veteran of Japanese cuisine is used as a base for a lot of Japanese meals – be it sweet or savoury.
Mochi is a Japanese rice cake that is made using rice flour and is a traditional food for the Japanese New Year. The rice is steamed, then pounded and mashed into a paste before being moulded, and then boiled or baked.
Weird fact, these pretty little buns of soft and chewy rice have claimed the lives of many Japanese during New Year festivities… In all seriousness, because the buns are so chewy and sticky and just bigger than bite-sized, if swallowed without being chewed properly the sticky mochi gets stuck in the throat and causes suffocation. Wild. If you ever find yourself in the adventurous mood and want to live on the edge with this Japanese cuisine, make sure you chew that damn rice cake properly.
Dango is a sweet Japanese dumpling , similar to Mochi but is made with intact rice that is pounded together into little balls and served on a stick with a syrupy topping. Mochi are typically eaten around the time of the Japanese New Year, whereas Dangos are common all year-round. Luckily there have been no reported ‘Death by Dango’ cases. Phew, good one, Japan.
Sushi is probably one of the most commonly recognised foods in Japanese cuisine in Western culture. There are a lot of do’s and don’ts when it comes to sushi that are part of Japanese custom. Find out if you’ve been eating sushi the right way here. . Typically made with vinegared rice, seafood and veg, it can be served with anything because the most important part of sushi is the vinegared rice. Believe it or not, raw fish isn’t sushi, vinegared rice is. Mix in quinoa with your rice and try this Tempura Argentinian Prawn Quinoa Sushi recipe.
Ingredients Made From Rice
The use for rice in Japanese cuisine keeps going…
Rice Wine Vinegar
Rice wine vinegar is made by fermenting the sugars in rice into alcohol, first, and then into acid. Rice wine vinegar is less acidic than normal vinegar. Rice wine vinegar has a delicate, mild and a bit of a sweet flavour. It is most commonly used to make sushi rice or for asian dressings and sauces, pickling, marinades and stir-fries.
Sake is known as Japanese rice wine as it is an alcoholic drink made from fermented rice. It’s trending as an alcoholic beverage but, like wine from grapes, is also used in Japanese cooking for a deeper flavour to the dish. Grapes… rice; human-beings will ferment anything and everything. At least we do it well.
Mirin is sweetened rice wine and is used in different Japanese dishes, from teriyaki to ramen. Mirin is a key ingredient behind the umami flavour of Japanese food.
At the Sushi Buffet
A sushi buffet is definitely a bitter-sweet experience for a lot of people. Everything from the conveyer belt looks way too good that we usually end up eating at least twice the amount that is necessary. But it’s so worth it.
Now this is what raw fish is, not sushi. Sashimi is a Japanese delicacy of raw fish or meat that is cut into thin slices. Sashimi is usually eaten with soy sauce and wasabi, and if it is served with rice then it is called sashimi sushi. Raw meats tend to make some a bit nervous, especially when the source looks a bit suspicious. Food poisoning is a real concern with sashimi if the meats are not treated and handled properly. The purpose of wasabi with sashimi is to suppress the microbes that cause food poisoning, but getting your fish and meat from credible sources is the first step. Make sure you buy the right fish in South Africa with this article.
Nori is the seaweed used in making sushi. It is the Japanese name for edible seaweed or ‘sea vegetables’. Seaweed is known for replenishing and rejuvenating body cells. Trust us when we tell you to eat your sea vegetables because it is packed with nutrients and vitamins. In fact, Nori can contain up to 10x more calcium than milk!
Tempura is a Japanese dish of seafood or veg that is battered and deep-fried. Check out these Asian Noodle Broth with Tempura Vegetable Cakes and Prawn Tempura Rock Shrimp-Style recipes to choose your favourite – tempura veg or seafood? Smother anything in a batter and fry it and you’re bound to end up with deliciousness on your plate like this Teriyaki Chicken and Tempura Avocado recipe.
Wasabi, also known as Japanese horseradish, is extracted from the stem of the Wasabia Japonica plant. This pungent ingredient offers a fresh burn and is usually served alongside sushi. Serving wasabi with sushi enhances flavour and suppresses microbes and bacteria that can cause food poisoning. Raw fish and meat can be a dicey game – thank goodness for wasabi!
Studies show that Japanese people live the longest, which is not surprising when considering all the nutrient and vitamin-packed ingredients they consume. The Japanese have been living this way for centuries – for obvious reasons – but it seems that some of these life-giving foods have only recently washed up on our shores but with great enthusiasm. When I say that Japanese-influenced foods exploded on the trendy-scene, I put a lot of emphasis on ‘explode’ and ‘trend’.
The beloved Matcha is a stone-ground Japanese-style green tea. The history of matcha in Japan, and its health benefits, dates back to the 12th century. A few hundred years later and we finally know of the green magic that is matcha. Matcha green tea is packed with nutrients and antioxidants and naturally detoxes the body whilst boosting metabolism and increasing energy levels. It took us a while to jump on board with the Japanese, granted, but once we did there was no turning back. Matcha-flavour very quickly made its way into pretty much everything out there. We’re not complaining though, in fact, we encourage you to try all of these beautiful recipes which prove the versatility of matcha!
Another trend to recently pick up popularity votes, worldwide. Ramen is a Japanese dish that translates to “pulled noodles”. The Chinese wheat noodles are served in a fish or meat-based broth and the rest is up to your imagination. The range of different flavour and ingredient combinations seems close to infinite, but the classic version remains with the noodles, boiled egg, vegetables and other various forms of protein. Try this Tonkotsu Style Ramen recipe that we have tried, tested and loved! Packed with protein and nutrients from both the broth and way in which ingredients are prepared, ramen is a dish that satisfies the stomach and the soul. Never tried ramen before? Visit Downtown Ramen for an absolute treat.
Panko is a Japanese-style of breadcrumbs that have become very popular in Western food. The difference between breadcrumbs and Panko is that Panko has been coarsely ground to airy, large flakes from crustless bread. The distinctly large and flaky characteristics offer that beautiful crunch to dishes when roasted or fried. Try this Deep-fried Panko Avocado Wedges recipe or this Panko-Crumbed Brie Salad recipe to see how Panko can take pretty much anything to the next level.
A species of legume native to East Asia, the Soybean, is another fundamental of Japanese cuisine and is most commonly used for its protein value. The edible bean is used to make a variety of products. When unfermented it is used to make soy milk, which is then used to make tofu products. Fermented soy foods include soy sauce and fermented bean paste.
The soybean is similar to rice in Japanese cuisine, in the sense that it forms the base for many dishes and ingredients.
Miso is a traditional Japanese seasoning that is made into a paste after fermenting soybeans with salt and a fungus called kōji. Miso is rich in essential minerals and vitamins. In Japan, many people start their day with a bowl of miso soup to kick-start digestion and energise the body. Because of the microorganisms from fermentation, Miso has beneficial bacteria that promotes gut health, for overall mental and physical well-being. Try our Miso Roasted Pork Belly recipe to try Japan’s beloved miso flavour. If you want to learn more about miso and the different types, check it out here.
Shoyu is the Japanese-style soy sauce which is slightly sweeter with a more nuanced flavour than Chinese-style soy sauces. The Chinese-style is made with 100% soy, while Shoyu is a mix of soy and wheat. Although soy sauce is not the healthiest as it is usually high in salt and sugar, it adds the perfect “umami” flavour, which is a Japanese word that means “pleasant savoury taste”. Umami forms part of the 5 basic taste profiles – with sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Try these Veg Springrolls with Soy & Honey Sauce.
Across the Continents
Although it may seem like a whole other world, the curious cuisine of Japan isn’t always that unusual.
Known to us as ‘spring onions’, Negi is a type of leek that is as important to Japanese cuisine as ‘vleis’ is to South African braais. The incredibly popular and versatile vegetable is commonly grown in domestic gardens throughout Japan. There must be something in the soil because local produce is apparently preferred to imports. Japanese farmers often have vegetable stands in the countryside that run on the honour system, which trusts the buyer to leave the right amount of money in exchange for fresh vegetables.
Daikon may look a bit strange but it is pretty much just a giant Japanese radish. Daikon radishes have a slightly milder flavour than that of other radish varieties and can be described as being slightly sweet yet slightly spicy. Daikon is a low-calorie vegetable but is nutrient-dense with many health benefits. I wonder how long it will take for the ‘Daikon trend’ to hit our shelves…
Check out our Glossary of Asian Vegetables here.
Containing 3 times as much vitamin C as lemons, Yuzu is a bitter Japanese citrus fruit that is said to be a hybrid of a mandarin and a papeda fruit. Different variations of Yuzu is produced and consumed from freeze-dried garnish to aromatic oils to juice and paste. Yuzu is another fruit with health benefits that make normal citrus seem a bit weak.
Other Japanese Pantry Essentials
There are a few ingredients that are quintessential to a Japanese pantry – even if you don’t know what they are…
Dashi is a type of soup and cooking stock that is essential in Japanese cuisine. It accentuates the savoury, umami flavour in dishes which is why it is used to form the base for dishes like miso soup, clear broth, noodle broth.
Bonito, very similar to Katsuobushi, is dried, fermented and smoked bonito fish. Katsuobushi is made from skipjack tuna which is just more expensive than bonito. With its distinct umami taste, bonito flakes – along with dried kelp (kombu) – form the main ingredients of dashi.
Kombu is an edible kelp that is naturally rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats. It is used in Japanese cuisine for its nutrients, minerals and umami flavour it provides dishes.
Goma, are sesame seeds – both black and white – and are used in Japanese cuisine as a flavourful garnish. Sprinkled on anything, from meat/fish (raw or cooked), salads, vegetables and rice. Try this Cured Sesame Salmon with Red Pepper Sauce recipe or this Sesame-crusted Yellowtail with a Ginger, Chilli & Lime Soy Sauce recipe, for a less expensive option, and see for yourself what simple sesame seeds can do to a dish.
We graciously thank the Japanese for their abundance of health and flavour knowledge that they have imparted to the rest of the world. May we all follow suit and live a long, healthy life on fresh, nutrient and vitamin-packed, unprocessed foods. Plenty fresh veg, quality grains, protein, and matcha powder on everything, and you’ll outlive us all… as long as you chew your rice cakes properly, that is.
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