The Flavors of a Nation: While Unique, Japanese Cuisine Features Many Familiar Ingredients
Japanese cuisine is encompassing - varied, regionalized, and laden with as many ingredients as any European or North American country. And while the familiar standouts really do... stand out in their beauty of presentation and unique flavors: delicately fried tempura, rich ramen or savory tonkatsu, the one common factor is that all of these dishes are also beloved staples of Japanese cuisine.
Okonomiyaki, tempura, and noodles (soba, udon, and somen) are among the most treasured traditional Japanese dishes. The appeal of these foods and ingredients is that you can cook, eat, and arrange them as you like. The versatility of these dishes is what helped maintain their popularity for hundreds of years.
One key traditional ingredient that has been mastered and perfected for a myriad of unique dishes is Japanese noodles. It is those noodles that serve as a cornerstone of the cuisine, said a spokesperson for the Discover the Taste of Japan Project. “Noodles are as deeply rooted in Japanese people as rice is in their homes. Udon, soba, and somen are produced all over the country, and are deeply involved in people’s lives as local food habits, agriculture and industry.”
Those three noodles, all made of refined and milled wheat, find themselves in different meals for different occasions. “Noodles may be eaten as soup noodles in hot soup, or on hot summer days, noodles are eaten with cold soup. You can stir-fry it with vegetables to make grilled noodles, or you can enjoy various ways of eating it as salad noodles with fresh vegetables and adding accents with toppings such as condiments,” said the Discover the Taste of Japan Project. Beyond the typical hot, brothy ramen, Japanese noodles can be served cold (light somen is perfect for a summer day) or even fried or baked.
Another popular Japanese dish, tempura, is a product of fusion - in this instance borrowed from the Portuguese in the 1500s. The term is “said to have originated from the Portuguese word ‘temporas’ (seasonal holidays). Along with the increase in the consumption of oil, it became a popular dish in Japan,” said the Discover the Taste of Japan Project. The lightly fried batter is perfect on shrimp or vegetables and has become an essential side with a bento box, or as the centerpiece of an inventive sushi roll.
Though this fusion and reinvention have kept Japanese cuisine fresh, the Japanese have standard ways of food preparation that are older than many Western cultures, and these inform aspects of any recipe, new or old. “In Japan, men-tsuyu, or ‘noodle broth’, which is created with dashi broth (kombu seaweed and dried bonito fish), soy sauce, and other ingredients, is a basic household item. Soy sauce and men-tsuyu can also be used as a ‘secret ingredient’ for simmering, teriyaki sauce, and many other dishes. Recipes using men-tsuyu are very popular in Japan,” they said. The processed, dried fish in dashi offers craveable umami - the “fifth taste” that makes diners tuck in for another delicious bite.
In addition to ingredients, a large part of traditional Japanese cooking has less to do with the methods used: it’s a factor of community. “In Japan, people cook okonomiyaki together and eat it together. You can also add meat, seafood, vegetables, and other ingredients of your choice, hence the phrase “okonomi” in okonomiyaki, meaning “to your liking,” said the Discover the Taste of Japan Project. The dish, a savory pancake, offers a chance to bring households, neighbors or friends together, each adding their own personal touch to the dish.
This fall, Southern Californians have a chance to experience the cuisine and the community of Japan with three special tasting events. These menus, offered free of charge, will feature popular Japanese dishes, along with optional pairings of food or drink to be purchased along with them to create a complete meal. The event will take place at three area restaurants, Kagura Torrance, Midoh Sawtelle (West L.A.) and Shin-Sen-Gumi in Alhambra. Each restaurant will feature unique offerings and will serve while supplies last. This is an amazing opportunity to experience food, and each sample will be paired with a survey so diners can offer their thoughts about the tastes and flavors.
The first 250 people to sign up on the Discover the Taste of Japan Project’s Eventbrite page will have guaranteed access to the event at the location of their choice.
In addition, the site offers traditional Japanese recipes aspiring chefs can try at home. These easy-to-prepare meals, said the Discover the Taste of Japan Project spokesperson, offer an opportunity to create “delicate meals with a beautiful appearance which is particular to Japanese cuisine.” Learn more at discovertastejapan.com.