Japan has the most Michelin star restaurants in the world, so there is something undeniably special about its cuisine. There is a strong focus on fresh and seasonal ingredients, as well as perfection of cooking techniques and presentation aesthetics. I’ve been to Japan twice in my life, once to the mainland on a school trip when I was 11, and again on a Neuroscience course to Okinawa in my 20s. I don’t remember much about the food as an 11 year old, I was more focused on trying to identify beef in strange foods and avoiding it, as the mad cow paranoia had reached its height, and I had some vague idea that I would start frothing at the mouth if Japanese beef touched my lips. In my 20s I had some fantastic seafood in Okinawa, but that cuisine is quite distinct from mainland Japan, and to be honest I was more focused on trying to fit as much neuroscience and fun into the week as possible. One thing I learned about Okinawa is that there is a small karaoke bar by the beach that will sell you cocktails for a couple of dollars, that have around 15 standard drinks in them each (at a conservative estimate). Thus, my main culinary knowledge from visiting Japan that I can bestow upon you is “beware happy hour at the half moon karaoke bar”. Suffice to say, I hope to go back to mainland Japan soon to more thoroughly research the culinary scene…
“Bento” derives from a word meaning “convenient” and it basically describes a variety of food, commonly including meat/fish, rice and salad, in a container that keeps them separate. Bento boxes are commonly sold as “fast food” in Japan, and also made as lunch boxes for children and adults. The separation of different elements is a common theme in Japanese cuisine – there is a general preference to not have different dishes touching, so they are often served in separate bowls or in specially-designed dishes with barriers. I think that this is a reflection of the appreciation of simplicity and purity in Japanese culture, preferring not to sully the flavour or aesthetics of distinct dishes with others. The bento tradition has more recently morphed into “kyaraben”, where bento boxes are made to look like anime or manga characters. Pretty much any popular book, movie, game or musician that I googled with “bento box” gave me a bento decorated in that style – I encourage you to try it at home, I have a suspicion that it would make a rather spectacular drinking game. I started my bento with tempura vegetables (green beans, sweet potato, lotus root, mushroom etc.) and seafood (prawns and calamari). Tempura basically means coating ingredients in a flour and egg batter and then deep frying it very briefly so that you get a light crispy coating over fresh ingredients. Most recipes call for low-gluten flour. Yes, that’s right, much like a parable of modern society, in the world of tempura, gluten is evil. Apparently the specific issue with gluten in this case is that it tends to give doughs/breads the “stick togetherness” that we know and love, but which makes tempura batter a little on the heavy/oily side. I either couldn’t or wouldn’t find low gluten flour, so my tempura batter was indeed a little heavier than the best I’ve tried, but the addition of ice cubes to the mix apparently also helps to neutralise gluten’s powers, so I think that helped. After learning this fact I had a brief, albeit intense, conspiracy theory about the coincident rise of global warming and gluten intolerance, but it passed quickly. I also made chicken teriyaki, a technique that involves grilling food in a marinade of soy sauce, mirin, sake, onion and ginger, as well as salad, rice, prawn gyoza, miso soup and a soy-based dipping sauce.
Instant ramen often gets a bad rap in Western society for being the mascot of nutritionless, soulless meals that glazy-eyed undergraduate students and “intentionally single” meninists furtively prepare in mismatched Tupperware under cold fluorescent lighting. But hot damn, it tastes good. The salt, the carbs, the oil, the MSG, it’s all perfectly designed to make our poor monkey brains say “more please”. My graduation from a glazy-eyed undergraduate student, however, saw me turn my back on instant ramen (mostly), and discover “the real deal”. Ramen is traditionally a meat broth with wheat noodles and various toppings. The main varieties of ramen broth are shio (salt, the most traditional), miso (flavoured with miso), shoyu (flavoured with soy), and tonkotsu (pork bone broth). I made a tonkotsu that had some shoyu elements, boiling chicken and pork bones for several hours, then adding dashi (a broth made of dry seaweed and fish that forms the basis of miso flavour). Usually dashi is made with kombu, a strong tasting kelp. However, after searching everywhere for kombu in Brisbane, I was reliably informed that it was no longer imported into Australia because “someone died of iodine poisoning I think?”. The net result was that I used a less authentic, but purportedly safer variety of dried seaweed. The secret of the noodles is that they are traditionally made with a type of alkaline mineral water typical of the lakes of inner Mongolia, which renders them yellow and firm. This firmness makes them ideal for soup, because they stay chewy and don’t disintegrate into mush like normal Italian spaghetti would. Fortunately, a lot of eggs can be substituted for alkaline mineral water from the lakes of inner Mongolia, which should save you a bit of money on plane tickets. I probably went a bit overboard in my ramen toppings, which runs counter to the Japanese philosophy of simplicity and minimalism, but I felt as if I was compensating for all of the unadorned ramen I scoffed in my youth. I included chasu (thin slices of barbecued pork), enoki mushrooms, bok choy, seasoned nori (seaweed), corn, picked bamboo shoots, red pickled ginger, green onions, lotus root, a soft-boiled egg and katsuobushi. Katsuobushi is very thin slices of a dried, fermented and smoked fish that looks a bit like fine wood shavings. Before you grimace in disgust, it’s used to flavour a lot of Japanese dishes, so if you’ve eaten at a Japanese restaurant you’ve probably tried it and liked it a lot – it’s very delicious.
Sushi and sashimi
Where to start with sushi and sashimi? It has probably been the most successful culinary export from Japan. There is a specialised sushi bar at my University cafeteria, and there was sushi for sale every day at my high school cafeteria – it’s become a normal day-to-day meal in Australia. Having said that, it’s not the sort of thing that the average person makes themselves, and being a relatively average person in many ways, I too had never made it. Sushi describes preparations of a specially flavoured rice (called “shari” or “sumeshi”) served in a variety of ways, primarily with seafood, but also with meats and vegetables, and almost always in a roll. Sashimi, on the other hand, describes very thinly sliced raw fish, often also with rice. I suppose now is a good time to confess something to you – I’ve never been a big fan of rice. I have always been partial to a decent risotto now and again, and fried rice can be tasty, but I generally regarded rice as a bland, boring substance that dilutes the tasty stuff next to it. You need to know all of this to understand what I mean when I say that freshly made sushi rice is seriously good. I had to stop myself eating it by the handful directly out of the bowl. It’s made with short grain rice, and seasoned with rice vinegar, sugar and salt. The process is slightly tedious, but you end up with perfectly cooked rice that’s neither crunchy nor mushy, and that sticks together and moulds easily. I watched a documentary once on a renowned Japanese sushi chef “Jiro dreams of sushi”. If you are ever lucky enough to go to Jiro’s restaurant, he will serve you whatever he likes, and watch you until you eat it, the implication being that it’s important to eat it immediately because of the temperature. I thought this was intriguing, but perhaps a bit much (not to mention slightly passive aggressive), until I made my own sushi rice and understood how important temperature is. It’s traditionally served at body temperature (37 degrees celsius), and I can absolutely see why. Having only frequented Japanese food establishments within my price range, I hadn’t had fresh sushi rice at this temperature, but it makes a world of difference. Any cooler and the grains get mushy, the seasoning coagulates with the starch and changes flavour, and it starts feeling like boring old rice again. You should definitely put “eat proper sushi rice” on your culinary bucket list, even if it’s the only entry. I made my sushi with spicy tuna salad and lettuce; avocado, cucumber and ginger; and smoked salmon, cream cheese and cucumber. I attempted both the “nori outside” and “rice outside” styles of rolling. I have always had the impression that the “rice outside” varieties were fancier, and now I see the rationale – they are much more fiddly to made. I made sashimi from thinly sliced raw salmon, served on my amazing rice, and also inari, which are pouches of fried tofu stuffed with rice. I topped my inari with seaweed salad and pickled ginger, and I particularly liked their simplicity, which drew attention to the rice as the major theme, which is great when you have really good rice.
Okonomiyaki means “how you like, grill”, and it consists of a savoury pancake topped with, well, whatever you like. Grilled. The okonomiyaki batter is usually made with grated yam, dashi, cabbage, green onion and flour. It is then fried in a skillet, and adorned with toppings such as pork belly, seafood, vegetables or cheese. I chose thinly sliced pork belly for mine, as well as picked ginger, green onions, katsuobushi, Japanese mayonnaise and okonomiyaki sauce. Okonomiyaki sauce is a bit like English brown sauce, but a bit more soy saucey and sweet. I’m not sure how else to describe it, but it’s super delicious – you can find it in most Asian grocery stores. Okinomiyaki is often described as “the Japanese pizza”, but it’s really more like a savoury pancake, omelette or crepe. I think it’s even better than pizza because the “dough” has cabbage, and I’m nuts for cabbage. This is a very quick meal to prepare, and although I don’t have any kids to road test it on, I suspect they would love it, and it might be a good way to expand their cultural repertoire.