Indeed, the connection with nature is one of the defining hallmarks of Japanese food. Where possible, food is eaten in as natural a state as possible, as fresh as possible, as this is considered the ultimate way to eat. Fresh fish and shellfish are eaten raw (sashimi) or lightly pickled with vinegar or salt. Likewise, produce is often only lightly cooked and what and how people cook is highly influenced by the seasons.
To further enhance the purity of the food, Japanese cooking rarely mixes different food types, and sauces are normally served in separate dishes as dipping condiments. This is in contrast to many other cuisines, where long slow cooking and the addition of many spices are common, so that the final dish becomes something quite removed from the raw ingredients. In Japanese cooking, perhaps more than any other cuisine, the raw produce is paramount.
As well as exquisite flavour, visual beauty is an essential element; the type of plate or dish is as important as what is on it. The Japanese have also perfected the concept of negative space; where the empty parts of a serving platter serve to emphasise the beauty of the food placed on it.
Many devotees of Japanese food speak of the importance of clean flavours and simplicity. The health aspects of food are not to be underestimated; part of the attraction of buckwheat noodles, for instance, is also the knowledge they have a beneficial effect on the body.
The main flavourings are dashi stock (made from seaweed in the form of dried kelp called konbu and/or bonito fish in the form of shavings of the smoked dried fish), shoyu or soy sauce, and miso made from soybean paste.
A full Japanese banquet aims to tease the taste buds by using a range of cooking techniques – a likely combination is a mix of raw food, dressed food such as salads or cold dressed noodles known as aemono, deep fried (agemono), steamed (mushimono), one-pot (nabemono), simmered (nimono), soups (suimonoor shirumono), vinegared (sunomono), glazed (teriyaki style) and pickled (tsukemono).
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If your experience of this famous Japanese soup has only been of the instant kind, this recipe will be a revelation – it touches your soul. It is made with fresh tofu and wakame seaweed, but other classic combinations are daikon and fried tofu, potato and wakame, clams and spring onions, and pumpkin and spinach. If using ingredients that need to be cooked (unlike the tofu and wakame, which just need to be heated through), you can cook them in the dashi (stock) before adding the miso.
This recipe contains numerous tips for making these beautiful vegetarian nori rolls. Take your time and you’ll be rewarded with a sensational result. Masako Fukui gives four different filling ideas – the kampyo filling is deliciously unusual (kampyo is strips of dried gourd sold in packets at Japanese grocery stores).
Hundreds of years old, this versatile marinade recipe can be used for fish, poultry or beef. I love that one of the world’s greatest chefs has shared a recipe that he cooks all the time. Saikyo miso is sweet and pale and blends beautifully with the flavour of the fish. He suggests serving this with pickled ginger. Although garlic isn’t popular in Japan, Tetsuya Wakuda says "Add ginger if you like ginger, a little garlic if you like, after all, you are the one who is going to eat it!" You can buy a special ginger grater from most Asian food stores. Always grate ginger along the grain, not across.