“Clean eating” might be a western fad, but for many Japanese cooks the focus on creating balanced, nutritious and – in many cases – raw food is tradition, not a passing trend. Across the country, food is celebrated in its purest, most elegant form. That might mean a plate of octopus or salmon sashimi, a spread of pickled vegetables, fresh-as sushi or a simple seaweed salad.
But that’s not to say heartier food doesn’t exist – far from it. Japan’s food scene is a hungry beast. You’ll find hole-in-the-wall yakitori joints grilling every chicken part imaginable, stall vendors flipping gooey takoyaki (octopus balls), and cosy izakayas serving Asahi with a side of tempura. And then, of course, there’s the ramen. Japan specialises in four ramen varieties – shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), miso and tonkotsu (pork) bases. The former two are generally lighter and, in some instances, relatively healthy, while miso and particularly tonkotsu bases are heavy, meaty soups with carb-o-licious fillings.
In many Japanese dishes you’ll find the similar foundation ingredients: those being shoyu (soy sauce), kombu, miso paste, cooking sake and mirin. From here, other classic sauces – teriyaki and ponzu, for instance – or accompaniments such as wasabi and pickled ginger are brought into play. When it comes to desserts, Japanese recipes often sweeten up ‘savoury’ ingredients. Think black sesame pancakes, candied sweet potatoes and green tea mousse.
Stock up on shoyu (soy sauce) in light and dark varieties, or try tamari if you’re going gluten-free. Use rice vinegar for dressing; mirin (rice wine) for cooking; and sake for marinades and sauces (buy the cooking version). Experiment with seaweed: wakame is a miso soup essential; nori is used in to wrap sushi and garnish dishes; and kombu (konbu) gives dashi its special taste. You’ll also need tofu in silken and firm forms; fermented paste miso; and oodles of noodles – udon, soba and ramen. Dried ingredients such as shiitake and bonito fish (katsuobushi) also come in handy.
1. Sushi rules: When preparing sashimi, fresh fish is a must. Look for firm flesh and clear bulging eyes.
2. Finer things: A Japanese kitchen needs two graters – both finer than Western ones. The coarser utensil is for radish and daikon, while the finer item looks after wasabi.
3. Nicer rice: For excellent sushi, cook your rice with kombu (kelp) then add rice wine vinegar, sugar and salt.
4. Cutting edge: To master sushi and sashimi you’ll need a sharp Japanese knife. Unlike Western types, the blade is on one side only .
5. Know your soy: Sweeter and less salty than the Chinese sauce, shoyu (soy sauce) comes in light (usukuchi) and dark (koikuchi) varieties. Use tamari for a gluten-free shoyu alternative.
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This is the perfect go-to soba dish for winter days when you feel that annoying cold about to take hold. Not only does the thick, hot broth loaded with grated ginger warm your system from head to toe but buckwheat and spring onion provide a bug-kicking dose of nutritional, antioxidant laden goodness. Ankake is the name of thickened dashi-based amber broth used as a soup or sauce in Japanese cuisine in various stages of viscosity!
Hot and humid Japanese summers call for light, refreshing ‘stamina’ foods to help you keep your cool. These very fine wheat noodles are served cold, sometimes over ice with a salty dipping sauce on the side which is sometimes seasoned with refreshing, appetite stimulating and fatigue combatting rice vinegar. Nutrient rich and cooling condiments are often added and in recent years sweet, ripe tomatoes have become a popular addition to somen dishes.
It's time to start mingling with miso. The Japanese staple ingredient pairs well with so many flavours and simply needs the right balance of flavour to make is shine. Earthy soba and delicate salmon are the perfect foil for the miso marinade. Adjust the ratios to suit your own style, there’s no right or wrong as long as it tastes good to you.
As a vegetarian, there are some things that are tricky to find good substitutes for. One of those, for me, is noodle soup or ramen. The broth in restaurants is often made with meat or bones, so I was super excited to make something at home that I knew would be healthy, delicious and meat-free (even vegan!).