Many of us in Australia would have an opinion of what Japanese food is – sushi, sashimi, perhaps teriyaki chicken – and that’s about as far as we might dare to dream.
It might surprise you to know that teriyaki chicken in Japan is most commonly found in a burger at McDonald’s. Yes, teriyaki does exist, but it’s mostly used for white fish such as buri (yellowtail) cooked at home.
Sushi is a term that covers a huge variety of dishes and styles of eating in Japan. There are the sushi trains like we have in Australia, but in Japan the varieties served are wildly different and there isn’t a California or Spider roll in sight. At the other end of the scale there are exquisite omakase sushi restaurants that seat just a handful of diners and are more art than food.
Where sushi might be eaten in Australia for an office lunch takeaway, in Japan that role is more likely to be filled by onigiri, seaweed-wrapped rice balls that were the predecessors to sushi hundreds of years ago. At home, Japanese families are more likely to make temaki zushi, little hand-rolled cones of seaweed filled with vinegared rice and a selection of family-favourite ingredients.
The way the average family eats in Japan might surprise us looking in from the outside. As a young country with a growing and diverse food scene, we in Australia tend to incorporate variety into our diets by cuisine-hopping around the world. It might be pasta on Monday, Thai on Tuesday, steaks on Wednesday and Chinese on Thursday, but in Japan there’s usually only one cuisine on the home-cooking menu – Japanese.
Much of the variety in Japanese home-cooking comes from the enormous variety within Japanese home-cooked food, and that’s something we in Australia rarely get to see. There’s nabe – hotpot dishes cooked on the dining table, nimono – simmered dishes dominated by vegetables in a light dashi broth, simple grilled fish of a thousand varieties, a hundred styles of soup, and an endless variety of pickles and ohitashi – small side dishes that are always served with a Japanese main meal.
Most surprising of all in Japanese home-cooking is how all these dishes seem to be created from a relatively small pool of seasonings. We may think of food in other Asian countries as being driven by a variety of sauces – bean sauces, oyster sauces, chilli sauces and curry pastes – but in Japanese cuisine there are a huge number of dishes that are created from just five basic seasonings: soy sauce, sake, mirin, sugar and dashi (a light stock made from dried bonito flakes and kombu seaweed).
The one thing all these seasonings have in common is their ability to complement the natural flavours of the ingredients used, rather than dominating them. A dish like nikujaga – the Japanese “meat and potatoes” – prepared with those five classic Japanese seasonings will taste fantastic, and more importantly will still taste of meat and potatoes rather than having those ingredients swallowed up in some other added flavour.
In this week’s episode of Destination Flavour Japan we explore this delicate touch with seasoning that’s common throughout Japanese cuisine, from high-end sushi and ryotei dining to a simple dinner at home with my family in Ishikawa. You might be surprised to find out just how simple it all can be.