The Japanese approach to food
Regarded as one of the healthiest cuisines in the world, the Japanese philosophy to food is based on simplicity. This manifests itself by using fresh, quality ingredients whose natural flavours are allowed to shine through.
Harmony is also key in Japanese cookery. Known as ‘washoku’ in Japan, this is the basis for how flavours, presentation and textures combine in food. Japanese people place great importance on the balance, order and beauty in their food.
Any talk of Japanese cooking is likely to include the term ‘umami’. This is the name of the fifth taste. For a long time, scientists only recognised four tastes – bitter, salt, sweet and sour. Umami now joins them as the ‘savoury’ taste and is recognised as the moreish sensation you get with foods like parmesan, soy sauce and gravy.
The ‘finger-licking’ taste of umami comes from glutamate, an amino acid that is released in cooking or fermenting. A raw steak will lack the umami kick but, once friend, will contain plenty – the cooking process has unleashed the glutamate which gives a real flavour.
Umami is a Japanese word that roughly translates as ‘deliciousness’. From belly warming broths, succulent slow-cooked meat and soy sauce-laced marinades, Japanese food is packed with this particular savoury taste.
A few classic Japanese foods
If you want to cook Japanese food at home, keep an eye out for recipes in a number of different types of styles. Japanese cooking for beginners should look at trying out some of the following:
Donburi– a rice-based dish, often served with meat, which is usually quick and easy to prepare
Teriyaki– despite the western interpretation of teriyaki, this is a style of cooking rather than a sauce. It means lustre cooking, and relies on soy sauce and marinade to give it a glossy look (“teri”) as well as a high heat source for frying (“yaki”)
Miso soup– Served with every rice dish, you have this with the main meal, rather than before it. While the most common representation of it in the West is with some seaweed and tofu, the Japanese have a massive array of miso soup variations which can include seafood and cuts of pork.
Sushi- While it’s fun to try making sushi at home, true sushi masters train for years to perfect their art and some of the best sushi – (if you can get there!) – will be around the fish markets of Tokyo and coastal regions of Japan.
Noodles– Soba, udon, ramen, somen, shirataki – noodles are big in Japan. If you’re getting into this type of cuisine, it helps to know your way around the terms and textures of proper Japanese noodles. The best way of doing this, of course, is by cooking and eating them!
Tempura– Deep-fried battered fish and vegetables sounds simple, right? Not quite. Tempura batter is famously difficult to master, with many theories ranging from what temperature of water to use in the batter to the type of oil you fry with. Getting that light, crispy crunch is trickier than it sounds but when you master it, it’s well worth it.
Essential Japanese cooking ingredients
For authentic Japanese cooking, it’s a good idea to have some essential ingredients in your kitchen cupboard. Here are the seven key products to have in before you begin:
Soy sauce- of course! And it’s best if you get hold of Japanese soy sauce, as this has a subtle but unique taste. Kikkoman Usukuchi Shoyu Light Soy Sauce is a great pantry essential.
Mirin– this is a rice wine specifically used in cooking and has a sweet flavour. Mirin is a key umami ingredient which lends body to a dish and allows flavours to harmonise.
Rice vinegar- unlike most Western vinegar, rice vinegar is milder, sweeter and less acidic. You can substitute with a watered down, slightly sweetened white wine vinegar but nothing beats the real thing. We love Mizkan Rice Vinegar which is so versatile for all types of Japanese cooking.
Sake– For marinades, stocks and soups, a bottle of sake is a must-have. You could also enjoy a drink of it with your meal too! Shochikubai Premium Classic Sake is a really good bottle to have to hand – affordable, versatile and well-balanced.
Miso– Miso, a fermented soybean paste, comes in a range of styles and is the perfect partner to rice.
Kombu- While westerners use stock, the Japanese rely on dashi as the foundations of their cooking. Kombu is a type of kelp and normally sold in salt encrusted sheets but can also be sold in bottles or in powder-form. It is one half of dashi, together with bonito flakes.
Bonito Flakes– This is skipjack tuna which is smoked, dried and fermented and partner to kombu in dashi. There are a lot of poor quality bonito flakes products on the market, but we recommend Katsuo Bushi Bonito Flakes which contains 100% skipjack tuna.
Must-have Japanese tableware
If you’re approaching Japanese cooking as a beginner, there’s no need to invest in authentic Japanese cookware just yet. Most recipes work fine using the pots, pans and crockery that you already own (although every Japanese person treasures their rice cooker). However, if you do want to delve into this area, we recommend having a look at some authentic Japanese tableware:
Chopsticks– Try and avoid disposable chopsticks and invest in a set that you can keep long-term. This chopstick set comes with pebble-like rests and comes in a presentation box for storage.
Ramen bowls– These ramen bowls are individually made and come with the classic ‘sakura’ (cherry blossom) motif. They also come with ramen ladles as well as a booklet of authentic ramen recipes to kick-start your ramen experience!
Sake drinking set– If you’re serving sake, no ordinary drinking glasses will do. Sake cups are traditionally small but wide, and allow diners to enjoy all the aromas of the drink. A traditional sake set is made from stoneware which allows the sake to keep its temperature, whether it’s at room temperature or warmed up.
Japanese recipes to try at home
So, you have the philosophy, the ingredients and the equipment. Now you all you need is some instructions. We’ve put together some incredible recipes for Japanese food that you can cook at home:
Agedashi Tofu – If you’re unsure about tofu, try this dish, it could well change your mind. Packed with flavour, brimming full of umami and easy to make, agedashi tofu makes a brilliant starter or side dish to a meal.
Vegetarian Miso Soup with Buckwheat Noodles – You can use dashi for this, but to make it vegetarian and vegan-friendly, we’re using shitake-infused liquor to get a similar flavour. So healthy and so tasty!
Yakitori Chicken – If you’re looking at a warm day with some cold beers, this is the perfect snack to serve up for friends. You might want to make reserves, as these go quick!
Oyakodon Donburi – Put the cereal away, and experience a Japanese breakfast! The combination of chicken, rice and eggs may look like an evening meal option, but this is a mellow, comforting way to start the day, Japanese-style.
Yuzu Kosho Prawn Cocktail – An Oriental twist on a classic starter, the inclusion of the citrus-chilli taste of yuzu kosho makes this an easy-to-make recipe you need to try.
Iven Ramen’s Schmaltz-Fried Chicken Katsu – Chicken Katsu is a popular Japanese export and this recipe shows you how to make it in your own kitchen.