Japanese Food and Drink
From Richard Tames' "A Traveller's History of Japan", pp 232-4
In Meiji times Western visitors to Japan were generally enchanted by the landscape and appalled by the food. Sir Rutherford Alcock, Britain's first permanent diplomatic representative in Japan, was a hearty and normally ebullient ex-Army surgeon, but even he was driven close to gastronomic despair:
Pork and tough fowls for meat, and rice for vegetables, eggs for milk (butter and milk being both unknown luxuries here), with an occasional pigeon for entremet, may support life even under the barbarous handling of a Japanese ... cook ... but I am satisfied there must be a limit somewhere.... the total deprivation of beef and mutton must in time be a serious detriment to the English constitution.
The Handbook for Travellers in Japan published by John Murray in the 1890s advised visitors to anticipate deprivation of all normal culinary comforts outside the treaty-ports and contained such helpful hints as the suggestion that soy sauce should be liberally added to watery soups to add zest and curry powder sprinkled over virtually everything else to add flavour.
A century later Japanese food has taken its place among the world's great cuisines, though the principles and practices which make it distinctive are still not widely understood. The emphasis is on freshness and simplicity, a light touch in seasoning, skilful use of the knife and elegance of presentation. As cookery expert Lesley Downer has neatly put it, 'the stars of the show are the ingredients themselves.' Japanese cuisine is low in fats and high in minerals; if it has a fault, it is erring on the salty side.
The Range of Choice
Kaiseki is Japanese haute cuisine. Originating as the accompaniment to a tea ceremony, a kaiseki banquet consists of a succession of as many as a dozen or more dishes, each artfully arranged, though often consisting of no more than a mouthful. The influence of this tradition on nouvelle cuisine is obvious. Kaiseki is served in the classiest restaurants (ryotei). Many restaurants (ya) specialise in a specific type of dish:
Sushi-ya - serve sashimi, slices of raw fish, eaten with soy sause or wasabi (horseradish), and sushi, patties of vinegared rice topped with varieties of raw fish.
Tempura-ya - serve fresh vegetables, prawns etc. flash-fried in a crisp light batter.
Soba-ya - serve noodles, usually made on the premiises.
Okonomiyaki-ya - serve a type of pancake filled with small pieces of meat or vegetables.
Yakitori-ya - serve bite-sized chicken 'kebabs.'
Some restaurants concentrate on the preparation of one particular type of ingredient such as eels or mushrooms. There are also robatayaki-ya, farmhouse-style restaurants which specialise in grilled foods, Buddhist temples which serve vegetarian dishes, usually based on tofu (bean curd), and 'red lantern' street-stalls and road-side bars (nomiya) which offer simple snack-food to peckish passers-by. At teppanyaki restaurants the food (usually steak) is cooked on steel griddles which are part of the table guests sit at. Chinese and Korean restaurants are also commonplace. That awareness of the changing seasons which is such a pervasive feature of Japanese culture extends to food as well. Winter is the time for thick, warming stews, summer for iced noodles, spring for fresh, young root-crops and autumn for raw fish at its best.
A balanced diet
Rice boiled, plain and glutinous (easier to eat with chopsticks [hashi] is served with every meal. Indeed, the traditional term for breakfast literally means 'first rice.' It is not 'done' to pep up plain rice by pouring soy sauce over it (green tea or raw egg are ok), though it may be topped with toasted nori (seaweed), natto (fermented soybeans) or uni (sea-urchin).
Vegetables are chosen for maximum freshness; most Japanese housewives still shop every day. Vegetables are eaten raw and pickled as well as boiled or steamed and include plants such as ferns, water-lilies and burdock (gobo) which are not generally eaten in the West. Pickles include such unfamiliar items as plums, ginger and giant radish (daikon).
Fish is still the main source of protein and features in almost every meal. Seafoods include not only shellfish but also sea-weed and algae. The basic soup-stock and seasoning, dashi, is made from dried bonito and kelp.
A Balanced Meal
Instead of 'meat and two veg' a typical Japanese meal consists of 'soup and three (dishes),' each of which is cooked by a different process, ie grilled, simmered, fried, steamed, boiled or raw.
Tea is served both with meals and throughout the day. It is made with green (ie dried, rather than fermented) leaves and hot, rather than boiling, water and is drunk immediately, rather than being left to draw.
Sake is usually drunk hot in winter and enjoyed 'on the rocks' in summer; it is least satisfactory at room temperature. There are no vintages but connoisseurs would stick to dry-tasting junmaishu (sake unmixed with added alcohol or sugar) rather than the sweeter varieties (amakuchi) usually served in restaurants. (As a rough guide it usually follows that the shorter the list of ingredients on a bottle the better the quality of its contents.) Sake is graded as tokkyu (special), ikkyu (first grade) or nikyu (second grade) and is best consumed within three months of bottling. There are 2,500 sake breweries in Japan; Nada, Fushimi, Akita and Hiroshima are particularly famed for the quality of their products.
Whisky is invariably drunk with crushed ice and a high (1:6) dilution of water (mizuwari). Japanese domestic whisky is therefore often strongly flavoured to take account of this and can correspondingly unpalatable if taken 'straight.'
Beer - Japanese biru is a lager-type, based on German models. Inhabitants of Sapporo are proud to emphasise that their famed breweries are on the same latitude as Munich and Milwaukee. Beer accounts for 70 percent of national alcohol consumption. Streetside vending-machines serve it ice-cold.
Sochu is a colourless, virtually flavourless spirit made from rice or sweet potatoes; originally the working-man's hooch but now increasingly fashionable among the young when drunk with a mixer.
Etiquette - when drinking in bars there is invariably a hostess to keep your glass topped up; otherwise the rule is to top up your companions' glasses and wait for one of them to keep yours similarly full. The normal toast is Kampai! If you wish to stop drinking just leave your glass full.
It is normal to entertain guests and clients at a restaurant (Tokyo has about 80,000) rather than inviting them home. (Japanese homes are usually cramped and often a long commute from the city center.) Lunch is usually eaten at a brisk pace at any time from noon onwards. (Set lunches cost a fraction of what may be charged for the same meal in the evening.)
Leisurely and lavish entertaining is usually confined to the evenings, beginning immediately after work. In provincial cities restaurants are often closed by 9pm. Entertaining in hotels is therefore quite common as is the use of private dining rooms.