Japanese Cuisine, Explained
Visit Japan and Tokyo for the food? That’s an emphatic yes. Japanese cuisine is a great reason to visit – nevermind the country’s castles, temples, gardens, and geisha. Eating in Japan is like a tour of historical attractions in its own right. And with more than a dozen types of specialty restaurants, my plan was to eat my way from one end of my week-long visit to the other.
What I didn’t realize was that my gastronomic tour of Japan would shatter a few long-held perceptions. Namely, that the food is mostly healthy, often unfamiliar, and unequivocally Japanese. I was surprised to learn that many of the country’s specialties are imports, brought in from the West and refined to the point they’ve become distinctly Japanese, which (by the way) is synonymous with perfection.
Whether a highly coordinated meal delivered personally by the chef, or a DIY affair cooked at your own table on a piping-hot grill (mind your elbows), eating in Japan is an experience full of variety, with a side order of history. Following are three of my favorite specialties, both foreign and familiar at the same time, that comprise a mini-timeline of the politics and events that have shaped Japanese cuisine.
Japanese Cuisine: History of Tempura
We have the Portuguese to thank for tempura: seafood and vegetables battered and deep-fried to golden perfection. Portuguese missionaries and traders in the 16th century introduced this method of cooking to the Japanese – historians believe the word tempura comes from four days known as “Ember days”, or Quator Tempora, during Lent when no meat was eaten. The Japanese added their own twist to the name by spelling the word with the character for ‘heaven’.
I usually regret eating deep-fried foods, but tempura is different: crisp, light, and not so greasy. The secret is in the batter, a purposefully lumpy concoction of egg, ice water and flour that gives the coating on the food (or ‘cloak’ as the Japanese refer to it) a paper-thin, bubbling texture. They say that tempura aficionados can tell the difference between a novice chef of 5 years and a veteran chef of more than 20. Considering that tempura is all about precision in the mix of the batter, the heat of the oil, and cooking time, it’s not surprising that a chef of 5 years is still considered a novice.
Tempura shops usually serve set meals (teishoku) that include rice, miso soup, and Japanese pickles. In Kyoto, I dined at a tempura restaurant with a menu that had only two options: ‘small’ or ‘large’. When your only choice comes down to size, you know it’s got to be good. And it was. I paid $35 for the large portion, about 12 items, each served to me one at a time by the chef himself, straight from the cooking pot. Tempura is best while it’s hot, so try to get a seat at the counter and show the chef your appreciation by eating the tempura immediately.
Japanese Cuisine: Tonkatsu
Tonkatsu is a deep-fried pork cutlet (and obviously an import from abroad — what culture would incorporate both raw fish and deep-fried pork into its cuisine?). Tonkatsu falls into a category of food known as Yoshoku, a Japanese interpretations of Western fare. In the late 1800s, when Japan opened up to the West for trade after a long period of isolation, a centuries-old ban on eating meat was overturned and tonkatsu was born (the same trend has also introduced dishes to the Japanese menu like spaghetti with ketchup sauce, hamburger patties without bread, and omelets filled with rice and ketchup).
The origin of tonkatsu is traced back to the French item, veal cotelette and, like all Yoshoku dishes, was modified over time to suit the Japanese palate; veal was replaced by pork, grated cheese was replaced with batter, and the whole thing was deep-fried, like tempura. It’s usually served as a set meal, with rice, miso soup, Japanese pickles, and a side of shredded cabbage (an accompaniment that goes back to WWII, when skilled cooks were few and far between, and food shortages popularized cheap cabbage).
When you visit a tonkatsu restaurant, there may be several choices of set meals depending on the type of dipping sauce, additional sides like croquettes, and the cut of pork. Order Rosu-katsu for a fatter cut of pork loin, or Hire-katsu for pork tenderloin, which is leaner and a tad healthier. Like tempura, I found tonkatsu to be more delicate and less greasy than deep-fried foods of the West, an attribute I assign to the craft involved with specializing in a single item. I spent about $30 on a Hire-katsu set meal in the Ebisu district of Tokyo.
Japanese Cuisine: Okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki is as fun to eat as it is to say. It has an elusive history that either links this type of food to an ancient import from China, or places it firmly in the yoshoku category (though it’s unclear what type of Western food this would be related to). The latter posits that okonomiyaki was popularized during WWII, during rice shortages, and was called Issen Yoshoku or one-penny Western food.
Nowadays okonomiyaki means “cook what you like, the way you like” and has been likened to pizza. Though aside from its round shape there really is no comparison. For starters it’s made of a flour-and-yam-based batter mixed with chopped cabbage and then pan-fried with fillings of meat or seafood. Add toppings like cheese, bonito (fish) flakes, a fried egg, or even kimchee, and finish it off with Japanese Worcestershire sauce and a healthy dose of mayonnaise.
Okonomiyaki is a DIY affair at your own table, with a spatula as cooking implement. I can’t help but think of okonomiyaki as working class food — a blue-collar meal to be eaten while consuming beer or, perhaps, as hangover food. Osaka is often cited as the home of okonomiyaki, but there appears to be a fierce rivalry between Osaka and Hiroshima for the title.
Okonomiyaki is probably the least known of all Japanese fare to those of us in the West, but commonly found throughout most of Japan. It’s become so popular, there are chain restaurants that specialize in this unique item, along with a variety that includes noodles, called Modanyaki. Typically priced at about $9 per order, it’s an affordable option in comparison with other types of food. I suggest trying it at a few different places, especially if you first wind up in a restaurant that cooks it for you, which isn’t such a bad thing. Receiving a bowl full of batter, cabbage, and fillings as a first-timer is a little perplexing.