Japanese people are known to live longer than any other population in the world. Owe it to the food, lifestyle, culture, or a combination of all three – it’s clear there’s something right about the Japanese way of being. The primary cause behind the country’s long life expectancy is most often attributed to the Japanese diet. A Japanese diet is nutritionally balanced and low in fat, combining numerous ingredients that are both raw and cooked, fermented and fresh. A typical meal will revolve around a staple, main dish, and side dishes. This provides an array of nutrients and nourishment for the body in all different forms.
Japanese cuisine is refined, has terrific presentation, and keeps things simple while maximising flavour. Most Japanese meals use domestic produce, such as locally sourced rice, seafood, seaweed, soybeans, and vegetables. And when it comes to technique, nobody combines precision with simplicity quite like the Japanese. Let’s take a closer look at Japanese cuisine and the cooking techniques behind this country’s magnificent foods.
How to prepare Japanese foods
A Japanese dining table will combine a range of foods cooked and prepared in different ways. This provides a rich variety of foods that makes for a well-balanced meal that’s flavoursome yet not too high in calories. There are ten main methods used when preparing Japanese foods:
- Grilling – This involves grilling foods over a direct or indirect flame, at a distance and at high temperatures.
- Stews – When preparing a Japanese stew, foods are seasoned as they are being cooked.
- Raw foods – Uncooked foods can be served as is, such sashimi, or pickled or vinegared.
- Deep frying – A great variety of Japanese side dishes are deep fried using different methods, usually in 150-200 degree oil.
- Hitashimono – This method of preparation steeps vegetables or beans in a tasty flavoured sauce.
- Steaming – It’s what it sounds like – food prepared by boiling water and using the steam to lightly cook through the foods.
- Boiling – Most often, boiling is used to prepare noodles, which can be made from buckwheat or wheat flour.
- Aemono – This refers to a method of preparing fish and vegetables by smothering them in various sauces, usually with miso, sesame seed, or vinegar.
- Soup – Japanese soups, such as miso, noodle soups, clear soups, and thick soups, are often prepared with dashi as a base. Dashi refers to various stocks used in Japanese cuisine, used to impart a characteristic umami flavour. The most common form of dashi is made with kombu (edible kelp) and bonito flakes, shavings of smoked, fermented skipjack tuna. Alternatively, dashi can be made with dried sardines or anchovies. .
- Pickling – Japanese foods can be pickled either via lactic acid fermentation or by immersing the food products in salt.
With these preparation methods in mind, let’s take a look at the must-have tools for Japanese cooking. You can’t make real Japanese food without them.
Essential tools in a Japanese kitchen
Many of the Japanese cooking techniques we will learn about require the use of various tools and instruments. A well-equipped Japanese kitchen will have the necessary tools to execute these techniques to perfection. These include:
- Grater – Many aspects of Japanese cuisine require the use of a good grater, particularly side dishes such as grated daikon, wasabi, or ginger. There are different graters used for different vegetables and needs, though oroshigane is the traditional Japanese grater used.
- A great knife – We all know that Japanese knives are amongst the best in the world, and with these knives comes a whole host of special knife techniques used in Japanese cooking. Different knife techniques are used to give vegetables different tastes and textures, contributing to the result of the final recipe. Japanese knife techniques could make up their own entire article, but for now, know that cooking Japanese food will require a great knife.
- Donabe. This is a type of pot made from Japanese clay. Donabe can withstand high amounts of direct heat and are usually used when cooking nabe, though they can also be used for soups, noodles, and frying.
- Mortar & pestle – A traditional Japanese mortar is made from unglazed ceramic with several grooves in its centre, and pestles are made from wood. Thanks to the scores on the mortar, freshly grinding ingredients such as sesame seeds does not take nearly as long as it would on a smooth mortar. You’ll want freshly ground ingredients to give dishes a much richer flavour and aroma – use it for sauces and dressings.
- Chopsticks – Chopsticks are not only used for eating but for cooking, too. Also known as hashi, cooking chopsticks are longer than eating chopsticks. This added length helps to protect hands from the heat of the food being cooked. Metal chopsticks with wooden handles are used for frying, and pure metal chopsticks used for arranging and serving foods. Chopsticks are also used to quickly whisk food items, such as when you add miso to dashi.
- Bamboo rolling mats – There’s only one way to make sushi and that’s with the aid of a bamboo rolling mat. Also known as makisu, these mats are made from bamboo slats that are connected with cotton strings.
- Otoshi-buta – This is a type of wooden lid that is used when simmering particular foods, such as fish. These specially designed lids are used to keep the temperature evenly distributed so that the liquid being simmered cooks evenly. They allow a pot to remain partly open so as to prevent boiling and keep food at a simmer. Before using otoshi-buta, you must first soak the lid in water to prevent the steam from the simmering liquids from soaking through and leaving behind its fragrance.
Most popular Japanese cooking techniques
With the essential tools and different methods of preparation in mind, let’s take a look at the most popular cooking techniques used in Japanese cuisine.
Nabemono is not so much a technique as it is a term that refers to a range of Japanese one-pot dishes or hot pots. The term comes from the word ‘nabe’, which refers to the traditional Japanese clay pot in which the ingredients are usually cooked, and ‘mono’, which means things and refers to the variety of different ingredients used in nabemono dishes. Nabemono meals are usually brought to the table as a sizzling broth alongside a tray of raw ingredients. This is usually placed at the centre of the table and designed to be eaten communally by all diners. People can choose their preferred ingredients and add them to the broth, cooking until tender.
What is served with nabemono?
You’ll typically see nabemono dishes served with dashi broth, sake, and soy sauce, with numerous ingredients added including seafoods, meats, vegetables, tofu, and noodles. A traditional Japanese paste called yuzukosho is often also served alongside nabemono. This condiment is made from fermented yuzu skins, salt, and green chillies, and has a distinctly sour, acidic, and spicy taste. Another condiment that’s traditionally served alongside nabemono dishes is ponzu, a type of vinaigrette that’s made from a mix of rice vinegar, citrus juice (e.g. yuzu, lemon, or lime), and other ingredients such as sugar, mirin, seaweed, dashi stock, or soy sauce. The liquid condiment is often used as a dipping sauce or poured into the nabemono to add a tangy flavour to the dishes.
Typical vegetables served alongside nabemono include cabbage, mushroom, daikon radish, eggplant, onion, spinach, and leeks. Popular nabemono dishes include chirinabe, a one-pot dish combining fish, vegetables, and tofu, and konoko nabe, which uses mushrooms as the star ingredient.
Nimono is the Japanese technique of simmering foods and is used in the preparation of almost every meal except breakfast. This cooking technique is almost always used when preparing vegetables in Japanese cuisines, and is also one of the primary techniques used in preparing fish, though it is also used to prepare tofu and other seafoods. Nimono dishes are usually cooked in a heavy covered pot, allowing for heat to evenly spread throughout the ingredients as they are being simmered.
The nimono technique first parboils or blanches the ingredients in water. After that, they are slowly cooked in a stock until the liquid has almost fully evaporated or absorbed into the ingredients. The stock used to cook nimono dishes is called shiru, and typically a combination of soy sauce, dashi, mirin, and sake. The stock can also be flavoured with miso, vinegar, sugar, and salt. Once the ingredients have absorbed the stock, they are then simmered before serving. Tender and full of flavour!
This is arguably one of the most popular Japanese cooking techniques and a favourite all over the world. The term teriyaki refers to a cooking technique in which ingredients are first marinated in a special sweet teriyaki sauce and then either grilled, broiled, or roasted. Teriyaki sauce is itself made from a mixture of soy sauce, mirin, and sugar. The term teriyaki is a combination of the word ‘teri’, which means lustre, and ‘yaki’ which refers to grilling or broiling. No doubt the lustre refers to the shiny, glossy appearance of foods cooked using this technique. Teriyaki is traditionally used to cook meat dishes such as beef, chicken, or pork. It can also be used in the preparation of seafood.
Although it has Korean origins, yakiniku is a popular Japanese cooking technique. It involves cooking bite-sized pieces of meat and vegetables over a table grill. The term yakiniku itself means ‘grilled meat’. While similar to the popular Korean dishes of bulgogi and galbi, this technique differs in that the meats used are usually not marinated before grilling. Yakiniku is similar to eating Korean BBQ. Typically, a tray of thinly sliced raw meats and vegetables will be delivered to the table, and diners will grill the ingredients themselves on a tabletop griddle.
The most popular meats used for yakiniku are pork, beef, chicken, and various shellfish. Cuts used for yakiniku include beef loin and chuck, short ribs, and tongue, and pork belly. Offal is also used, such as beef liver, intestine, hearts, tripe, and pork stomach. Since meats are usually not marinated beforehand, yakiniku is usually served alongside numerous dips and sauces. These include miso, soy sauce, and garlic oil sauce.
Kushiyaki is the Japanese cooking method of skewering and grilling different meats, seafoods, vegetables, and tofu. Food items prepared with the kushiyaki method are lined up on bamboo skewers and grilled over charcoal. The ingredients will come seasoned in two ways: salty or salty-sweet. The salty variety is seasoned with plain salt. The salty-sweet varieties are marinated in tare, a sauce made from a combination of soy sauce, mirin, sake, and sugar. Kushiyaki can also be flavoured with added herbs and spices like cayenne pepper, wasabi, and shichimi.
Kushiyaki foods are typically prepared fresh and served immediately. You will usually see kushiyaki foods served alongside a range of sides such as edamame, pickled vegetables, and various salads. Yakitori is the most popular type of kushiyaki. It is often made using chicken cutlets or offal, such as hearts or kidneys. Besides chicken, meat kushiyaki is often made from beef, pork, horse meat, and cartilage. Seafood kushiyaki typically uses prawn, shrimp, sardines, scallops, sweetfish, Atlantic horse mackerel, and cuttlefish. Vegetables used in kushiyaki are usually Japanese eggplant, green capsicum, onion, potato, ginkgo nut, pumpkin, and cherry tomato.
This cooking technique is most often used to prepare meat or fish. The tataki technique first quickly sears the food product and then takes it off the heat to be sliced and served while still raw in the middle. Tataki is most often used to cook tuna steak and beef tenderloins, as those cuts tend to allow for even searing.
When cooking with the tataki technique, the food product will be first seared quickly on all sides. After that, it is taken off the heat and placed in an ice bath to halt the cooking process. Then the product is thinly sliced and arranged nicely on a flat platter to be served. You’ll often see tataki-prepared foods served alongside sashimi dishes. You’ll often see tataki foods served alongside a glass of Junmai, a specific type of sake.
Agemono is the Japanese technique of deep frying foods, and encompasses three different frying methods:
- Karaage – In this technique, foods are first coated in flour or arrowroot starch before frying. This preserves the ingredients’ natural water content and allows for a crispy outer surface to form. Karaage foods can also be coated with wheat flour, tapioca, or potato starch. Each of these coatings gives its own distinct end result.
Tatsutaage is a variant of karaage, and involves first marinating chicken in a mixture of soy sauce, sake, and sugar. The chicken is then coated in arrowroot starch before frying.
- Koromogae – Which includes foods such as tempura. Koromogae is typically used when preparing seafood, fish, and certain vegetables. The technique refers to ingredients that are battered before frying.
- Suage – Foods that are fried without a coating or batter. The suage technique is used when preparing freshwater fish, eggplants, capsicum, and other vegetables with a vibrant colour or texture that holds well after frying.
The agemono technique is also used when preparing korokke, or croquettes. These are traditional deep-fried patties which are usually served as a popular snack. They typically contain mashed potato or a white-based sauce mixed with seafood, vegetables, or minced meats. Tonkatsu is another type of agemono. It is made from deep-fried pork cutlets that have been coated in breadcrumbs.
While tempura can fall under the koromogae umbrella of battered fried foods, it is a Japanese technique that deserves its own mention. Tempura foods are simple, elegant, and packed full of flavour. These battered fried foods are usually made with vegetables or seafood. Vegetables used include mushrooms, snow peas, and Japanese eggplant, and popular tempura seafood are prawns, scallops, and crab. Essential to tempura is the batter that is used in preparation. Tempura batter is made from a combination of flour, eggs, and water. This is made in a specific ratio that is not overpowering and keeps the ingredients moist and full of their natural flavour. Tempura dishes are usually served with shredded ginger or daikon radish, and tentsuyu. This special dipping sauce is made from dashi stock, soy sauce, and mirin.
Most of us associate the term teppanyaki with food being thrown on our plates by a chef. The term teppanyaki, however, refers to the Japanese cooking technique of grilling foods on an iron hot plate. The word ‘teppan’ means iron plate, and ‘yaki’ refers to the act of grilling. This cooking technique is also referred to as hibachi in some countries. Many dishes can be cooked in the teppenyaki method. This includes rice, vegetables, seafood, meats, noodles such as yakisoba, and even okonomiyaki, a type of savoury pancake. Soybean oil is usually used when cooking teppanyaki foods.
In Western restaurants, teppanyaki cooking is an entire experience. The chef will typically cook various foods on the iron griddle in front of diners and toss the food items onto individual bowls when serving. Teppenyaki foods are often served with a range of side dishes. This could include garlic chips, fried rice, and mung bean sprouts as well as a various dipping sauces, though in Japan only soy sauce is used.
Explore Japan’s variety of cooking
The cooking techniques explored above are enough to give you an idea of the versatility and diversity of Japanese cooking. But to truly experience Japanese cuisine you’ll have to dive into its various regions and all their variations on the above. Experience the best that Japan has to offer with our Japanese food experience, guiding you through several courses of Japan’s best dishes. You can choose the foods or regions you’d like to explore, or let your personal chef guide you through a taste adventure that showcases the best the country has to offer.
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