Japanese food or even Japanese “eating” has got to be one of the most interesting and dynamic parts of Japanese culture for the outsider to experience. The art of cooking and eating is indeed a “fine” art in Japan. Every region has its specialty foods, and in many cases specialty forms of cooking and or eating. The food is always really fresh and the cooking styles usually take full advantage of this. This extends to the non-cooking styles such as sashimi which of course relies on super fresh food. Sashimi extends beyond fish and other sea creatures with raw beef dishes common as well. But as I said above its not just the food itself and the cooking, but the “eating” that’s part of the experience.
Typical Delicious Raw Beef Dish (Uwajima)
Take Nagashi Somen (literally “flowing noodles”) for example. A simple noodle meal turned into a unique and typically Japanese experience. The noodles themselves are quite simple. A thin almost vermicelli like noodle of “stretched” wheat. Designed to be eaten in the hot Japanese summers, the noodles are served cold with a dipping sauce made with Katsuobushi (dried, fermented, and smoked skipjack tuna) with added leek & ginger. Pretty simple, so how to make that simple meal into an “experience”? Well the noodles float past you on a stream of rapidly flowing icy cold water, which in the most authentic cases is channelled from an outside natural stream or waterfall. Again the most authentic cases would use bamboo channels, my experience was in PVC guttering but not to worry, the “experience” was still first class!
As the noodles zoom past you, the eater takes his/her chopsticks and plucks the Somen noodles out of the flow of water and places them in the bowl of fishy sauce. Now whilst I could use chopsticks, the proprietor of the fine establishment I visited provided me with a fork. I can tell you that regardless of ones skill catching noodles zipping past at 30 knots with chopsticks a fork is a far more superior tool to catch these noodles. So much so that my fork-fishing technique created quite a stir. Locals downstream had a lot less chance of catching any noodles due to my super efficient fork preventing noodles from getting away from me. Vigorous discussion was taking place about my technique, something akin to Trevor Chappell’s infamous underarm bowling incident, possibly my fork technique was just not cricket! However the end result was that several locals proclaimed to the proprietor that they too wanted a fork to increase their noodle fishing efficiency!
"Flowing Noodles" note my "fork" technique ;)
My Flowing Noodle experience took place in the hills behind the small town of Uwajima. Later on the local prefectural government treated me to a traditional Uwajima feast. I completely lost count of the number of dishes and actually gave up trying to remember their names let along the myriad of ingredients. But needless to say all the dishes tasted great. Other Japanese travelling with me unaccustomed to regional Uwajima food specialties also relished the experience. One dish consisted of four separate portions of food on a plate. One section was bright pink and apparently was made from fish flakes and was quite sweet. Another section was bright yellow and consisted of citrus zest and egg. There was a green quarter based on green onion and a white quarter based on more fish. It all sat on top of noodles and mixed together before consumption. A truly unique flavour combination with the tangy citrus zest cutting through all the other flavours.
Mixing up the Uwajima "colourful" dish
Many Japanese “eating” styles involve cooking at the table. During my feast of Uwajima Fare I was treated to Japanese Pheasant with Mushrooms and Tofu cooked at the table on a hot plate over an open flame. The flavour of the meat was exceptional.
Another great “cook at the table dish” in Japan is Okonomiyaki. Often called Japanese Pizza or Japanese Pancakes – it actually has nothing in common with either of these dishes except for its essentially round shape – this dish is popular for many reasons including the fact it is relatively inexpensive. This trait has led to its nickname “Econo-miyaki” amongst its fans. With cabbage, other vegetables, batter, noodles, sesame seeds, a yummy sauce and pork and seafood added, its extremely filling.
Many of the famous Japanese meals revolve around unique ingredients. Possibly the most notorious of these is Fugu. Fugu is a generic term for various pufferfish or blowfish, lethally poisonous if prepared incorrectly, Fugu has become one of the most celebrated dishes in Japanese cuisine. Any fan of the Simpsons TV show will recall Homer’s run in with Fugu when he visited a Sushi restaurant.Fugu contains lethal amounts of the poison tetrodotoxin in the organs, especially the liver area and ovaries, and also the skin. The poison, a sodium channel blocker, paralyses the muscles while the victim stays fully conscious, and eventually dies from asphyxiation. Currently, there is no known antidote, and the standard medical approach is to try to support the respiratory and circulatory system until the poison dissipates. I was fortunate enough to have a fabulous Fugu experience which included consuming copious amounts of the delectable fish….and I am still alive!!
My fabulous Fugu feast in Shimonoseki consisted of lessons in slicing the fish, Fugu sashimi (especially the super thin variety), Fugu Shabu Shabu (thin strips of Fugu put into a pot of boiling water for a few seconds, deep fried Fugu (which tasted like Spanish Mackerel), Fugu salad (various salad vegetables with Fugu skin sashimi distributed through out) and washed down with Fugu sake (Sake warmed with Fugu fins immersed in the cup). As with many things Japanese everything about the Fugu has become an art form and in particular the serving of the sashimi has developed into an amazing artistic event with the thin slices of Fugu arranged elaborately on the plate. I actually visited a Fugu sashimi gallery housing pictures of elaborate Fugu servings that had to be seen to be believed.
Fugu Feast, Shimonoseki
On the fascinating island of Miyajima, the local specialty is oysters. Again its the freshness the makes all the difference. Oysters are flame grilled in the streets in their shells and a popular lunch, in which I indulged, is deep fried oysters.
Japanese beef is world renowned for numerous reasons, including its hefty price tag. The “marbling” of Japanese beef is really what sets it apart. Every beef experience I had in Japan was exceptional. My personal favourite was the “Ishigaki” branded beef. Whilst lesser known to outsiders then “Kobe” branded beef, and not taking anything away from the quality of “Kobe” branded beef, the intense flavour and they way it literally dissolved in my mouth set the “Ishigaki” branded beef apart for me.
super thin strips of Japanese Beef for Shabu Shabu displaying the unique marbling quality
Down south in Okinawa and the nearby islands in the Ryukyu chain their cuisine has developed independantly and often has a more tropical feel to it. Bitter Gourds are common as are “sea grapes”. Pig’s Ears are a delicacy and I can boast that in one day I had a Pig’s Ear dish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Pig’s ear jerky is sold throughout the islands. Okinawa sea salt is famous for adding flavour to food in the region. Sweets are made of brown sugar from the islands sugar cane. Fruits in sub-tropical Okinawa are delectable and a very happy discovery for me was Shikuwasa – Okinawan Calamansi. Calamansi (Kalamansi, Calamondin) is a hybrid citrus originally from China and extremely popular in the Philippines. It’s incredibly delicious and goes well with everything from fish to beef to vodka. Discovering the Japanese equivalent in Okinawa was almost the highlight of my trip and several litres of commercially bottled concentrate accompanied me back home.
An Okinawan feast including sea grapes (top centre), pig’s ears (top centre), Okinawan Hibiscus Sea Salt (with fish top left), Purple Yam (with rice – bottom left), Bitter Gourd salad (bottom centre) and great quality fruit including the best mango I have ever eaten (top right).
An unusual feature of Okinawan cuisine (also popping up in other Japanese regions) is Spam, Yep that good ol’ tinned processed meat known the world over is a POPULAR food product in Okinawa. This history of Spam in this part of the world has significance to exactly why it is so popular. Apparently after WWII when everything was in total disarray, Spam was literally a lifeline, providing easy access to protein and etching itself into the history and psyche of the Okinawan populous. Today you’ll find fancy restaurants serving Spam dishes and market places all over the islands selling the tinned product shunned in other parts of the world as a “poor mans” food.
Sushi and Sashimi are arguably the most recognised and popular Japanese foods to the rest of the world. I don’t think a day went by without a meal of “raw fish”. Always incredibly fresh, the northern regions around Hokkaido are particularly well known for fabulous sushi and sashimi. My favourite Sushi meal was in Otaru not far from Sapporo, Hokkaido. This particular Sushi dish was literally a dish or bowl filled with rice and then topped with delicacies including sea urchin, salmon roe and other fresh sea foods.
Reinforcing the “artisitc” and “experience” aspects of Japanese eating is the Bento box. In it’s simplest form it could actually be a plastic container from the Seven-Eleven with compartments for rice and the other “courses”. In it’s most elaborate form it can take on amazing proportions with drawers or verticfal shelves in an eleborate box containing various delicacies. I was privileged to experience a wonderful Bento Box meal in Kanazawa.
Like just about everything in Japan, cooking, food and eating is deep in culture and tradition. Even a long winded post like this can barely scratch the surface of the Japanese Eating Experience………
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Rough Google Map positions of some places listed in this post