Recently, I’ve been hanging out with some pals who know their way around Japanese food. Initially, I was quite confused about the various terms of Japanese cuisine, so I decided to compile what I know and help others just as clueless. This is not a complete dictionary.
My personal fave casual meal is Chirashi, or assorted seafood, fish or roe served on top of a bowl of Japanese rice. Sushi joints around the Tsukiji fish market sell very good and reasonably priced sushi/sashimi/chirashi. Within the compound of Tsukiji fish market are several little restaurants with snake-like queues of people. We were too lazy to queue and so ventured off to another street, 5 mins away, near the shops selling bonito flakes to a little restaurant that had no customers. Our logic: surely the raw fish can afford 5 mins travelling time. Still very good.
Ramen is eaten during lunchtime or even dinnertime as a quick meal. Other noodles served could be Udon or Soba (hot or cold). Ramen stalls with variations of condiments and soup stock are so popular, that Ramen champions are crowned every year. Usually served with onsen eggs with golden runny centres.
Bento is a take-out meal or home-packed, served in boxes. Railway stations are famous for their varieties of bento boxes to make travelling such fun. Check out the basement of department stores such as Takashimaya, Isetan etc for their bento box meals.
In California maki or roll, the sushi/ avocado is on the outside. In traditional maki, the seaweed is wrapped on the outside. California maki was apparently invented by a Japanese chef in California to adjust it for American taste as the Americans don’t like to taste seaweed on the outside. Its an inside-out creative concept.
Kushiyaki or grilled skewered meat is usually served as a complement to drinking. The main actor is the alcohol (sake, beer or whisky). Yakitori generally means skewered chicken meat grilled over charcoal. Served at night at Izakaya. We made an embarrassing mistake at a Osaka joint when we asked for yakitori during lunchtime. We couldn’t speak Japanese, and the Chef not wanting to embarrass us, decided to extend their gracious Japanese hospitality and worked up the grill. It was only later that we realised yakitori is usually served after office hours, when one chills out with colleagues with drinks. The Japanese have a fondness for eating soft-bone at such sessions. This is the white cartilage of chicken, prized for its crunchy feel. Usually coated with flour and deep-fried, it is a delicacy but something I would personally avoid.
At an Izakaya, casual drinking joint we went to, there was a minimum spent per person. Yakitori served was below the standard usually served in Japan. Traditional Izakaya is identified by the red lanterns hanging outside. Highlight is drinking, all you can drink. Notice that the crowd is young and in office attire, dark suits and tie. There’re female colleagues in these drinking groups too, although not shown in the photo as they were in a different part of the room.
Izakaya is opposed to Omakase, where food is the focus. The Chef has liberty to decide what to serve you. Omakase means “I’ll leave it to you”. There is a sense of trust in the Chef. To the extent, that at the end of the meal, the Chef scribbles a large number on a piece of paper to you. You pay the number written. Food is not itemised. No questions asked. Apparently, in official entertainment, you can produce such receipts to your boss. Trust is key.
2 Michelin-Star Kanesaka serves Omakase style sushi/ sashimi. The tall gentleman is Mr Kanesaka himself. Guests sit around the counters. This tiny restaurant has 2 chefs, and about 10 guests. There are 3 prices, and you pick the price, which comes with a standard number of items, but the quality of the fish depends on the Chef’s discretion and the catch of the day. I was surprised that Mr Kanesaka is such a young looking man. Good chefs not only have excellent knife skills, but are supposed to be good conversationalists as well. They also have good relationships with fish-mongers at Tsukiji market which ensures that the raw material is good.
Sashimi is sliced fish served on a bed of cold shredded raddish, without rice.
Sushi is served on some Japanese rice and a dash of wasabi (horseradish). Under the hands of a good sushi chef, you don’t even need to add extra seasoning such as soy sauce. (Check out this link for 100 types of sushi in Japan: http://food.japan-talk.com/food/new/sushi-list). During our first visit to a Sushi restaurant in Tokyo in the early 1990s, our friend PT working in Japan then, told us that the sweat of a Sushi Chef added to the “umami” (pleasant savory or 5th basic taste) taste of sushi. Urgghh. Yuck.
Kaiseki dining is super-traditional formal dining with a set course of menu items, served with a rigorous attention to detail. Kaiseki uses ingredients fresh to the season. It is common to see menus changing according to the ingredients available.
Next – Teppanyaki, Sukiyaki