There’s so very much to say about gorgeous, inspiring Japan. So much, that I have a very hard time knowing where to begin.
So, what say I just dive in, commence with the shameless rambling, and you just let me know when you’ve had enough?
** by way of disclaimer, let me just say that I spent 6 days in Japan, with native hosts that showed me around 3 different cities. When I talk about what I learned there, please know that something may be off in my interpretation. Some things could be more specific to my hosts than the Japanese people as a whole, or perhaps the region in which I travelled. So, if you find any glaring errors, know that they are unintentional, and please do set me straight!**
Let’s get ‘er rolling with a discussion of Japanese cuisine.
I’ll be honest. I was a little concerned about what on earth I would be asked to eat in Japan. I found myself relishing my meal on the plane, thinking this could be my last taste of “real food” for a while.
All I knew about Japanese food involved sushi, edamame, and miso soup, and while I love each of those things, I had a hard time imagining eating only that for a week.
Take it from me though, should you ever land yourself in Tokyo, or thereabouts, you will not starve. In fact, you may just find your palate forever changed. I needn’t have worried. Japanese food is good good good.
A run down of all that I learned about food and dining in Japan could provide me with blog posts for days, maybe weeks to come, but I will try to give you a quick overview, then maybe, some other time, come back and focus on some of the more intimate details of ingredients, techniques and what not.
In Japan, food is serious business. Everything, from how the food is grown, to how it is prepared, to when and where it is eaten, to presentation and how it is served, each little detail, is carefully considered.
This is a centuries old food culture. Food is not just filling the tank in Japan, it is ritual wrapped up in relationship, topped off with spirituality. It is art.
We tried a variety of foods during our visit, sushi, of course, tempura, shabu shabu, skiyaki, teppanyaki, soba noodles, curry over rice, even treats, like mochi (a sweet gummy rice confection that my mom thinks tastes a bit like cookie dough), yokan (a sort of thick jelly stuff made from beans and sugar), and dorayaki (something like a pancake, filled with sweet bean paste). No matter what we were served though, we always, ALWAYS were told about the healthfulness and quality of the ingredients. With each new dish, we were being given, not just sustenance, but an offering, a sort of “our best to you.”
It is no wonder that at the beginning of each meal, the Japanese say, “itadakimasu”, which literally means, “I’m about to receive”. As best I can tell, it is just a statement that acknowledges that what sits before you is a gift, from the earth, and from the series of hands that have brought it to your plate. This little phrase is so ingrained in the Japanese mindset that people will say it even when dining alone.
Some other things to know, if ever you dine in Japan:
* you will be given, at the front of each meal, a wet towel, with which to clean your hands. I love this.
* you will be given a LOT of food. Don’t let that whole thing about America’s portion sizes being out of control fool you! Japanese people eat just as much, but never on one plate. Where we usually have one main dish with a couple of sides, the Japanese will have many small elements to a meal. You may have a variety of vegetable courses, a tofu dish, a soup, a slaw like salad, a fish course, a meat course and then rice followed by a sweet or a fruit dish. The Japanese LOVE to eat, and it shows! The good news is, eating a lot of their kind of food is far better for you than eating a lot of ours.
* organic and humanely grown is pretty much the standard in Japan. My host told me that “we don’t use poisons on our food, we use ducks”
“What?” I said, thinking this was some Japanese word for bug repellent.
“Ducks. We put a few in the field and they eat the bugs and weeds.”
So, just know that what you are eating may not be something that suits your tastes, but it will be healthy and of good quality. It will also be true to your current season.
We lucked out to be there in the fall, when may of the markets we visited were roasting Japanese yams over hot rocks. It smells DIVINE! It would be hard to resist picking them up in newspaper and munching them while you shop.
*never leave your chopsticks in your rice bowl. This is the way rice is offered to the dead, and it is very offensive if you do this. I know, because I did it, and was set straight.
* Don’t plan on cereal or muffins or even eggs and bacon for breakfast. Soup, salad, steamed veggies, rice and fish are more likely. This was very very hard for me to get used to. At one of our hotels, you could choose from the breakfast buffet. On the one side was traditional western fare (croissant, toast, bagels, omelet, bacon, cereals) on the other, soup, rice, and steamed veggies. It completely blew my mind that all the Japanese people were passing right by the biscuits and scooping up broccoli and halibut for breakfast. BREAKFAST!
*If your host orders lobster at a teppanyaki restaurant, it will be brought out live, and flopped on the hot grill to agonize before your very eyes. The moment it stops moving, it will be served to you. You will feel kind of bad, until you taste it, and then you move right past the horror and right on to the exclaiming of “Oh ee she” (a phonetic spelling of a word that means “delicious!”)
* if you ever get to Japan, don’t miss your chance to see the buying and selling of food. Whether it is the festival like tents in front of temples and shrines, bustling markets, farmer’s stands, or even the grocery store you will be AMAZED by the array of food choices. I was astounded to find that the vast majority of the offerings were things I could not even identify. There were rows upon rows of fruits and veggies that I’d never seen. There are miles and miles of varied spices (even a few that are not meant to alter the flavor but only to give a pleasing scent to the dish), gazillions of different fish (many of which were displayed live in tanks), and heaps of ballish, jelloish things I could not name if I’d had to.
*go ahead and slurp your noodles.
* sip your soup right from the bowl, no spoon.
*you may or may not be dining tatami style (meaning sitting on a cushion on the floor with a very low table). Many Japanese homes have regular western style tables for everyday use, and tatami for more formal dining.
* use the itty bitty slotted spoon to pick up the tofu. It’s darn near impossible with chopsticks. It is though, perfectly okay to bring your bowl very close to your mouth to make shorter the distance your chopsticks need travel.
* be a good sport and try what you are offered. Japanese people will not be offended if you do not like something, but when you consider the care and thought that goes into their food, you will understand that they are quite impressed and very honored when you make an effort to at least try.
*if all else fails and you simply cannot find something to love within the bounds of Japanese fare (something I can’t imagine) know that American food has pervaded their country and won’t be hard to find. Denny’s, KFC, Wendy’s, pizza and ice cream are all over the place.
I never felt the slightest urge in that direction though. Not the slightest.
What will be hard to find is a stinking Diet Coke! Convenience stores, restaurants and vending machines alike will have Coke Zero, but no Diet Coke.
*in the end, when you are full and reeling from the sheer vastness of delicious food offerings that have past your plate, don’t forget to tell the restaurant staff, or your host, the traditional end of meal phrase: “gochisosama deshita” which means, “it was a feast.”
I have no doubt that you will mean it when you say it!