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Japanese Cuisine

japenese cuisineJapanese cuisine is known to offer some of the most precise and technical food in the culinary world. Centered around the highest quality ingredients and meticulous presentation, it is also known to be amongst the most beautiful visual cuisines available today.

A multi island landmass, or archipelago, Japan is isolated from the mainland by both the ocean and a ridge of mountains that tower along almost three quarters of its boarder. This geographic isolation resulted in a national cuisine that was built on local resources, and remained almost untouched by outside influences until recently in history. European influences, like battering and frying items in oil (tempura), were introduced and assimilated into Japanese cookery, and in the last few decades Spanish and American cuisines have grown in popularity amongst the native Japanese. On a whole, however, food in Japan has been altered very little, and the same attention to detail and quality remain signatures of the cuisine.

Staples of Japanese Cuisine

Grains, like in China and most other Asian cuisine, are the foundation of food in Japan. The word gohan (rice) in Japanese culture is synonymous with meal, emphasizing the importance of the crop (other staples include seafood, beef or poultry, fruits, vegetables, and soya bean). Japanese cooking primarily uses short-grain rice, rather than the long grain varieties favored in China, and uses grain to make one of the biggest staples of the Japanese diet: noodles. One of the most noodle-centric diets in the world, usurping even the Italians in both production and consumption, Japan utilizes an array of noodles to be served as, or as part of, main meals on a daily basis. Udon noodles, made from wheat, are the thick round or flat variety most easily recognized by Westerners; soba, a light brown noodle made from buckwheat, is smaller, similar in appearance to angel hair pasta; somen, a variety which is only sold dried, is made from wheat and is typically served cold. Ramen noodles, the thin and springy wheat based variety, are also sold dried, and have become popular in the form of quick soups in North America.

Seafood and Sushi

The mountainous terrain that is common in Japan made widespread agricultural crop growing difficult, and the cuisine relies heavily on the sea as a result. Fish is eaten at every meal, and sea vegetables like kombu (kelp, most commonly used to make the Japanese broth dashi), nori (seaweed, found in many dishes but most notably sushi), and even items like sea cucumber are staples of the diet.

Their close proximity to the ocean means that the Japanese expect, and demand, the freshest and highest quality fish available for all meals, but particularly in the case of sushi. Sushi, though associated with raw fish, is actually the namesake of dishes using a specially prepared sweetened rice; some sushi items do not contain any seafood at all. The standard rice used is the short-grain Japonica variety, which clumps together without becoming starchy or sticky and allows for precise molding of the grain. This foundation is topped with exact cuts of raw or cooked seafood, like toro (fatty tuna) or eel, or non-fish items like egg. It can also be wrapped in seaweed and sliced into rounds (maki-zushi). Most commonly served with wasabi, a potent Asian root similar to horseradish, soy sauce, and pickled ginger, it is typically paired with sake.

Signatures of the Cuisine

Sake, the famed Japanese alcohol known for its potency, is brewed from rice. Like wine, it can vary in body and flavors, ranging from very dry to sweet; light and smooth, sake pairs well with Asian cuisines and spicy dishes. It can be served warm or cold, and has a frequent role in cooking, much like wine in Europe. Tea, especially green tea, is also one of the most consumed beverages, and has spawned the highly stylized Japanese tea ceremony.

Japanese cuisine notably differs from other Asian cookery in that it uses one or two ingredients and emphasizes their specific flavors, rather than blending multiple items into potent spice blends or curries. Soy sauce, pickled ginger, and sesame oil are the most commonly used condiments, with sesame oil employed as a base for sauces and marinades rather than in cooking. Miso (a soybean paste which emigrated from China) is also a frequent ingredient, used in dishes like miso soup (a popular breakfast item), and in dressings and sauces. As far as land-based produce, mushrooms like shiitakes (preferred fresh rather than dried) are common, as are root vegetables like onion and daikon (a member of the radish family).

Food presentation is a highly respected art form in Japan, and is a signature of the cuisine. Meticulously executed, simple entrees can be as intricate as a master oil painting, though much more exact - minimalism is a fundamental component. It is not uncommon for meals to present a visual theme, such as a specific season, like winter, or a geographical location.

Woks, round pans with high, sloped sides, are one of the most definitive piece of equipment used by the Japanese. Artfully made and incredibly sharp knives of various size and purpose are also characteristic, especially the beautiful varieties made specifically for cutting seafood for sushi. Bamboo mats, or makisu, are employed with rolling and working with rice, which does not stick to the bamboo surface as it would to a traditional counter or plate.

Much like in China, food in Japan is communal, with individual bowls of rice or noodles provided to each diner.

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