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Japanese Cuisine

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Post your questions here -->> Q&A


Author: Kristin Yamaguchi (Torakris)

This course will help familiarize you with Japanese foods, especially the homestyle foods that the Japanese eat day in and day out.

For the Japanese nothing is more important than SHUN, or the foods of the season. Not only do they make a point of eating what is the freshest, but they also try to enjoy the food in as natural a state as possible. Heavy sauces and long simmering times are almost unheard of in traditional dishes. Sauces are used minimally or are served as a dipping sauce to be applied just seconds before eating so as to retain the purity of the individual dishes. While fish and some meats are regularly eaten in the raw state, vegetables are almost always briefly blanched (to remove the "raw" taste yet still retain the crunch) or pickled with salt.

The idea that foods should be eaten in the freshest state possible is one reason the Japanese love to travel. Where better to eat the food then its place of origin. Every region of Japan has its local dishes that it is famous for—everyone knows that the best crab come from Hokkaido, you can't get yuba (tofu skin) any better then in Kyoto, the only place to drink awamori is in Okinawa and no trip to Kyushu would be complete if you didn't have the oysters.

I have chosen to introduce 4 dishes, selected because they are very typical of the foods the Japanese eat every day in their homes, are very simple to prepare (not really requiring "exotic" ingredients) and because they should be appealing to even the pickiest of eaters:

Nikujyaga - Simmered beef and potatoes

Goma-ae - Sesame dressing

Unagi Okawa - Rice with eel

Ton-jiru (Buta-jiru) - Soup with pork

NIKUJYAGA (Simmered beef and potatoes)

I will start off with Nikujyaga a dish of beef and potatoes that is probably one of the dishes most frequently requested by children in Japan, second only to curry rice!

This homestyle simmered dish is a prime example of ofukuro no aji¡ or mother's taste. It is a simple dish that is seasoned just a little differently in each house. Those with roots in Kanto (Tokyo and surrounding areas) will prefer it heavy on the soy sauce while those from the Kansai area (Osaka and surrounds) tend to prefer it milder. The additions are numerous- shirataki, carrots, green peas, green beans, etc. Like most Japanese dishes that combine meat and vegetables the focus is on the vegetables with the meat playing a supporting role.

I prefer it simple, nothing but potatoes, onion and beef, heavy on the soy and with a hint of sesame oil.

While the new spring potatoes are wonderful in this dish, any boiling potato will do. Avoid starchy baking potatoes that will fall apart during the simmering.

The right meat can turn this from a good dish to a great dish and the right beef can be hard to find outside Japan. You want something that has very good marbling and will not become tough during simmering. It also needs to be paper thin. If you have a good Asian grocer nearby that sells meat (either fresh or frozen) look there. Try looking for something that might be labeled for sukiyaki as that will have the best marbling (the shabu shabu cuts tend to be leaner). This is what you want to look for:


Ingredients (for 4 people)

• About 8 smallish potatoes (about half the size of a baseball) or the equivalent, chopped into large bite size pieces.

• 300 grams/ 10 oz of thinly sliced beef (cut into strips about 2 inches x 3 inches)

• 1 medium onion, sliced.

• 1/4 cup soy sauce

• 2 tablespoons sugar

• 2 tablespoons mirin

• sesame oil

• water


1. In a frypan heat the sesame oil over high heat, add the onions and cook until they start to soften.


2. Push them to the side and add the beef. Keep cooking over high heat until the beef just loses its pinkness.

3. Add the soy sauce, sugar and mirin, give it a stir, then add the potatoes and stir again. Now add enough water to come about 2/3 of the way up the potatoes.


4. Cover and slightly lower the heat to strong medium and leave it at a very strong simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Give it a stir a couple of times while it is simmering.

You should be left with just a tiny bit of liquid. If there is too much, remove the lid and let it evaporate. If it seems as if there isn't enough during the simmering, then add a little more.

The finished dish!


This is a really simple dish that should take no more than 20 minutes. It is also great to eat hot or at room temperature and tastes even better the next day!

GOMA-AE (Sesame dressing)

This next dish is goma-ae, is actually a recipe for a dressing that can be used on a multitude of vegetables. This is especially popular in the spring when the greens are at their peak. In Japan spinach is the most popular followed by green beans and broccoli. I especially like it on broccoli rabe and okra. It is sometimes made with a little vinegar that seems to match the root vegetables that are at their peak in the fall and winter.

This is really all to taste, so taste as you go along. I don't really use a recipe so these are approximations.


(for about 1 lb of (blanched) vegetables)

• 6 tablespoons white sesame seeds

• 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons sugar

• 2 teaspoons soy sauce

• 4 tablespoons dashi (homemade or instant) or water


1. Toast the sesame seeds.

This is what the toasted ones look like in comparison to the plain ones:


Place the hot seeds into a suribachi and crush until about 75% are pretty well smashed.


Add the sugar and mix again. Then add the soy and dashi and mix with the pestle with a fast, almost whipping action to blend it.


Taste and add more sugar or soy if needed.

2. Add the blanched vegetable. If using a leafy vegetable, mix with the pestle very gently bruising the vegetables to allow the flavors to penetrate. When using chunkier vegetables I mix with a rubber spatula.

The finished product, shown here with broccoli rabe


I vary the taste depending on the veggie. For broccoli rabe I like it sweeter to offset the bitterness, whereas I prefer a little more soy in the spinach version.


To make a sesame-vinegar dressing that is more common with root vegetables such as carrots or burdock (gobo) you use the same recipe decreasing the soy and dashi by a little and adding 2 to 3 Tablespoons of rice vinegar. The vegetables should be boiled first.

UNAGI OKOWA (Rice with eel)

The third recipe is called unagi okowa. Unagi is the Japanese word for eel and about 95% of the unagi eaten in Japan is kabayaki style which is grilled with a soy based sauce. This product is often sold pre-cooked and frozen in Asian markets around the world and this recipe is a good way to introduce others to eel for the first time. Summer is the season of the eel and they are eaten in incredible numbers during the hot months. But, because it is available frozen, this rice dish can be eaten all year round.

Okowa is a type of rice dish that uses a mix of regular Japanese short grain rice and mochi-gome (Japanese sticky rice). Traditionally it is steamed in a bamboo basket, but it can also be made in a rice cooker or in a pot on the stove.


I use a rice cooker, along with 99% of the Japanese, and find it makes quite good rice, but you can also make good rice quite easily on the stove. However they are many variables in the rice that can make it less then perfect each time. Things to pay attention to:

All rice is different!

Japanese style rice grown in the US needs a little bit more water then Japanese-grown rice, because most American rice farmers use the dry field method, while in Japan everything is grown in wet fields.

If the bag is marked shinmai (new crop) the rice needs a little less water as it is fresh out of the fields.

When cooking more then 3 cups, the water to rice proportion gets slightly less.

If you like your rice a little harder (firmer) add less water, if you like it softer add more.

If you are using a made-in-Japan rice cooker read the manual carefully to find out the size of the cup!

In Japan when they refer to a cup of rice, it is only 180cc (an American cup is 250cc), so the cup lines on the inner bowl of the rice cooker may refer to the Japanese cup! (180cc is the old cup measure of Japan, and I think it is pretty much used only to measure rice , the common everyday cup is 200cc).

Washing the rice

This is a very important step that is often overlooked. The rice needs to be washed until the water is no longer milky.

Place the rice into a bowl (I use the bowl of the rice cooker) and add enough water so that it is covered about twice over. Give it a couple swirls with your hand and then dump out the water.

Next put in a little water (just enough to cover the rice) and mix it around with your hand (lightly rubbing the grains together) for a good 30 seconds. Pour it out and repeat until the water is clear. This can take a couple of minutes.

Drain the water completely or pour the rice into a colander and let sit for 30 to 40 minutes. This "rest" can make all the difference between a decent rice and a really good rice.

In general you want to use about 10% to 20% more water than rice, so if you are cooking one "cup" of 180ml, you would add about 200ml of water. Or you can measure the old fashioned way: place your hand flat on top of the rice and add the water until it just covers your hand, using a little more or less for the different variables mentioned above.


• 200cc Japanese short grain rice (3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons)

• 200cc Japanese sticky rice (mochi-gome) (3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons)

• 1 piece of unagi kabayaki (purchased), cut into bite size pieces, sauce packet reserved

• 10 leaves of shiso, shredded

• 1 sheet of nori, ripped into small pieces

• 450ml water (1 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons)

• 4 tablespoons sake

• 1 tablespoon mirin

• 1 tablespoon soy sauce

• Sesame seeds (toasted ) for garnish


Unagi, kabayaki style:


Cut into bite size pieces.


The rices (Japanese short grain on the left, mochi rice on the right).


The bag of mochi rice.


Other ingredients


1. Combine the two types of rice and wash and set aside (following the directions above).

2. After the rice has rested, place it into the rice cooker with the water, 2 tablespoons sake, mirin and soy sauce, give it a stir and turn on the rice cooker (set for white rice if applicable).

If using a pan (a 3 to 4 quart saucepan is best), add the ingredients and cover the pan. Place over a medium high heat and bring to a boil. Let it boil for about one minute and then turn the heat to low for 10 to 13 minutes.

3. After the rice is cooked (by either method), let it rest for at least 10 minutes.

4. Place the unagi onto a microwave safe dish, sprinkle with the sake and warm in the microwave for 1 to 2 minutes.

5. Add the unagi and its "juices" to the pot of rice along with, the shiso, nori, sesame seeds, and reserved pack of kabayaki sauce (about 1 to 2 tablespoons) and mix very gently.

6. Allow the guests to sprinkle additional sesame seeds and sanshou as wanted.

The finished dish, still in the rice cooker


TON-JIRU (BUTA-JIRU) Soup with pork

The final dish is called either ton-jiru or buta-jiru depending on what part of Japan you are in. Ton and buta are words that mean pork and thus pork is the main flavoring of this hearty soup. This is a wonderful winter dish that uses a variety of winter produce. First a little information on the hearty soups of Japan.


Most people are familiar with the simple miso and clear soups of Japan and while soups are pretty much a given at a Japanese meal, there are a couple soups that are meals in themselves. These homestyle soups are rarely found in restaurants (outside of Japan) and are one of the simplest things to make at home. The wonderful thing is that you can't do it wrong. These soups are as individual as the homes in Japan. Vegetables are the base of these soups and they can be made with whatever is on hand. Here is a run down of some of the most common ones:

Ton-jiru. "Ton" or pork is the base of this soup. The pork and vegetables are sauted together, often with sesame oil for additional flavor and the dish almost always include the addition of miso. This is also referred to as buta-jiru in certain parts of Japan.

Kenchin-jiru. This is based on tofu rather than pork and the vegetables in this soup also are sauteed with sesame oil. It can be served either sumashi style (plain broth maybe with a little soy and sake) or with miso.

Nopei-jiru. This soup tends to include just vegetables (not sauteed) in a sumashi style seasoned with soy and often thickened with a little cornstarch. It is occasionally served cold.

Ozoni. This is the traditional New Year's Day soup and can include any type of meat (pork, beef, chicken). Its distinguishing ingredient is a cake of mochi (often grilled first). It can be served either sumashi style (most common in the Kanto region) or miso style (in the Kansai region).

Kasu-jiru. This soup uses kasu (the lees or leftovers from sake making) instead of miso, as the seasoning. It almost always includes some type of fish, salmon and yellow tail being the most popular.

Satsuma-jiru. Named after its city of origin, this soup normally contains chicken (cut up, bone-in pieces) sauteed together with the vegetables and then miso added as the seasoning

Here are some of the most popular vegetables/ingredients for these soups and special preparation methods where necessary.

• Carrots


Satsumaimo (Japanese sweet potato) - should be placed in a bowl of water for 10 minutes before using

Satoimo (type of taro) - if using fresh they should be peeled, rubbed with some salt and then rinsed before using. Some people experience itchiness when working with satoimo, if you feel you may be sensitive wear gloves.

Renkon (lotus root). If used fresh they should be peeled and placed into acidulated water as soon as they are cut.

Gobo (burdock root). If used fresh they be scrubbed well (no need for peeling) and placed into acidulated water as soon as they are cut.

Shiitake. If dried they should be reconstituted before using.

Tofu. Should be slightly pressed before using (add at the end of cooking).

Konnyaku. Should be gently boiled for about 3 minutes, drained and then pulled into bite sized pieces with your fingers. Doing this helps increase the surface area helping the flavors penetrate (add at the end of cooking).

Aburage (tofu pockets). Should be placed into a colander and hot water poured over to help rid them of the oil (add at the end of cooking).

Atsuage (thick deep fried tofu). Same as for aburage.

Negi (Japanese leek). Cut into bite sized pieces (add at the end of cooking). See also garnishes below.

Garnishes for the soups

Though these soups can go un-garnished, the Japanese like to add what they refer to as aomi ("green-ness"). Some examples are:

negi, thinly sliced.

• scallions or other thin onions, thinly sliced.

mitsuba (trefoil,) chopped.


• snow peas, slivered.

They may also be sprinkled with shichimi (7 spice mix) or sanshou (Japanese pepper).


• 100 - 200g (4 to 8 oz) thinly sliced pork, the fattier the better

• any of the ingredients listed above in any amount that you like

• about 4 to 5 cups of water or dashi

• 3 to 5 tablespoons of miso (Normally brown miso or a mix. White miso or red miso are rarely used alone in these soups).

• Sesame oil or other oil


This recipe calls for either water or dashi. In these types of soups, filled with a variety of flavors including miso, a lot of Japanese cooks don't feel a dashi is needed. This is also an instance where I feel it is fine to substitute a good instant product as well. I was going to explain dashi making, but since there are not too many ways to do it, I will link you to a good site (with nice pictures) as I probably would end up quoting them verbatim anyway.

Look here for the various dashi types:

Dashi Types

An example of ingredients for tonjiru.


Carrots, daikon and gobo cut into bite size pieces.


Konnyaku (white refined type) pulled into pieces with fingers.


1. Heat the sesame oil (in the pan you will use for the soup) over medium high heat, add the pork and cook until it just loses its pinkness. Add the heartier vegetables and cook for a couple minutes without browning. If they start to brown turn down the heat.

2. Add the dashi or water, bring to a boil then turn the heat down so that the soup is just at a simmer. Simmer until the vegetables are just tender (this will depend on the size you cut them into, so try to cut them uniformly). Skim when necessary.


3. Next add the ingredients that require little cooking (tofu products, etc).

4. Place the instant miso into a bowl and add a cup or two of the simmering liquid to dissolve it. Once it is completely dissolved, carefully pour it back into the soup.

5. Taste and adjust, adding more miso if needed. To add more miso always place it into a cup and add some of the simmering liquid, stirring it well to make sure it is completely dissolved. Adding it directly to the soup can occasionally result in a mouthful of undissolved miso.

6. Pour into the individual bowls and garnish with "green-ness" if wanted, and pass the shichimi or sanshou at the table.

The finished dish.



Post your questions here -->> Q&A

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