by Siobhan Cowen
This month I thought we would take a little break from the photo tips and talk about another important part of the travel experience…FOOD!
From Sashimi to Sake, from Donburi to Daikon, Japan has a rich history and culture in food. When you think about Japanese food your mind probably immediately thinks of sushi, but there is a lot more to Japanese cuisine. Japanese cuisine usually consists of staple foods, shushoku, normally noodles or rice; soup and okazu (dishes made from tofu, vegetables, meat, or fish). Soy sauce (shoyu), dashi, and miso customarily are used to add flavour to the dish. A traditional meal commonly includes a base of Japanese white rice or gohan, with a few assorted okazu, a bowl of soup, and pickles (tsukemono). The okazu are prepared employing various cooking techniques such as grilling, steaming, deep frying, simmering, dressing, or leaving raw (sashimi).
Although today many Japanese have opted for a more Western style breakfast including toast, eggs and ham; a traditional breakfast is comprised of grilled fish, a bowl of rice, and miso soup. Lunch is a fairly casual meal and is generally a bowl of noodles or a large bowl of rice with toppings referred to as donburi. You may also find other popular lunch items such as a bento, a boxed lunch, or teishoku (set meal of one okazu, rice, soup, and pickles). The most significant meal of the day occurs in the evening where traditionally drinking is prominent. Sakana is the Japanese word for fish and also the word for food served with alcohol. Rice is not usually eaten in accompaniment to alcohol except in the form of sushi. This is due to sake, an alcoholic beverage, being brewed from rice and considered a rice substitute. Often people finish their meal with a rice soup, ochazuke, to draw the drinking session to a close.
So your parents probably made sure they taught you proper table manners, but did they teach eating etiquette in Japan? Well just in case they didn’t, here are a few tips to try and follow while visiting Japan. Before beginning eating your meal, it is expected you say itadakimasu, which translates into "I shall receive”. Then after the meal is finished you should convey your contentment to the host or restaurant staff by saying gochiso-sama deshita or "That was a feast". When you sit down in most dining establishments, a hot towel will be delivered to you. Now this is not an opportunity to take your own personal sponge bath, the towel is provided only to clean your hands prior to the meal and it is considered rude to use it anywhere else on the face or body. Also, blowing your nose at the table is frowned upon. When the food arrives, dishes are meant to be picked up with the left hand and you operate your chopsticks with the right. Never stick your chopsticks up vertically in your rice or use them to spear food or pass into another person’s chopsticks. When taking food from a shared plate, use the opposite end on the chopsticks for obvious sanitary reasons. Soy sauce is for dipping and should not be poured into soup or on rice. It is not common to ask for substitutions or special requests at restaurants as picky eaters are looked down on. You should also make sure that you attempt to eat your rice down to the last grain. When drinking in an informal setting, you start with saying kanpai which is like “Cheers”. Also the norm is to keep other’s drinks topped up and not pour your own glass.
Now if you get really brave and are decide you may want to do some Japanese cooking, then I have the place for you to shop. Actually, even if you want someone else to do the cooking for you I suggest that you visit the famous Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. The Tsukiji Fish Market, aka the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, is the largest wholesale seafood and fish market in the entire world. In fact, over 2000 metric tons of seafood is handled at the market each day alone and billions of dollars worth of seafood move through the market each year. The market itself is divided into two separate zones, the inner market (jonai shijo) and the outer market (jogai shijo). The inner market is where all the wholesale auctions take place for the various dealers and where the majority of the fish is processed. The outer market is where tourists can visit and features a variety of stores that sell seafood, groceries, Japanese kitchen tools, and other supplies. There are also some fabulous restaurants in the market where you can get the freshest possible fish and great sushi. It is interesting to note that Fugu, the deadly pufferfish, can be purchased at the market. If you have not heard about Fugu, let me give you a quick overview. Fugu is one of the most famous or possibly infamous dishes in Japanese cooking; this is because the pufferfish contains a lethal poison called tetrodotoxin. Only licensed chefs who have gone through rigorous training are allowed to prepare fugu making it difficult to find restaurants that serve the dish. You do however want to make sure you go to a licensed chef because there is currently no antidote for this poison and there have been quite a few deaths that have resulted. So why you may ask is this considered a delicacy and who would want to risk death to eat this fish? I do not believe there is one easy answer to that, but fugu remains a popular and expensive dish in Japan.
Well until I can make it to Japan to indulge in some of these delights, I guess I will just have to go watch some Iron Chef reruns and keep perusing your Japanese trip journals. Just remember…Don’t knock it until you try it!
Shrimp at the Tsukiji Fish Market
(courtesy of Natalya Brodie)