Japan is an archipelago (chain of islands) made up of about 3,000 islands. About twothirds of the land is too mountainous for development, so almost all the people live in cities, most of which were built on the country’s flat land (plains area). The country sometimes experiences natural disasters, such as typhoons (huge storms originating over the ocean) and earthquakes.
Some mountainous areas have been terraced (had step-like areas cut into them) to allow farmers to grow rice and other crops. The climate is good for farming, with rice being the chief crop. About half of Japan’s arable land (land able to be farmed) is devoted to growing rice. From the 1970s to the 1990s, the production of Japan’s livestock farmers doubled.
Japan accounts for about 8 percent of all the fish caught in the world. Japanese people consume large amounts of fish. Each person in Japan eats more than 150 pounds of fish per year, or around three pounds of fish per week.
HISTORY AND FOOD
Japanese cuisine has been influenced by the food customs of other nations, but has adopted and refined them to create its own unique cooking style and eating habits.
The first foreign influence on Japan was China around 300 B.C. , when the Japanese learned to cultivate rice. The use of chopsticks and the consumption of soy sauce and soybean curd (tofu) also came from China.
In the A.D. 700s. The popular dish, sushi (raw fish with rice) came about as a result of this ban. In the 1800s, cooking styles became simpler. A wide variety of vegetarian (meatless) foods were served in small portions, using one of five standard cooking techniques. All foods were divided into five color groups (green, red, yellow, white, and black-purple) and six tastes (bitter, sour, sweet, hot, salty, and delicate). The Japanese continue to use this cooking system.
Beginning in the early 1200s, trade with other countries began bringing Western-style influences to Japan. The Dutch introduced corn, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. The Portuguese introduced tempura (batter frying).
After a ban of more than one thousand years, beef returned to Japan during the Meiji Period (1868–1912). Western foods, such as bread, coffee, and ice cream, become popular during the late twentieth century. Another Western influence has been the introduction of timesaving cooking methods. These include the electric rice cooker, packaged foods such as instant noodles, instant miso (fermented soybean paste) soup, and instant pickling mixes. However, the Japanese are still devoted to their classic cooking traditions.
FOODS OF THE JAPANESE
Rice and noodles are the two primary staples of the Japanese diet. Rice, either boiled or steamed, is served at every meal. Noodles come in many varieties. Among the most popular are soba, thin brown noodles made from buckwheat flour; udon, thick white noodles made from wheat flour; and ramen, thin, curly noodles, also made from wheat flour . Soy sauce and other soybean products are also staples in Japan. These include miso (fermented soybean paste) and tofu (a soybean curd that resembles custard). Other common ingredients in Japanese food include bamboo shoots, daikon (a giant white radish), ginger, seaweed, and sesame seed products. Japanese pickles called tsukemono are served at every meal. Seafood is also plentiful in this island nation. Green tea is the national beverage of Japan, although black tea is also available. Sake (SAH-kee, wine made from rice, usually served warm) and beer are also very popular.
Two uniquely Japanese foods are sushi (fresh raw seafood with rice) and sashimi (fresh raw seafood with soy sauce); both rely on freshly caught fish or seafood. Dishes prepared in a single pot ( nabemeno ) are popular throughout Japan. Sukiyaki is a dish made up of paper-thin slices of beef (or sometimes chicken), vegetables, and cubes of tofu cooked in broth. Shabu-shabu is beef and vegetables, also cooked in broth but then dipped in flavorful sauces. Each region has its own selection of favorite foods. People living on the cold northern island of Hokkaido enjoy potatoes, corn, and barbecued meats. Foods in western Japan tend to be more delicately flavored than those in the east.
The Japanese are known for using very fresh ingredients in their cooking. They prefer using fresh, seasonal foods for their meals, buying it the same day it will be cooked. The Japanese are also famous for their skill in arranging food so that it looks beautiful. The people of Japan live long lives and have a low rate of heart disease because of healthy eating habits.
Gohan (Boiled Rice)
- 1 cup Japanese short-grain rice, uncooked (available at most supermarkets and Asian food stores)
- 1¼ cups water
- Wash the rice and allow it to soak in a saucepan for about 30 minutes; let drain.
- Return the rice to the saucepan, add water, and bring to a boil over high heat.
- Reduce heat, cover, and let simmer, cooking about 15 minutes more until water has been absorbed by the rice.
- Reduce the heat to medium and keep covered, allowing rice to steam for about 15 minutes.
- Serve in individual bowls with chopsticks (optional).
Serves 4. To eat rice, the rice bowl is held in the left hand, close to the mouth. The chopsticks are used to push the rice into the mouth as the bowl is slowly rotated in the hand.
- Small bamboo mat (makisu) for preparing sushi
- Dry seaweed sheets (nori)
- Bowl of water to which 1 Tablespoon vinegar has been added
- Wasabi (dried horse radish powder)
- Strips of avocado, cucumber, carrot, or other vegetable
- Cooked shrimp or crab meat (or frozen imitation crabmeat, thawed)
- Place a sheet of nori (dry seaweed), shiny side down, on the makisu (bamboo mat).
- Wet your right hand (or left hand, if you are left-handed) in the bowl of vinegar water, and use it to scoop up a ball of rice.
- Spread the rice out in an even layer on one side of the nori .
- Sprinkle a line of wasabi (horseradish powder) down the center of the rice.
- Arrange the strips of vegetables and seafood over the line of wasabi .
- Using the mat to support the nori , lift one end of the mat to gently roll the nori over the rice and other ingredients.
- Use gentle pressure to compact the rice and other ingredients so that they hold together.
- Continue rolling until a long cylinder is formed, completely encased in nori .
- Carefully slice through the nori and other ingredients to make the bites of sushi .
- Serve immediately so the nori will still be crispy.
Wasabi powder, a key ingredient in sushi, is produced from the wasabi root.
AP Photos/Don Ryan
Onigiri (Rice Ball)
- 2 cups cooked rice
- Pickled plums, cut into small, bite-sized pieces
- Cooked salmon, cut into small, bite-sized pieces
- Dry seaweed sheets (nori), cut into strips
- Cook rice according to directions on package. Allow to cool slightly.
- Have a bowl of lukewarm water handy.
- Dip clean hands into water, and then sprinkle salt on wet hands.
- Place a small mound of rice (about 2 Tablespoons) in the palm of your hand.
- Press a piece of pickled plum or cooked salmon into the mound of rice.
- Toss the mound back and forth between wet, salted hands to form a triangular mound, with the filling item in the center.
- Wrap mound in a dry seaweed strip.
Serves 10 to 12.
- 2 scallions
- ¼ pound tofu
- 1¼ cups dashi (Japanese fish stock) or 1 chicken bouillon cube, dissolved in 1 cup boiling water
- 2 Tablespoons red miso
- Wash the scallions and cut the green parts into 1½-inch lengths.
- Cut the tofu into small cubes and place the scallions and tofu in soup bowls.
- Boil the dashi (broth) in a saucepan.
- Put a little of the boiling liquid in a bowl and mix with the miso .
- Pour back into the saucepan, then ladle into the soup bowls.
- Serve immediately.
Makes one serving.
- ½ cup soy sauce
- ¼ cup sugar
- ½ cup dashi or beef broth
- 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 pound beef tenderloin, sliced into thin strips
- 10 scallions, cut into 2-inch pieces (both and green and white parts)
- 4 stalks celery, sliced on an angle, in ½-inch pieces
- 12 mushroomcaps, sliced
- 8 ounces tofu or bean curd, cut into bite-sized cubes
- 1 can bamboo shoots (8½-ounce), drained
- 4 cups rice, cooked
- Mix soy sauce, sugar, and dashi or broth in a bowl and set aside.
- Arrange beef and vegetables on a large platter.
- Heat an electric skillet 300°F; or heat a frying pan over medium-high heat. Add oil and heat.
- Add the meat and brown for 2 minutes.
- Add the vegetables and the tofu, including the bamboo shoots, placing each on its own part of the skillet.
- Add the sauce and cook mixture for 6 to 7 minutes, turning gently to prevent burning and keeping all ingredients separate from each other. Serve at once over rice.
Serves 4 to 6.
- ½ cup soy sauce (preferably Japanese-style)
- 3 Tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon fresh gingerroot, grated
- 3 Tablespoons sesame seeds
- 1½ to 2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into small serving pieces
- Preheat oven to 375°F.
- Combine soy sauce, sugar, gingerroot, and sesame seeds in a large bowl.
- Place chicken in a baking dish and pour sauce over it.
- Bake for 45 minutes. Turn chicken about every 15 minutes, coating with sauce in the process.