Eating Japanese

More westerners partake of Japanese culture, but they get rooted in what they already know. Not adventurous for the most part, they miss wonderful opportunities to broaden their horizons. Yeah, our cartoons and movies have reached the American and European markets and a lot has been translated and regurgitated for new audiences. It still skims the surface of what the country has to offer which goes way beyond stereotypes. I appreciate it, but there is also much more to the blithe Japanese spirit. Take cuisine. Exceptional dishes with incomparable native ingredients grace the table of families and restaurant diners. Tokyo citizens eat out a lot. There are great foods to savor and share on both the street and behind closed doors.

Japanese fare in the US is more or less authentic, unlike Chinese which has undergone a massive transformation. There are dishes that were invented in New York that have spread to the hinterlands. With our well-known tradition of fresh, even exotic, sushi, fans have been building worldwide and are now on the level of fanatics. They have developed a taste for the very best that we confect. Everyone loves to watch the knife-wielding pros create delightful, elegant fantasies for the taste buds of aficionados. They do understand that it is an art in every respect. No cuisine emphasizes presentation as much as the Japanese. It always looks as good as it tastes, maybe better. Curlicues of fragrant ginger, elongated sprouts, and wedges of orange are par for the course. This is no formula production but a parade of whimsical and appealing culinary fabrications.

It’s all about rice with sashimi and sushi, not to mention teriyaki beef or chicken. You get this staple with every order. It is consumed as part of a typical meal. A rice cooker is an essential appliance in a professional or amateur kitchen, and it gets used a lot. Every chef has a good one in tow. Making rice is simple, but has to be done just right to adorn the delicacies for which the local cuisine is known. Yes, you can just boil it in a pot, but if you have a state-of-the-art cooker, you can set it for perfect texture and consistency every time—and fast. It is easy to measure everything (after the rice has been washed). It has to be made fresh and not sit on the counter for hours congealing. Whether ready-polished or brown (increasingly popular in the west), it is the perennial accompaniment of choice.

Eating Japanese therefore entails time-honored tempura preparation, very particular vegetables, and wasabi mustard in sufficient quantities. It implies plenty of white rice that is fluffy, and not too moist. It is a side dish, of course, but it counts as more. Wash it down with hot green tea and you are in heaven. Put a dollop alongside succulent beef sukiyaki (using only the very best cuts) and your mouth will water. Eat it with chopsticks right from the bowl. Get down with eating Japanese!