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5 Cornerstone Dishes of Japanese Cuisine that You Need to Know

japanese food

Japanese food, with its flavors, textures, and traditions, has captivated culinary lovers around the world, offering a unique blend of simplicity and sophistication.

However, many people often find themselves confused about Japanese dish names or unsure of what these dishes entail. Therefore, in this article, we will explore five iconic dishes that have become global ambassadors of Japanese food culture.

Sushi: The Iconic Face of Japanese Food

Sushi is a quintessential Japanese dish, one of Japan’s most famous culinary exports. It dates back to the 8th century, originally as a method of preserving fish by fermenting it in rice. 

It typically consists of vinegared rice combined with various ingredients:

  • Shari: Vinegared rice, the foundation of most sushi.
  • Neta: The topping or filling, often raw or cooked seafood but also vegetables or egg.
  • Nori: Dried seaweed sheets used in rolled sushi.

It is often accompanied by soy sauce, pickled ginger (gari), and wasabi to enhance the flavors.

There are several types of sushi:

  • Nigiri: Hand-pressed rice topped with a slice of raw or cooked fish or seafood. The chef molds the rice with their hands and places the topping on top, sometimes secured with a thin strip of nori.
  • Maki: Maki (巻き) means “roll” or “to roll.” These are the classic “sushi rolls” cut into 6-8 pieces, made by rolling vinegared rice and fillings (such as fish, vegetables, or egg) in nori and slicing it into bite-sized pieces. 
  • Uramaki: “Inside-out” rolls with rice on the outside and nori inside (California rolls or “California uramaki” are a famous example).
  • Temaki: Temaki (手巻き) is hand-rolled sushi in a cone shape, meant to be eaten immediately to keep the nori crisp (“Te” (手) means “hand” in Japanese).

Sushi Etiquette

  • It’s acceptable to eat sushi with your hands, especially nigiri.
  • Dip the fish side (not the rice) lightly in soy sauce.
  • Eat the pickled ginger between different types of sushi to cleanse your palate.

Sashimi: Japanese Food in Its Purest Form

Sashimi predates sushi and is considered one of the finest culinary techniques in Japanese cuisine—It is the art of slicing raw fish or seafood into thin, delicate pieces, typically served without rice. 

The fish used to prepare sashimi must be extremely fresh and of the highest quality. Chefs use special knives (yanagiba) to slice the fish against the grain, enhancing texture.

Common types of sashimi include:

  • Maguro (tuna): Tuna sashimi is a popular choice, often distinguished by fat content.
  • Sake (salmon): Salmon sashimi is known for its characteristic color, its rich flavor, and its buttery texture. 
  • Tako (octopus): Octopus sashimi is often slightly cooked to enhance its chewy texture.
  • Hamachi (yellowtail): Hamachi sashimi or yellowtail sashimi is a favorite for its firm texture and buttery, delicate flavor. 
  • Tai (sea bream): Prized for its delicate taste, it is considered auspicious.
  • Ika (squid): Valued for its subtle sweetness and chewy texture.

Sashimi is usually served with soy sauce for dipping, wasabi paste (real wasabi is rare and expensive; most is horseradish-based), and sometimes a garnish of daikon radish or shiso leaves as a palate cleanser.

Ramen: The Comfort Japanese Food That Conquered the World

Ramen is a Japanese noodle soup dish that originated from China but has become a staple in Japan. 

It gained popularity after World War II and consists of Chinese-style wheat noodles served in a meat or fish-based broth, often flavored with soy sauce or miso, and topped with various ingredients such as ajitama (marinated soft-boiled egg), chashu (braised pork), and menma (fermented bamboo shoots).

The main styles of ramen are:

  • Shoyu ramen: Soy sauce-based, often clear and tangy.
  • Miso ramen: Rich and hearty (originated in Hokkaido).
  • Tonkotsu ramen: Creamy pork bone broth (a specialty of Fukuoka).
  • Shio ramen: Salt-based, usually the lightest in color and flavor.

Ramen Culture

  • Slurping noodles is considered acceptable and even complimentary to the chef.
  • Many shops use ticket vending machines for ordering to streamline service.

Tempura: The Crispy Delight of Japanese Food

Tempura, introduced to Japan by Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century, is a popular Japanese dish consisting of seafood, vegetables, or certain meats that are battered and deep-fried until crispy. 

The batter is typically made from ice-cold water (sometimes sparkling water), egg, and low-gluten flour to achieve a light, crispy texture. Items are typically fried individually and served immediately.

Common tempura items include:

  • Ebi (shrimp): One of the most popular tempura items, often served with a dipping sauce.
  • Sakana (fish): Such as white fish or squid. 
  • Vegetables: Such as satsumaimo (sweet potato), nasu (eggplant), and shishito (small green peppers).

Tempura is often served with tentsuyu (a dipping sauce made from dashi, soy sauce, and mirin) and grated daikon radish. It’s also popular as a topping for udon or soba noodles, and tempura don (tendon) features tempura served over a bowl of rice.

Miso Soup: The Humble Staple of Japanese Food Culture

Miso soup is a fundamental part of Japanese cuisine—It is a traditional soup often served with nearly every meal, including breakfast. 

Miso Soup’s key components are a base of dashi (a broth made from seaweed and bonito fish flakes), miso paste (fermented soybean paste available in various types), and some additional ingredients like tofu, wakame seaweed, mushrooms, and green onions.

Miso Soup Culture

  • Miso soup is considered a source of essential nutrients and probiotics.
  • The type of miso used can vary by region and season.
  • In traditional meals, it’s typically served in lacquered bowls and drunk directly from the bowl.

Japanese food culture: Japan’s Iconic Dishes and Your Path to Experiencing Them

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