▶ Miso soup is the most common side dish. It goes with lots of Japanese foods. It is made using a soybean paste called miso. We grow up with miso soup, so it is our comfort food.
▶ The soup is made with miso and fish or seaweed stock. You will typically find tofu and vegetables in the soup, but just about anything can go in it.
▶ There are different types of miso. Some are dark red and others are pale yellow. Miso is also an important seasoning for many Japanese dishes.
Everyday Home Cooking
Traditional Japanese home cooking includes rice and a couple of dishes such as grilled fish or cooked vegetables with miso soup and some pickles. Most people eat rice as a staple food at least twice a day and use products made from soy beans such as tofu, shoyu or miso. But today, the Japanese diet is more varied than ever. It is influenced by Western, Chinese, Indian, and other styles of food, which are particularly popular among younger generations and families with children.
It is said that the Japanese have been producing rice for more than 3,000 years. Rice is the most important agricultural product in Japan, accounting for about one-fourth of total agricultural production. Its self-sufficiency rate is nearly 100%. However, due to the westernization of the Japanese diet, rice consumption has decreased year by year. Now, the average annual consumption of rice per person is 57kg, about a half of what it was in 1965 (2012).
Tempura is one of the most popular Japanese dishes for both Japanese and foreigners. Various ingredients such as prawns, fish and vegetables are dipped in batter and deep fried in vegetable oil. Then they’re eaten after being dipped in a special sauce. Although cooking tempura is rather simple, the batter is the key to successful tempura. One must prepare the batter using wheat flour, eggs, and icy water which is mixed quickly so the tempura will become crispy when it is fried.
The Japanese only started eating beef after the Meiji Restoration. Sukiyaki was one of the first dishes to use beef, and it has been popular since then. “Suki” means spade and “yaki” means roast. Some think that a metal spade used to be used to cook beef and that’s where it got its name. Thinly-sliced beef, vegetables, tofu, and some noodles made of konnyaku are cooked in a shallow iron pan and seasoned with sugar, sake, and soy sauce. Most Japanese like to dip sukiyaki in raw egg, though many foreigners are reluctant to.
Originally, sushi was fish pickled for preservation. But in the Edo period, people living in Edo started using fresh fish caught in Edo Bay (Tokyo Bay) instead of pickled fish. They put raw slices of fish or shellfish on top of small vinegared rice balls which were rolled by hand. This is called “nigiri-zushi,” typically known simply as “sushi” in Japan and all over the world.
Shabushabu has recently become known overseas as a modern Japanese dish. The name shabushabu is onomatopoeic, being the sound heard when paper-thin sliced beef is dipped and lightly waved around a couple of times in boiling stock. People take the beef out as soon as its color changes and eat it dipped in their favorite sauce, such as soy sauce with citrus juice or sesame sauce. The taste of shabushabu is determined by the quality of the beef.
Kaiseki-ryori was originally a simple meal served during the traditional tea ceremony. The original kaiseki was vegetarian with a bowl of soup and three kinds of simple dishes. But during the middle of the Edo period, restaurants started to serve kaiseki with a variety of other dishes. Kaiseki is an artistic Japanese cuisine because each dish is served individually with a small amount of carefully prepared and beautifully arranged food. Although it is not very filling, it certainly satisfies one’s eyes with its beauty.
Natto is made of soy beans. They are steamed and put in straw pipes with natto yeast where they ferment and become sticky. People mix natto with soy sauce, chopped green onions and mustard and eat it with hot rice. Foreigners may take a while to get used to its peculiar smell. Miso is another common Japanese food made of soy beans, and natto and miso are said to prevent cancer.
Umeboshi is a traditional food consisting of preserved plums. The tartness of the plums stimulates the appetite and prevents food poisoning, so people often place them in rice balls and boxed lunches. To make umeboshi, the Japanese pickle green plums in salt with red shiso leaves, dry them in the sun and soak them again in the vinegar from the plums.