Japanese cuisine has never been as popular around the world as it is now. Sushi is available in the most unexpected places, and dishes like tempura, sashimi and teriyaki can be readily found, too. Japan itself is recognized as a mecca for great cuisine from all parts of the world, with the Michelin Red Guide awarding Tokyo more stars than any other city it surveys. The dedicated and enthusiastic diners of Japan’s capital have attracted major international food franchises and famed chefs, who have opened branches of their establishments there at an ever-increasing rate in recent years.
Japan’s pavilion at Expo Milano 2015 will feature a variety of Japanese food as a model of a sustainable, balanced and healthy diet aimed at alleviating food shortages and addressing ecology concerns. The pavilion will also allow visitors to sample some of the delicious and flavorful tastes that Japan offers.
Washoku, or traditional Japanese cuisine, which was given UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage designation in 2013, is what is often considered the only “authentic” Japanese cuisine. However, for most Japanese people the national diet also encompasses yoshoku, or Western dishes adapted to Japanese tastes, and chuuka, dishes of Chinese origin that have been similarly adapted. While washoku, yoshoku and chuuka may seem to differ from each other, there are common threads running through them all. First, is the importance placed on bringing out the best in the base ingredients and secondly, establishing a balance of flavors and textures. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, it is critical to pack each bite with umami. These common threads can be seen in three of the most popular Japanese dishes: soba, sushi and ramen.
Soba: Delicious sauce, noodles
Umami, a Japanese word (derived from umai, or delicious) that is now used in many languages, means the savory, meaty flavor that is present in meat, fish, cheese, vegetables and even grains — the fifth flavor besides salty, sweet, sour and bitter. Kikunae Ikeda first identified glutamic acid, one of the amino acids that are the source of umami in food, in 1908 from konbu, kelp that’s a foundation ingredient in Japanese cooking. It’s not surprising that a Japanese chemistry professor was the first to “discover” umami, since Japanese cooks have been extracting umami from various ingredients for many years.
The importance of umami is easy to see in soba, which consists of noodles served with a savory dipping sauce or in soup. The word soba also means buckwheat, the main grain used to make the noodles. Soba as we know it today became widespread in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, during the late Edo Period. The sauce or soup used for soba is made with dashi, the clear, amber-colored stock that’s the base of many Japanese dishes. Dashi (which is just the Japanese word for stock) is usually made by combining konbu, the super-source of glutamic acid, and dried fish, which are high in inosinic acid, another source of umami. The most popular dried fish ingredient is katsuobushi, skipjack tuna that is fermented, aged and dried to concentrate the umami components, then shaved thinly in order to extract the umami as efficiently as possible.
Soy sauce is another component of soba sauce, and it too is packed with umami — as is miso, a closely related fermented product. These ingredients are used to add even more umami as well as saltiness. Sweetness and even more umami are added via sake and mirin (a fortified liquor), along with sugar and salt if needed. A good soba sauce is a perfect balance of saltiness, sweetness and umami that enhances the slippery, chewy texture of the soba noodles. With the yakumi (garnishes) such as finely chopped green onion, green shiso (perilla) leaves and grated wasabi adding notes of bitterness and spice, it becomes perfectly flavor-balanced.
The freshness of the soba flour used to make the noodles is also important. Japan may be one of the few societies where the seasonality of grain products such as shinmai, newly harvested rice, is so highly prized. The season for shinsoba, or new-harvest soba flour, is eagerly anticipated every fall.
Sushi: A balancing act
The role umami plays in sushi is not as obvious, but it’s equally as important. Nigiri-zushi, also known as Edo-mae sushi, the rice topped with fish variety that has spread worldwide, came into existence in the early to mid 19th century, when it was sold as fast food at stand-up food stalls to workers at the fish market. Sushi may seem like a simple dish — a ball or bed of rice topped with raw or cooked fish, seafood and other ingredients, but sushi is actually a complicated dish. The rice, which must be polished and pure in flavor, is cooked in dashi or with a large piece of konbu added to the cooking water, to give the rice plenty of umami. The cooked rice is then seasoned with a mixture of salt, sugar and vinegar. The umami and balance of seasonings in the rice enhances the flavor of whatever is put on top. As a matter of fact, the word sushi doesn’t mean raw fish — it refers any dish, with or without fish, that uses shari, this flavor-packed rice.
While the rice is supremely important, the toppings (called gu) are the colorful stars of the show. They’re not just fish filets sliced up at random; a skilled sushi chef selects each type of fish carefully, and serves it when it is at its best — raw, seared, stewed or boiled; allowed to age and become tender, or served while it’s still alive (such as with shellfish). The peak seasons for each type of fish and seafood is taken into consideration too, which is why you can get the best experience at a good sushi restaurant by going for the omakase, or chef’s choice. Some of the top sushi chefs also add the sauces, flavors, and garnishes that are perfectly matched to each morsel of sushi, instead of leaving it up to the customer to simply dunk them in soy sauce.
Ramen is comfort food
Ramen, a hearty bowl of noodles in hot soup with various toppings, is the most recent addition to the Japanese table of the three discussed here. It most likely originated with noodle soup dishes introduced by Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century, after the country’s borders were opened after about 250 years of isolation. However, the popularity of ramen didn’t really take off until after World War II. In the 1950s, ramen stalls popped up all over the country; cheap, fast and filling, ramen fit the hectic pace of life during the economic boom period of the 1960s to 1980s perfectly. (Instant ramen was invented by Momofuku Ando, the founder of Nissin Foods, in 1953.) Today, ramen is one of the most popular foods in Japan, regarded by many as comfort food — inexpensive, delicious and deeply satisfying.
While the noodles and toppings are important, the heart and soul of ramen is the soup. Just as with soba, the foundation of ramen soup is an umami-packed dashi. As with traditional dashi, ramen soup dashi is made with a mixture of umami ingredients such as konbu, katsuobushi or other dried fish, chicken carcasses, pork bones, leeks, garlic and more. Each ramen restaurant guards their formula jealously. Regional versions of ramen, from the miso-flavored soup of Sapporo in Hokkaido to the milky pork bone (tonkotsu) based soup from Hakata in Kyushu, are hotly debated for their relative merits and keep ramen fans busy trying one or the other. Gotochi, or regional ramen, is even used in regional tourism marketing campaigns.
These days it’s possible to get very good Japanese food in cities around the world and, while the best versions may be found in Japan, some truly great Japanese food can be had at the Japan Pavilion at Expo Milano 2015. If you’re looking to sample some Japanese cuisine without having to travel to Japan, this is an excellent chance to try some of the Land of the Rising Sun’s finest.