Food & Drink | Tools of the Japanese Kitchen

Storage matters: The various strata of Japanese fridges and other concerns

by Makiko Itoh

Special To The Japan Times

A frequently overlooked aspect of kitchens in general is the importance of storage. In fact, most of the space in a kitchen is given over to the storage of utensils and equipment as well as the food itself.

Japanese kitchens have some unique features in this respect that include cutting-edge technology, tried-and-true tradition and everything in between.

The dominant piece of equipment in most kitchens is, of course, the refrigerator. Basic refrigerator-freezers in Japan are just like those anywhere else — two doors, with the refrigerator portion in the bottom and the freezer portion at the top, although this is occasionally reversed.

When it comes to mid- and high-end family-size refrigerators, however, interesting features not found elsewhere start to make appearances. One notable trait is several independent storage compartments, like a large wardrobe with drawers, as opposed to the typical American-style two-door unit. The advantage of this compartmentalized style is that it’s possible to set the temperature in each area separately according to what is stored in it.

First there’s the regular refrigerator area, which usually has doors, and an interior temperature setting of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius. The biggest drawer compartment is usually the freezer, which is typically placed at the bottom of the unit rather than the top. The interior temperature of the freezer is around minus 18 to minus 20 C, and it’s used, as are freezers everywhere, to store food that needs to kept for some time.

The next-biggest drawer is typically the vegetable compartment. This has an interior temperature setting of 5 to 10 C, higher than the refrigerator area, which is considered more optimal for most types of vegetables.

The last and smallest drawer (besides the ice drawer, which is also separate in many refrigerators) is called the “chilled” compartment, where the interior temperature is around zero C. This is used to store fish, meat and other items that you don’t want to freeze solid, but that should be kept quite cold until it’s time to use them. This last compartment is very useful in a country where raw fish is eaten by many on a weekly basis.

Most mid-range refrigerators these days have these compartments. Truly high-end ones add extra features like vacuum-sealed vegetable and “chilled” compartments for even better freshness, menu planning features and more.

Rice is still the main staple of most Japanese homes, and storing it is a bit of an issue. Not only does a 5- to 10-kilogram bag of rice take up a lot of space, but it’s important to keep it fresh to achieve the best taste, not to mention keep any critters out. Many people these days keep the rice in a large plastic rice bin with a sliding lid or a dispensing mechanism. There are more traditional (and aesthetically pleasing) storage options too, such as the large wooden barrel-shaped rice bin shown above, which allows the rice to “breathe” but still protects it.

Brown rice, meanwhile, is best stored well-sealed in the refrigerator, since the oil in the bran can go rancid. (I pour it into empty 2-liter PET bottles using a funnel.)

And last but not least, in any Japanese kitchen it’s important to make storage units as resistant to earthquakes as possible. Cabinets should be secured to the walls and have doors that won’t swing open easily when there are tremors. Heavy items should always be stored at eye level. Most kitchens used to have an under-floor storage area in the kitchen for heavy items like bottles of sake and cans of soy sauce, and it was also a few degrees cooler than the house proper. Sadly, this kind of storage seems to have gone out of style, although I think it’s one that should be revived.

This is the fifth in a six-part series exploring traditional and modern equipment connected to Japanese kitchens.