Dining in a Japanese restaurant can be an out of the world experience, especially if you are not familiar with Japanese culture. The sight alone of sliced raw fish accompanied only with Japanese soy sauce and this green pasty wasabi will be something bordering on the exotic, if it doesn’t actually eject you from your seat. If you haven’t found the courage to sample this Japanese delicacy known as sashimi – not to worry – Japanese cuisine is much more than just raw seafood.
Indeed, the varieties offered on a Japanese menu can be quite intimidating for a newbie. Not only do you have trouble trying to figure out the Japanese names for the various items, any accompanying English description normally does not do the dish justice. If you rely only on pictures, then everything just looks good. But what’s what? How do you make a choice between yakitori and sukiyaki? Of course, you can just close your eyes and try a bit of everything, but ordering a donburi together with a shabu-shabu in one sitting is going to make you a little top-heavy after dinner.
The truth is that your typical Japanese meal can come in many different ways. It can be stir-fried, deep-fried, grilled, stewed, souped, and of course taken raw. There is no real trick to it. You just need to know what you’re ordering and try to find out which style suits you best.
Sushi is one of Japan’s most famous culinary exports. It is basically sticky, vinegared rice topped or mixed with some fresh ingredient. This is usually seafood, and often raw, though not always so. There are a few common variations of sushi. A nigiri has the ingredient pressed on top of a block of rice; a maki is sushi rolled with dried seaweed; and a temaki is similar to the maki, except that it is rolled with seaweed into a conical shape.
Sushi that comes in fried tofu skin is known as inari. Sushi comes in bite-sized servings, and is an excellent staple to go with any other dish that you might like to try, including sashimi or tempura dishes. If you are spoilt for choice to the variety of ingredients or toppings, you can try the chirashi-zushi, which is basically an assortment of raw fish, seafood and condiments topped on a bowl of vinegared rice.
Sashimi refers to sliced raw fish. There is quite a huge variety in Japanese cuisine. Sashimi is always an excellent choice over sushi if you do not fancy too much rice (after all, it’s surely the seafood that counts). Both sashimi and sushi are taken with the Japanese soy sauce called shoyu, and the wasabi, which is a green paste made from Japanese horseradish. Wasabi boasts a very spicy flavour somewhat similar to mustard, and it is recommended to be taken in light amounts. You can also try your sushi with the sweet, pickled ginger called gari, which is said to help cleanse your palate.
Most Japanese restaurants will include the donburi in their menus. A donburi is basically a bowl of rice topped with savoury ingredients like beef (gyudon), eel (unadon), pork cutlet (katsudon), or just about any kind of topping. A donburi is usually taken during lunchtime, but that is of course your own choice to make.
Though rice is a staple diet for Japanese, Japanese noodles are another specialty that you will definitely like to try. Japanese soba is the thin buckwheat noodle that is often served chilled or in a hot broth. Soba is also often accompanied with other side dishes, soup and even rice as part of a whole meal. Udon is the thick wheat noodles served with various toppings, and sometimes with Japanese curry. Ramen on the other hand, is also served similarly to the udon, except that the noodles are thinner and originate from China. Though the udon and ramen are often served in soups, there are also the stir-fried varieties, which are also originated from Chinese cooking styles.
Bento boxes are another common item found in Japanese menus. They are basically lunch boxes’ split into compartments to contain various main and side dishes, such as beef, tempura, sashimi; together with rice and/or soba plus condiments. Bento boxes often come with the famous miso soup in a separate bowl.
Agemono refers to the deep-fried varieties of Japanese cuisine. The most famous is tempura, which consists of vegetables or seafood deep-fried in a light, distinctive batter. Tempura is served with its own special tentsuyu sauce, which is sweeter than the common shoyu. Tempura can also be served with rice or Japanese noodles to make a complete meal. Tonkatsu refers to the deep-fried, breaded pork cutlet. Karaage is the bite-sized, deep-fried pieces of meat or seafood. Chicken karaage is a general favourite, but other ingredients like fish, squid or soft-shell crab can also be used.
Yakimono refers to the grilled and pan-fried Japanese dishes. Teriyaki is a popular type of grilled meat, usually chicken or beef, marinated with a sweetened soy sauce. Unagi kabayaki is a dish of eel fillet grilled with a sweet sauce. Yakitori is known to be a favourite both inside and outside of Japan. It basically refers to pieces of chicken meat that is grilled and skewered. Sometimes yakitori is also referred to for similar beef or vegetable skewered items, but the correct term is actually kushiyaki. There are also many popular side dishes like the gyoza, which is pan-fried Japanese dumplings served with vinegar; and takoyaki or octopus balls.
Nabemono consists of a wide range of soup items, usually served in hotpots. Shabu-shabu and sukiyaki are two of the more well-known items on the menu. The soups consist of a healthy mix of vegetables, tofu and slices of beef (or other meat or seafood), which are generally cooked on the spot.
Other common styles of cooking in Japan include the nimono (or stews) and the itamemono (or stir-fried) items. As mentioned earlier, stir-frying is not a native cooking style in Japan, having its origins instead from China.
Many Japanese restaurants outside of Japan serve a good mix of the different styles and types of cuisine as mentioned above. But there are also specialised restaurants that offer a particular type of cuisine only. For example, the popular kaiten-zushi or sushi train restaurants offer a wide selection of sushi on a conveyor belt format. It is an excellent way to get started as you can just pick and choose what you want. Then there are restaurants that serve Japanese noodles like udon and ramen; and others that serve only the Japanese hotpots (nabemono). Izakaya shops are actually more bars than restaurants, designed to serve drinks like Japanese sake or beer, though they also offer an assortment of side dishes like yakitori or sashimi.
If you are new to the Japanese dining experience – don’t fret. Try to relax and enjoy yourself. Just remember that Japanese cuisine offers a wide variety of choices, which basically ensures that you will want to go back for more! So cheers, and ittadakimasu!
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