Flavors of Japan
Flavors of Japan
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Culinary Tour

In Japan, the act of eating is not simply about feeding the body: it is an intrinsic and significant part of Japanese culture. The way food is prepared, cooked and eaten is an art in which aesthetics, tradition, religion and history play roles that are as important – if not more important – than the food itself. Unlike western culinary traditions which strive for a combination of flavors, in Japan plates are made up of distinct foods, each of which must retain its own individual taste and appearance.

Fish and other seafood are of the utmost importance in the daily diet. At the Ameyoko market near Ueno park in Tokyo, or in the central market of Tsukiji, the stalls are filled with dried bonito, small preserved fish, seaweed, shellfish and so on. If you can, take in the tuna auction held in the early hours of dawn.

However, the one unifying thread throughout all Japanese cuisine is gohan, rice, which is present from breakfast through dinner; appropriately the word itself also means “meal.”

In Japan the portions are always tiny. The Japanese prefer to offer a wide variety of flavors, as if each meal were a selection of little dishes to be sampled.

Here there is no desire to seek out exotic foods or products out of season, since each time of the year offers its own specialties.

Japanese culinary tradition dates far back in time

Between the 6th and 7th centuries of our era, Japan was strongly influenced by its close relationship with China from which it imported green tea and soy beans. China’s more complex and sophisticated cooking was ruled by Buddhism, a religion that emphasizes respect for every form of life; therefore meat was banned from the daily diet since it necessitated the taking of animal life. This whole philosophy shaped the traditional menu. The Buddhist influence came to an end in the middle of the 9th century when the T’ang dynasty fell. Then followed Japan’s golden age, the Heian era, which took its name from Heian-Kyo, the ancient capital of Japan (now called Kyoto). For 400 years, social life and art in general were at their apogee. An elaborate code of etiquette was laid down and though meals were still frugal, the arrangement of dishes and food was part of the revolution taking place on the artistic and visual levels. Later, the era of the Samurais would introduce further elegance as the act of eating was transformed into art, refinement and ceremony.

Although early contacts with the western world did not always go smoothly (the Japanese considered the westerners barbaric), in the mid-16th century, to please the Europeans the Japanese created tempura, taking their inspiration from Portuguese fried foods. They adapted the technique with consummate art, creating a flavor and texture that far surpassed the original version. It was only at the end of the 19th century, after long exposure to the outside world, that Japanese cuisine abandoned the vegetarian diet.

Pottery occupies a place of honor in everyday life

The tea ceremony

This tradition dates back to the 13th century, and was carried on by Zen Buddhist monks as part of their quest for spirituality through both mind and body. The tea ceremony, a masterpiece of refinement, reached its full ritual perfection at the imperial court in the 15th century. The tea master oversaw each aspect of the ceremony, from the size of the room to the number of guests, from the arrangement of the utensils to the serving of the tea.

The teapot, the stand and the bowl are cleaned with a silk cloth called a fukusa. The bowl is then washed with boiling water taken from a traditional iron kettle kept hot over charcoal. Then, very carefully and with solemn gestures, powdered green tea is measured into the bowl with a long bamboo teaspoon. Next the water is poured in: it must be very pure and fresh, at the perfect temperature, and must not have been boiled or simmered for too long. The tea is then whisked with a chasen, a handmade bamboo whip, to produce a jade green froth. This technique, requiring years of practice, involves a knack of the wrist that is both graceful and elegant. The tea is then sipped slowly so that all its aroma and flavor can be savored. The Japanese devote about 40 minutes to a simple tea ceremony, but it may extend to several hours if the ritual is accompanied by kaiseki, a traditional meal served with the same symbolism and elegance of body movements.

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Menus and Recipes
for Entertaining Japanese-Style

Meals in Japan are not solely about being fed. They are also expressions of art in its purest form. The arrangement of the food is carefully composed, with each ingredient having its place on a single plate or in separate little dishes. This is an ancient art that takes time and is imbued with a sense of poetry.

When it comes to utensils, the whole meal is eaten with chopsticks: adding them to your table will add an original and festive touch to your party.

If you don’t have authentic small Japanese dishes, you can use little bamboo placemats, fans, ramekins, etc. Each dish has its own plate and sauce dish. The meal is a succession of small dishes.

In Japanese meals, there is no tablecloth, just the pure clean lines of the table. Neither are there serviettes. However, before the meal begins, each guest is offered a small hot damp towel, like a white ratine facecloth. To simplify this task, wet the cloths with cold water, wring them out, roll them up and place them on a rectangular plate. Heat the towels in the microwave; serve with tongs (like the kind used for grilling). At the end of the meal, guests are provided with a little fingerbowl of hot water containing a slice of lemon that both scents the water and removes grease from the fingers.

On the practical side, there’s no coming and going from the kitchen to the dining room. All the dishes are placed on the table so that guests can create the combinations they desire. Cooking is done in front of the guests and so all the food to be cooked is brought in, attractively presented on a large platter. In some instances, burners can be used to keep sake, green tea or soup warm – the clear soup is kept in a tea pot and served in cups near the end of the meal to aid digestion.

As a beverage, serve sake: rice wine that is drunk very hot from little handleless porcelain cups.

Noodles are eaten by lifting the bowl up close to the mouth. A small bunch of noodles is picked up with chopsticks and slurped noisily, a sign of enjoyment and good manners.

Except on rare occasions, Japanese meals do not include dessert. The meal usually ends with seasonal fruit: a Japanese pear, kaki, etc.


Miso Soup
Clear soup with white fish or mussels

Thinly sliced raw fish

Raw fish on a small ball of rice

or Maki
A seaweed roll containing rice and fish, egg or vegetables

Shrimp and vegetables fried in a light batter

Beef, mushrooms, tofu and wheat noodles cooked in a wok at the table

Beef or seafood, mushrooms, tofu and wheat noodles cooked in a hot broth at the table

Yoshitsune – Teppan-yaki style
Beef, chicken and/or seafood cooked on a hot slab at the table

Shokado served on lacquered plates, which includes
Beef Teriyaki

Takiawase – steamed vegetables


Chawan mushi – scrambled eggs with shrimp and chicken

or Nodate, served in small dishes for the tea ceremony, which include
Chicken Yakitori
A skewer of grilled marinated chicken

Takiawase – steamed vegetables


Chawan mushi – scrambled eggs with shrimp and chicken


Steamed rice

Niban dashi
Clear soup (broth) served in a teapot

Koh no mono
pickled vegetables
Plum or cabbage

Seasonal fruits

Japanese tea

Other recipes
Cooked lobster

Sakana no gingamijaki
Turbot or cod cooked “en papillote”

Sweet red bean soup

Sesame-mustard sauce
Sesame and daikon sauce – Goma-dare
Soy-based sauces: teriyaki, yakitori, tempura dipping sauce
Salad dressings

Chakin – Sweet-potato candies
Sweet potato karinto (fried)

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