International Cooking: Food from Japan

This is a country I was really excited about! I already knew I loved food from Japan but I hadn’t actually made too many dishes myself before this. My younger sister is currently living in Japan so she helped me with some suggestions.

Japan is an island country in East Asia, made up of five main islands. Much of the terrain is mountainous, and the majority of the large population lives in cities on narrow coastal plains.

Japan has been inhabited since at least 30,000 BC, but it wasn’t until a period between the fourth and ninth centuries AD that the kingdoms of the land unified. They were ruled by an emperor, but later, political power was held by a series of military dictators and feudal lords, enforced by samurai. Samurai were a class of warrior nobility.

During the early 17th century, a military government took over and enacted an isolationist foreign policy. This meant that relations and trade between Japan and other countries were strictly limited. Nearly all foreign nationals were banned from entering the country, while common Japanese people were kept from leaving. However, in 1854, the United States forced Japan to open trade to the West, which led to a restoration of imperial power and an end to this policy.

In 1937, Japan invaded China and entered World War II as an Axis Power a few years later. After suffering defeat and two atomic bombings, Japan surrendered. During the period that followed, while under a seven-year Allied occupation, the country adopted a new constitution. One important thing that was changed is that Japan renounced its right to declare war, though the country still maintains a strong self-defense force.

Today, Japan is one of the largest economies in the world by nominal GDP, and a global leader in automotive, robotics, and electronic industries. Additionally, Japan is considered a cultural superpower, with its art, cuisine, film, music, and popular culture well known throughout the world. Tokyo, the capital city of Japan, has the most Michelin-starred restaurants of any city in the world.

What Do People Eat in Japan?

Traditional Japanese cuisine is based on rice with miso soup and other dishes, which may include sides such as fish, pickled vegetables, and vegetables cooked in broth. These dishes are all served on individual plates because Japanese tradition indicates that different flavored dishes should not touch each other on a single plate. Even placing other dishes on top of a bowl of rice is frowned upon by traditional etiquette.

These days, there are Japanese dishes that involve topping rice with meat and/or vegetables, and not everyone adheres to the traditional rules of etiquette every day. Heavy Chinese influences brought dishes such as ramen and gyoza, and other foreign influences have resulted in adaptations of spaghetti, curry, and hamburgers. This has resulted in a diverse range of dishes across the country.

For a long time, meat was unpopular because of the strict adherence to Buddhism. There were periods throughout history when it was prohibited to eat fish or meat in Japan. Even once these rules were relaxed, it was often seen as taboo to eat ‘four-legged creatures’. Fish and seafood, however, were allowed, and this included the meat of whales and terrapins (a type of turtle). Fish is still popular throughout the country, often grilled but also served raw as sashimi or sushi. Meat eventually became common, and nowadays, there are many meat dishes involving pork, beef, or chicken.

Rice, wheat, and soybeans have long been considered staple foods in Japanese cuisine. Spices were rare for a long time, and pepper and garlic were used in small amounts to season food. Many dishes were made around seasonal produce. Oil and fat were usually avoided, though there are some popular deep-fried dishes nowadays such as tempura. Dairy is not generally a part of traditional Japanese cuisine, though may be found in more modern dishes.

What I Made

Scroll down to read about other popular Japanese dishes I didn’t make!

Curry Rice (Chicken Curry and Rice)

Curry Rice (Chicken Curry and Rice)

This simple curry and rice dish is so popular in Japan that it’s considered the national dish. It isn’t usually very spicy; it’s actually a little sweet. Japanese food traditionally isn’t spicy; although there are some spicy dishes found in the country today, they are generally a result of foreign influences.

In Japan, it’s common for people to use an instant curry roux to make this curry. It’s sold in a package of blocks that you dissolve in liquid. I had actually planned on making my curry roux from scratch, but my Instacart shopper couldn’t find the Japanese-style curry powder I needed so he subbed with the instant curry instead.

First, I sautéed some onions in a little oil until golden. Then I added garlic, ginger, and chopped chicken thighs. After a few more minutes, I added chicken stock, grated apple, honey, soy sauce, ketchup, potato, and carrot.

I let the mixture simmer until everything was cooked through. Then I added the curry roux and simmered a little longer until the curry thickened.

I served this with rice. I was also going to add some fukujinzuke (Japanese red pickled vegetables) on the side, but my Instacart shopper couldn’t find them. It was still delicious either way. It was hardly spicy at all, despite my curry roux being labeled ‘medium heat’, but there was plenty of flavor. I will definitely make this again, and not just because I still have some curry roux left over!

The recipe I used for this is from Just One Cookbook.

Katsudon (Egg and Breaded Pork on Rice)

Katsudon (Egg and Breaded Pork on Rice)

Katsudon is one of a few variations of donburi (rice bowls) found in Japanese cuisine. It’s made by simmering a breaded pork cutlet with onions, broth, and egg. This is served over the top of a bowl of rice.

First I made the dashi, which is a stock that forms the base of many Japanese dishes. The version I made, awase dashi, is flavored with dried kelp and dried bonito flakes. There are also vegetarian versions made from shiitake mushrooms, or variations that include dried anchovies or sardines.

The dashi was easy to make. First, I left some dried kelp to soak in water in the fridge overnight. Then I poured the water and kelp into a saucepan and let it slowly come to a gentle boil. It’s important that you remove the kelp right before the water boils because it will get slimy and make the dashi bitter otherwise. After removing the kelp, I added my dried bonito flakes and simmered for a minute or so before removing the saucepan from the heat. I let the mixture sit for about 10 minutes before straining, and then my dashi was ready.

The dashi method I used is from Just One Cookbook.

Next, I had to make the tonkatsu–the pork cutlet. I didn’t follow a recipe, but my easy pork schnitzel recipe is very similar; just don’t add the paprika.

Then, I was ready to prepare the katsudon. I started by adding some sliced onion to a pan with the dashi, and let the mixture simmer until the onion was translucent. Then I stirred in some mirin, soy sauce, and a little sugar. I sliced my pork cutlet and placed it on top of the onions. Then I poured over my egg mixture, which consisted of eggs that had been just slightly scrambled. The recipe said the whites and yolks should form a marbled effect. I covered the pan and let everything cook until the eggs were just set, and then I was ready to serve.

I placed my pork, onion, and egg mixture on bowls of rice and sprinkled with green onions. Mine didn’t look as pretty as the one in the recipe photos, but it tasted really good all the same. I’d definitely make this again!

This recipe is from Just One Cookbook.

Miso Soup

Miso Soup

Miso soup is a staple of Japanese cuisine, often served as part of a breakfast meal. There are many variations, but the ingredients are usually kept simple. Tofu, seaweed, and vegetables are common. I am not a big fan of tofu, but I came across a recipe that included aburaage (deep-fried tofu pouches) so I decided I would try that.

First, I poured hot water over the aburaage to remove excess oil. Then I cut it into pieces. I also halved some snap peas.

Next, I brought some dashi to a boil. You can read about making dashi in the previous entry. I added the tofu and snap peas to the dashi and cooked for a few minutes. Then I added some miso. The recipe said to mix the miso into some stock in a ladle and not just add it directly into the soup; this way, it is easier to dissolve it completely.

Once the miso was added, the soup was ready to eat. I’ve had miso before so I knew I liked it, but I had not used this combination of ingredients before. I thought it was pretty good! I also added some green onion on top as a garnish.

The recipe I used is from Just One Cookbook. I did modify slightly by making dashi and using regular miso; the recipe calls for hot water and a dashi-included miso.

Omurice (Fried Rice Omelet)

Omurice (Fried Rice Omelet)

Omurice is a dish I’ve wanted to try making ever since first discovering it a few years ago. It consists of fried rice wrapped in an omelet, often served with ketchup on top.

I started making the fried rice by sautéing some onion. Then I added some chopped chicken thighs, and when that was mostly cooked through I added a mixture of corn, peas, and chopped carrot. After a few minutes more, I added cooked rice that I’d had sitting in the fridge overnight. I seasoned with salt, pepper, ketchup, and soy sauce, and then the fried rice was done.

I’ll admit that I had issues with the omelet. It was meant to be thin and made with just one egg mixed with a little milk, however I added an extra egg. I’ve made omelets this way plenty of times so I really wasn’t worried. I sprinkled some cheese on top, then added some of the fried rice down the center. I folded the sides of the omelet over and then I was meant to be able to flip it onto my plate. But my omelet was falling apart when I tried folding it and then it sat in the pan too long and got too brown while I was fussing with it. Eventually, the end product tasted good but it definitely didn’t look right!

The next day, I tried again with my remaining fried rice mixture. This time I cheated; I made the omelet, slid it out of the skillet, and assembled the omelet on my plate. This worked much better! I added a drizzle of ketchup and served with some chili garlic broccoli that was left over from the previous night’s dinner. It’s common to serve omurice with salad, and that’s how I enjoyed my first, ugly-looking version!

This was really good; I loved the addition of ketchup in the fried rice and an omelet of any kind will always be a winner for me.

This recipe also comes from Just One Cookbook.

Onigiri (Rice Balls)

Onigiri (Rice Balls)

Onigiri are balls of rice, usually with a filling. They are popular in Japan as a portable snack. A variety of fillings are common, such as salted salmon, pickled plum, seaweed, or tuna with mayonnaise. I went for the latter for my onigiri.

First I cooked the rice; I used Japanese short-grain rice for this as it’s meant to be stickier, making it easier to form the rice into balls. Then I quickly mixed my filling: canned tuna with Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise and soy sauce. Kewpie mayonnaise is amazing by the way; I’ve always got some in my fridge. It is richer and has better flavor than regular mayonnaise.

Next, I had to try and form the rice into balls. You can buy molds for this purpose, but I used my hands. I did manage to get some passable onigiri filled with my tuna mixture, but it wasn’t easy! I decorated them with a little nori, which is the type of seaweed used to wrap sushi. These tasted pretty good but they are basically just tuna and rice. However, the point of these is that they are portable; I can see them being great if I need to bring a snack somewhere.

The recipe I used is from Just One Cookbook.

Temaki Sushi (Sushi Hand Rolls)

Temaki Sushi (Sushi Hand Rolls)

This is just one of a variety of types of sushi available. Sushi started out quite differently to what people are used to today; it was originally a way to preserve fish. The fish was fermented in boiled rice, which took a while, but eventually advancements were made so that the fermentation time was decreased to one or two weeks. During the early 19th century, sushi without fermentation was introduced.

I was originally thinking of making sushi rolls, but then I remembered that I didn’t have a bamboo mat for rolling them out (I did have one once but I left it in Australia when I moved here). Rather than try without the mat, I decided to make sushi hand rolls, called ‘temaki sushi’, instead. These are very easy to make; you just place the rice and filling on a sheet of nori and fold it up to make a cone shape.

The rice is seasoned with a little rice vinegar. The fillings can be just about anything you want but raw fish is traditional. Common additions include cucumber or daikon, and sometimes you see tempura shrimp in rolls like this.

Since I was already making tempura (next dish), I decided to make one roll with tempura shrimp and one with smoked salmon, both with cucumber too. I used smoked salmon instead of raw fish which is not so traditional, but it’s something I’m more comfortable using at home.

These were great; but I love sushi so I knew they would be!

These rolls don’t really require a recipe but there is a guide to making them at Just One Cookbook.

Tempura (Battered and Fried Shrimp and Vegetables)

Tempura (Battered and Fried Shrimp and Vegetables)

Tempura is a batter that can be used on all kinds of things, most commonly shrimp and vegetables. I’ve eaten it before and was excited to try making it at home.

First, I prepared my ingredients. I included shrimp, Japanese sweet potato, and shallot slices. I wasn’t going to make a whole lot so I didn’t have a lot of variety. I made the dipping sauce by combining dashi, soy sauce, mirin, and a little sugar in a saucepan and cooking it for a few minutes.

For the batter, I beat together an egg, flour, and iced water. I didn’t do this until everything else was ready and my oil was up to the right temperature, because I knew the batter needed to be as fresh (and cold) as possible for good results.

Then it was just a matter of coating everything in the batter and frying. I dipped the shrimp in flour before the batter, as the recipe instructed; I’m assuming this helps to absorb excess moisture which would lead to soggy tempura.

Everything tasted alright but my tempura batter wasn’t that crispy and I’m not sure why. I’ll most likely try this again some day.

The recipe I used is from Just One Cookbook.

Okonomiyaki (Savory Pancake with Cabbage and Pork Belly)

Okonomiyaki (Savory Pancake with Cabbage and Pork Belly)

Okonomiyaki is another dish that I’ve wanted to try for a long time. There are a few different versions, but I chose the type popular in Osaka.

First I started the batter by mixing together flour, salt, a little sugar, baking powder, and dashi. I let that sit in the fridge for about an hour before adding eggs, pickled ginger, tempura scraps, and cabbage. The tempura scraps are literally just bits of tempura batter, which I saved from making my tempura earlier in the day. You can actually buy bags of these scraps though!

I spooned the batter into a pan to form a pancake and topped it with a few thin slices of pork belly. Then I put the lid on the pan and let it cook for a few minutes. I flipped the pancake and let it cook for a while on the other side, and then flipped it back over and cooked it uncovered for a minute or two.

To serve, I brushed the pancake with okonomiyaki sauce, which I made from ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, oyster, sauce, and sugar. Then I added Kewpie mayonnaise, dried bonito flakes, and green onions.

This was honestly one of the best things I have made in a while, and it was really quite easy too. I’m sure it’s something I’ll make again!

The recipe I used is from Just One Cookbook.

Gyoza (Dumplings)

Gyoza (Dumplings)

Gyoza or pot stickers are little dumplings filled with meat and/or vegetables. They are usually cooked by frying them on one side, then steaming them to finish cooking.

For these, I cheated a little and used storebought gyoza wrappers, though I’ve actually made similar dumpling wrappers a few times by now. I just felt like I already had a lot to do this week.

I made the filling by combining ground pork with cabbage, green onions, shiitake mushrooms, garlic, and ginger. Then I needed to fill the gyoza. I am very inept and overall just uncoordinated when it comes to things like this and most of mine did not turn out that pretty. However, they did stay sealed during cooking, which is pretty important!

To cook these, I arranged them on a hot skillet and let them cook for a few minutes, then poured in some water and covered the pan to let them steam. I served them with a dipping sauce made from rice vinegar, soy sauce, and a little sesame-chili oil.

These tasted good despite the way they looked. I do think that using storebought wrappers after a while making them myself highlights how good homemade wrappers are though. They are softer and actually seal better so it’s easier to form the dumplings. It’s just a lot of work to roll them all out!

The recipe for these comes from Just One Cookbook.

Shoyu Ramen (Noodle Soup)

Spicy Shoyu Ramen (Noodle Soup)

I could not do Japanese week without including ramen of some kind! There are many variations of ramen, but the core components are broth, noodles, and toppings, which could be meat, fish, vegetables, or eggs.

I decided to make shoyu ramen which is flavored with soy sauce. This was actually a spicy version; spicy food isn’t too common in Japan as I said earlier but I thought this looked really good.

This was a pretty easy dish to put together because I could make some of the components in advance. I marinated some boiled eggs in a mixture of soy sauce, mirin, sake, and a little sugar overnight. Then I prepared my chashu (pork belly). I seared it on both sides, then braised it in a mixture of soy sauce, sake, water, sugar, green onion, and ginger. I used thick pork belly strips which is a bit different than what the recipe called for, but they turned out just fine. When I was ready to assemble my ramen bowls, I reheated the pork gently in some of the cooking liquid.

To make the broth, I started by gently cooking some ginger and garlic in sesame oil. Then I added doubanjiang, which is a spicy chili bean paste that has great flavor (this wasn’t my first time using it). Next I added chicken stock, dashi, and soy sauce, and let the mixture simmer for a few minutes. I seasoned it with a bit of salt and white pepper, and the broth was ready.

I used yakisoba noodles because my Instacart shopper could not find ramen aside from the instant kind. Yakisoba and ramen noodles are very similar though; almost identical. Ramen are just a little better suited to soups while yakisoba are meant to be used for stir-fries. I briefly dunked the yakisoba in hot water to loosen the noodles, and then divided them between the bowls and poured over the broth.

Then it was just a matter of arranging all my toppings on each bowl: chashu slices, a halved ramen egg, green onion, and fish cakes (basically just processed seafood that looks pretty). I had some nori squares I meant to add too, but I forgot.

I was pleased with how this came out; I thought it was super delicious!

This is, of course, another recipe from Just One Cookbook. This is also where I got the recipe for the ramen eggs and the chashu (pork belly).

  • Sushi – I made one type of sushi this week, but other popular varieties include:
    • Makizushi (sushi rolls).
    • Nigirizushi (made of mounds of rice topped with a slice of raw fish).
    • Inarizushi (rice stuffed into deep-fried tofu pouches).
  • Yakitori – skewered and grilled chicken; this can be made from just about any part of the chicken. The chicken is usually seasoned with sauce which may include soy sauce, mirin, and sake.
  • Natto – fermented soybeans, often served for breakfast with rice. It tends to be an acquired taste because it has a strong smell and flavor, and a sticky, slimy texture.
  • Udon – a type of thick wheat noodle, popular in soup dishes. They are typically served cold in the summer and hot in the winter. Some udon dishes include:
    • Kitsune udon (‘fox udon’, topped with deep-fried tofu pouches).
    • Tempura udon (topped with tempura).
    • Chikara udon (‘power udon’, topped with mochi rice cakes).
    • Zaru udon (chilled udon topped with shredded nori).
  • Ramen – I made one type of ramen this week but there are many other kinds including:
    • Tonkotsu ramen – made with a flavorful broth made from pork bones.
    • Shio ramen – meaning ‘salt ramen’, this has a clear, lighter broth made with chicken, though pork or seafood can also be used.
    • Miso ramen – flavored with miso.
  • Oden – a stew consisting of a variety of ingredients such as boiled eggs, tofu, daikon, and fish cakes.
  • Melon pan – a sweet bun made from an enriched dough, covered with a layer of cookie dough before baking. A grid pattern is made on top, making the buns resemble the skin of a melon. I wanted to make these this week but ran out of time!

Final Thoughts

All the food from Japan I made was excellent! My favorite was the okonomiyaki, followed closely by the curry rice.

Next week, I will be cooking food from Jordan.

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