Kanako Noda started helping her mom make dinner in Shiga, Japan, at the age of four. An artist based in Montréal by day, she evangelizes on the Japanese way of eating by night. "There's a fantastic, dazzling variety of Japanese dishes that Americans keep missing," she says, "because they can't see past the thick undergrowth of sushi bars everywhere." Kanako believes in real food made by real people using real ingredients, and is allergic to food gimmicks, straight-from-the-lab ingredients and diet fads of all kinds. Most of all, she's into introducing Westerners to Japanese common sense on what you should eat, when, how much, how and with whom. Her Japanese home cooking recipe blog is at KanakosKitchen.com.
What comes to mind when you hear someone mention Japanese cuisine? Chances are sushi, sashimi, tempura, sukiyaki, ramen and tofu are at the top of most people’s list. And while those dishes are certainly very Japanese, that’s not all we eat. Much of contemporary Japanese cuisine takes cues from countries as near as China and as far-flung as the US. Japanese-style Chinese food is one popular hybrid, but we have also yoshoku: Japanese-style Western food. Yoshoku borrows freely from French, Italian, American, German and other Western cuisines: think of it as pan-Western cooking. Just like the average dish in a “pan-Asian” restaurant in the west is totally unrecognizable to an Asian person, most of what you’ll find sold as yoshoku in Japan is likely to strike a Westerner as weird. (more…)
Chinese food is one of my favorite cuisines—it’s a good thing Chinese restaurants are so ubiquitous! If you ever get tired of the local food while traveling, a Chinese restaurant can provide the perfect break: it’s easy to find a Chinese restaurant practically anywhere—from South America to Italy and beyond—no matter where you are, no matter how small the town. In fact, I think I’ve had Chinese food in every country I’ve ever visited. But is it really Chinese? (more…)
The whole concept of cooking at the table is a little exotic to most Westerners. Swiss fondue and raclette might be the closest they ever get. In Japan, however, we have a rich tradition of cooking at the table, and none has been as big a hit in the West as yakiniku, which is fast taking root far from its place of origin. Yakiniku is barbecue, but not as you know it.
The key difference between yakiniku and Western-style barbecue is the way the meat is presented. In the West, it’s common to barbecue large cuts of meat: a whole steak, say, or a marinated chicken breast. In Japanese barbecue, on the other hand, the beef is sliced into small, very thin slices and seasoned with a particular kind of sauce. You place each morsel on the grill, cook it, dip it in sauce, and eat it right away. That way, no single morsel spends more than a few seconds in transit between the grill and your mouth! (more…)
Train travel has a lot of attractive qualities—it’s quick, relaxing, environmentally friendly and cheap. But if you ever go to Japan, there’s one extra reason to travel on rails: train station lunch boxes, aka ekiben!
Trains in the West often have sad little dining cars where limp food is nuked and served to dispirited commuters. Nobody could get excited about that. In Japan, we have a much better solution: getting lunch at the station. (more…)
Cherry blossoms have long been one of the most-loved flowers in Japan, not only because of their ephemeral beauty, but also because the image of the cherry blossom is deeply connected to the landscape in people’s minds. In Japan, the school year starts in April. When winter winds down and the weather begins to gets warmer and warmer, the cherry blossoms are in their full glory and they bathe the cities in pale pink light as if celebrating the start of new life.
As our hopes for the New Year culminate in feelings of tension and motivation, cherry blossom petals whirl about in the wind. For the Japanese, this spring scene evokes all of that. So every year when the cherry blossoms bloom, this memory and these feelings, return. (more…)
You may not know the word, but when you think of the fanciest, most elaborate form of Japanese cooking, what you’re thinking of is probably kaiseki. Rooted in aristocratic samurai circles, kaiseki is a formal, highly ritualized way of eating elaborately crafted dishes: the epitome of Japanese high cuisine. Kaiseki is the complete opposite of casual dining; it’s a meal that feels more like a ritual, made up of a carefully orchestrated sequence of tiny, minutely designed dishes.
You eat a lot of different things in kaiseki. In fact, you enjoy every different type of traditional Japanese dish in the course of a single meal. This is why each dish has to be very small, like a miniature work of art on a plate. This way of cooking allows Japanese chefs to indulge their passion for miniature. Small is beautiful. Tiny dishes where maniacal attention is paid to every single detail is the key to the kaiseki experience. (more…)
What’s your idea of winter comfort food? Ask somebody who’s Japanese, and the first thing that comes to mind is nabemono: Japanese hotpot.
Nabemono isn’t really a dish, it’s more like a way of eating. Together with friends or family, you sit around a big clay pot where all kinds of mushrooms, winter vegetables and fish or meat are simmering, and share the bounty as it cooks before your eyes. Ingredients go in a little bit at a time, and come out a little bit at a time, imprinting a relaxed, leisurely pace on the meal. Of course, while you’re waiting for each new ingredient to cook, you drink sake. When the weather outside is frightful, a nabe is delightful!
To hear some food writers tell it, ramen is the Next Big Thing. Not, of course, the 6-for-a-dollar instant noodle kind that you survived on when you were in college, but the proper, artisan-made Japanese noodle soup of the same name. The good news, for those of you who’ve been living in ramen deserts, is that several Japanese ramen chains are opening up shop in big North American cities. That, as we’ll see, is the bad news, too.
On the surface, ramen is nothing more than a bowl of broth with some noodles, vegetables and three thin slices of roast pork, and nobody could call that “fancy.” But in Japan, people take ramen seriously and obsess about it endlessly, making it the perfect fusion of junk food and high cuisine. (more…)
To this day, I remember clearly the moment I found my roommate eating this brown minced-meat-like thing for dinner. “Oh,” I asked, “but aren’t you a vegetarian?” To my astonishment, he informed me that what he was eating was “tofu.” Now, I know there are many ways of cooking tofu, but that weird, meaty-looking edible material didn’t look anything at all like the tofu I’ve loved all my life…how could that stuff be tofu?!
Everyone has heard about haiku, the Japanese micro-poems defined by their 17 syllables. But few in the West know that the other defining feature of a haiku is a seasonal reference: just a word to ground the poem in the cycle of the year.
A deep awareness of seasonality is a defining part of Japanese culture: a marker of elegance and sophistication that runs across many spheres of life. Just as a poem cannot be a haiku if it isn’t clearly situated in one of the four seasons, and a personal letter must always start with a seasonal reference, a true Japanese meal must be grounded in its season.
This, I think, is a good rule of thumb for judging a Japanese restaurant. Just ask yourself: how much does the menu change along with the seasons? If the menu is fixed and unchanging year-round, then it isn’t truly Japanese. (more…)