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!
When it comes to types of Japanese restaurants, it can get a bit confusing. Between an izakaya, a teppanyaki and yakitori, it could be hard to keep straight. Throw in a yakiniku, shabu shabu and a bento and you could get absolutely dizzy with confusion. The real difference between all these restaurants is that they tend to specialize in a specific type of Japanese cooking or type of dining. One example that many of you may be familiar with is a sushi restaurant. Having said that, it’s also true that there are Japanese restaurants that feature more than one kind of Japanese cooking. So a few blocks down, there may be another sushi restaurant that also serves teriyaki dishes or a Japanese restaurant that offers a little bit of everything from the Japanese food spectrum. To get a better understanding of your Japanese dining options, take a look at the breakdown below.
Bento: Bentos are versatile in that they can be sold specifically through a bento shop, but can also be purchased at Japanese supermarkets and convenience stores as well as being a part of a menu at a sit down restaurant. So what is a bento? Simply put, a boxed lunch is referred to as a “bento” in Japan and is usually a single portion take-out or a home packed meal. Traditionally, a bento consists of rice, fish or meat, and one or more pickled or cooked vegetables as a side dish, but other items could include croquettes, an egg, sushi, etc. Bento containers can range from mass-produced covered plastic containers to beautifully detailed lidded lacquerware. In a Japanese restaurant, when we order a bento, the food usually comes in an uncovered tray separated into various compartments.
Curry: Curry seems an unlikely ingredient for Japanese cooking, but it was actually introduced to Japan in the late 1800’s when Japan started to build an alliance with England. At the time, India was under the administration of the British, so that’s where the Japanese curry connection came from. Like its Indian equivalent, basic vegetables include potatoes, carrots and onions while meats can be beef, pork or chicken, but the Japanese curry itself tends to be thicker and even a bit sweeter. Japanese curry is generally served over rice, thick noodles or wrapped inside dough and deep fried. While you will sometimes see 2 or 3 curry dishes at a regular Japanese restaurant, the best way to experience a true variety is to find a Curry House, a restaurant that specializes just in Japanese curry dishes.
Pasta: Usually, when one thinks of Japanese noodles, ramen usually comes to mind, but how about wrapping your head around spaghetti instead? Yes, there are Japanese-Italian restaurants where the main focus is actually on different types of spaghetti. While you will see traditional Italian-style spaghetti on the menu, you might also see spaghetti dishes that you’d never expect to see coming out of any Italian Mama’s kitchen. Mama Mia! With ingredients like tuna, daikon, sea urchin, seaweed and even natto and shiso leaf, these Japanese spaghetti dishes will be ones you’ll definitely remember.
Ramen: Speaking of ramen, for those of you who think ramen comes only in a styrofoam container or in a plastic bag, you may be surprised to know that there are Japanese restaurants that feature primarily ramen soup on their menu. In fact, some ramen restaurants go as far to specialize in one type of ramen. While actual ramen ingredients can vary, the ramen can be differentiated by the type of broth that is used. First, there’s Shio Ramen which is made with a simple chicken broth. Tonkotsu Ramen has a broth made from boiled pork bones while Shoyu Ramen is made by adding a soy-based sauce to a chicken and vegetable stock. Last, Miso Ramen features a broth that combines chicken stock with a fermented soybean paste. Here’s a tidbit for you. Ramen actually originated from China.
Shabu Shabu: In Japanese, Shabu Shabu means “splash splash” which is a perfect description of what Shabu Shabu is all about. At a Shabu Shabu restaurant, customers will receive thin slices of raw meat and vegetables, which they can cook in a pot of boiling water. The cooked items can be dipped in a sesame sauce or a ponzu sauce before being eaten. Afterwards, the leftover broth is used as a soup for noodles or rice. Basically, Shabu Shabu is similar to eating fondue style.
Soba/Udon: Yes, we’re back to noodles and in the case of Soba and Udon, both are noodles that can be served hot in a soup or cold on its own with side dishes. Soba noodles are made from buckwheat flour and water and kneaded into a dough and than rolled out and finely cut. Udon is made from flour and salt, also kneaded into a dough, but cut into thicker noodles. The characteristics of the Udon noodles are that they are white and have a smooth texture. Both Soba and Udon noodles are offerings you will see on regular Japanese restaurant menus, but if you can find a Soba or an Udon shop, hit those first because that’s where you’ll usually get the best rendition of either noodle.
Hopefully, you’ve learned a little more about Japanese dining. Stay tuned for No, an Izakaya isn’t a Type of Motorcyle, Part 2.