In Japanese cuisine, tradition prevails

| June 23, 2015 | 0 Comments
Margaret Dickenson’s tuna sashimi salad

Margaret Dickenson’s tuna sashimi salad

One of the basic principles of Japanese cooking is to capitalize on the food of the seasons — seafood, vegetables and fruit at the peak of their flavours. Add to this Japan’s widely varying climates in each season and you get the famed Japanese cuisine.
The archipelago of Japan extends from the northern cool, temperate climate to the southern subtropical zone. This arc of islands witnesses a turbulent encounter of cold and warm ocean currents off its rather lengthy southern coastline. With these unique characteristics, plus its mountainous terrain, Japan not only has a diversity of climates in different regions, but undoubtedly experiences four distinct seasons (five if the early-summer monsoon season is included), each yielding particular produce.
The mountainous areas are blessed with abundant rainfall and snow melt as well as an elaborate network of subterranean water channels, which sustain paddy fields and other crops. Such an advantage has given rise to an impressive food culture while often still employing old ways of cultivation.
Japan is well known for its rice-centred food culture, which developed after the introduction of “wet rice” cultivation from Asia more than 2,000 years ago. Tetsuya Ito, first secretary of agriculture, forestry and fisheries at the Japanese embassy, pointed out that 80 percent of Japanese farmers today are rice farmers. In reality, Japanese cuisine, also called ryori, was conceived from ichiju issai, eating rice along with a bowl of soup and a side dish. (Ichiju issai was the basis of the Buddhist monks’ shojin temple cuisine — described below.)
Although this simple style, embracing Japan’s philosophy of frugality, was adapted centuries ago, it has become known as the essence of Japanese cuisine, in which seasonal foods are prepared in a simple manner to preserve natural flavours and avoid waste. Equally important as taste has been the artistry of the arrangement of food on a plate and the attention given to the character, colour and shape of plates and tableware chosen to harmonize  with the food and the season. A great deal has been recorded concerning the evolution of Japan’s food history and culture. Even though much has changed, the core of its cuisine has remained the same to this day.

Vegetarian diets arrive
One of the more significant changes came in the 8th and 9th Centuries when chopsticks and soy sauce were introduced from China. During Japan’s Heian period (784-1184), aristocracy entertained guests with elaborate daikyo ryori feasts. And although Buddhism (which forbade the eating of virtually all flesh of fowl and fauna) arrived in Japan in the 6th Century, it wasn’t until about the 12th Century that the vegetarian style of cooking (shojin ryori or temple cuisine), made popular by Buddhist temple monks, took hold. Their vegetarian ichiju issai diet (one small bowl of rice, soup and one dish, such as steamed vegetables) was frugal, only designed to appease hunger.
In the 15th Century, a more elaborate version of shojin ryori (called honzen ryori) was created in the households of samurai warriors. It was a multi-tray cuisine and included foods such as tofu, fermented soybeans, soy milk and wheat dishes as well as vegetables, but still with the spirit of eating in balance and wasting nothing.
In the 16th Century, inspired by the Buddist shojin ryori, cha-kaiseki emerged,  with a complete meal served prior to the formal tea ceremony. Interestingly, all four of these individual, traditional Japanese cuisines continue in some form today. The evolution of Japanese cuisine has been a fascinating journey through history.

Sushi has been one of Japan’s biggest culinary exports. (Photo: © Ryzhkov |

Sushi has been one of Japan’s biggest culinary exports. (Photo: © Ryzhkov |

The arrival of European missionaries in the 16th Century during the Edo era (1603-1867), brought together Portuguese and Spanish techniques of frying game and the Chinese method of cooking vegetables in oil, resulting in the creation of tempura — seafood and a variety of vegetables coated with a light batter before deep-frying — which was initially sold at Tokyo food stalls. Similarly, in the 18th Century, modern-style sushi (vinegar rice combined or topped with items such as raw fish and seafood), was invented in Tokyo and also sold as a snack food. However, between these two international stars of today’s Japanese cuisine emerged the technique of noodle-making and the birth of the famous soba noodle, which is made of buckwheat. This despite the fact that soba, with its advantageous characteristics of being able to grow in colder climates and be harvest-ready in two months, had already been cultivated for almost a millennium.
Ito explains: “Because the hull of buckwheat is really hard, we could not make buckwheat flour until stone-milling was introduced from China about 400 years ago. Prior to that, entire grains were consumed like rice dishes.” Examples of those include a porridge called soba-gayu and a mixture of buckwheat grains and soybean paste known as soba-miso, which are still popular menu items in Japanese soba restaurants.

Meat-eating becomes popular
Finally, after centuries of isolation, Japan reopened its ports to the West during the Meiji period (1868-1912) and many new cooking and eating customs emerged, the most significant of which was the eating of meat. Since then, the country has developed an amazingly rich and varied food culture that embraces traditional Japanese cuisines, many foreign dishes and hybrid fare. Several dishes developed at this time are now regarded as part of Japanese cuisine: sukiyaki (beef, tofu, vegetables and other ingredients cooked at the table in a sweet broth of sugar, mirin and soy sauce), tonkatsu (deep-fried breaded pork cutlets) and kareraisu (a not-too-spicy Japanese curry rice made with Indian curry powder imported from England, combined with seafood or beef stock and vegetables in a thick sauce and served with pickles).
Although dishes vary according to region, season, taste preferences and cooking styles, all traditional regional cuisines feature ichiju sansai (a meal consisting of rice plus a bowl of soup and a number of side dishes) and they all share the love of one favourite dish — sashimi (fresh raw seafood, thinly sliced and dipped into a mixture of soy sauce with wasabi and usually served with pickled ginger). Sashimi was originally a simple meal for fishermen at sea, but with the spread of soy sauce, it has evolved into a luxurious dish for the eye and the palate, a dish with international recognition as a classic example of Japanese cuisine. Ito explains: “Until the 1960s, the raw fish used in sashimi had to be marinated in vinegar due to food safety concerns related to the lack of proper refrigeration.” Japanese people enjoy sashimi at home and it is featured on menus for festivals and auspicious occasions.
Indeed, certain ingredients and foods are considered indispensable elements of traditional rituals, holidays and special occasions to recognize divine powers. For example, mochi rice cakes made from pounded steamed rice formed into round or square shapes, is served in soup on New Year’s Day. To drive away evil spirits, glutinous rice steamed with red beans and toso, a type of medicinally spiked sake, is drunk at New Year’s. Syrup-glazed dried anchovies are said to promote a good harvest, while noodles and sweetened black soybeans encourage  health and longevity.

Noodles vs. rice
Traditionally, in some regions, noodles have been a staple rather than rice.
Unquestionably, though, Japanese rice, the short-grained sticky type, is the main element of this country’s cuisine. Japanese tend to be very particular about the region, variety and brand they purchase, with many eagerly waiting the arrival of each year’s delivery of new rice. Ito, the son of a rice farmer, explains: “There are more than 800 varieties of Japanese rice, with new strains continuing to be developed.” Freshly steamed rice is most flavourful, but Japanese rice is very tasty cold, which is the reason why cold rice balls are a daily addition to countless lunch boxes.
Regarded as the miracle seasoning of Japanese cuisine, soy sauce is another main element, as it enriches the savoury notes, flavour and aroma of sushi, sashimi, grilled fish, stews, vegetables and many more dishes. Another traditional and vital seasoning, which still remains popular, is miso, made by fermenting and aging a combination of soybeans, salt and koji (rice, wheat, and beans.) With its unusual fragrance and flavour, miso is added to pickles, soup, grilled dishes and other preparations.
Japanese chefs simmer kelp, dried bonito (a type of tuna), dried anchovies and dried shiitake mushrooms to concentrate their umami — a distinct savouriness widely hailed in today’s culinary world as the sixth sense after sweet, sour, bitter, spicy and salty — and to produce dashi stock. Dashi, too, ranks as an essential ingredient for soups, noodles, simmered and braised dishes. Finally, unique to Japan is wasabi, which is cultivated in pristine stream beds fed by cold natural springs. As a seasoning with a sharp bite, it accents the delicate flavour of foods such as raw fish and offers greater culinary complexity when served with sushi and sashimi.
Japanese cuisine focuses on several other key ingredients — seafood, saltwater and freshwater fish, beef (including its world-renowned highly marbled Wagyu beef), vegetables including wild plants and sea vegetables as well (e.g., angelica tree buds/sprouts, braken/fern, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, wakame seaweed and nori, the seaweed used to make sushi.)

Japan’s restaurant favourites
When it comes to Japanese restaurants, they tend to specialize in a single type of food: sushi (with a conveyor belt service in front of customers who lift off small plates of their choice and pay according to the number of plates taken), tempura and shabushabu (thinly sliced beef cooked in a broth at the table.) By far, restaurants specializing in ramen and yakiniku
(Japanese-style barbecue) are most popular and numerous across Japan. Only family restaurants offer a range of Japanese, Western and foreign foods. Foreign food restaurants are common in larger cities.
Despite the boom in restaurants, take-home food and home delivery in Japanese bento boxes, a meal at home is still the norm. That would generally include white rice, soup, pickles and a number of accompanying dishes. And even though an enormous variety of sweets are made with sticky rice, desserts, other than seasonal fresh fruit or dried fruit, were not traditionally served at the end of the meal. Ito explains: “Sweets were originally served as part of the tea ceremony; however, with Western influence, desserts have become popular.”
I invite you to try my unique version of Tuna Sashimi Salad. Bon Appétit! It adaki-masu!

Tuna Sashimi Salad

Makes 6 servings or 2 ½ cups (625 mL)

1 cup or 250 mL (7 oz or 200 g) diced sashimi-grade tuna
1 cup or 250 mL (6 oz or 175 g) diced English cucumber, skin on, seeds removed
1 cup or 250 mL (6 oz or 175 g) diced ripe avocado
1 tbsp (15 mL) soy sauce
1 tbsp (15 mL) sesame oil
3/4 tsp (4 mL) crushed dried tarragon leaves
3/4 tsp (4 mL) ground cumin
2 tbsp (30 mL) chopped green onion
2 tsp (10 mL) toasted white sesame seeds
To taste, salt and crushed black peppercorns

1 tbsp (15 mL) fresh lime juice
1 tbsp (15 mL) sesame oil
3/4 tsp (4 mL) prepared wasabi
1 ½ tsp (8 mL) peeled and grated fresh gingerroot
1 tsp (5 mL) soy sauce

1. To make the dressing: In a small bowl, whisk together lime juice, sesame oil, wasabi, ginger and soy sauce; set aside.
2. When dicing tuna, cucumber and avocado into 1/4-inch or 0.6-cm cubes, keep these ingredients separate.
3. Sprinkle tuna with 1 tbsp (15 mL) soy sauce,  1 tbsp (15 mL) sesame oil, tarragon and cumin; toss.
4. Just before serving, place tuna, cucumber and green onion on a large platter or in a large glass baking dish, sprinkle with sesame seeds, salt and crushed black peppercorns, and gently toss together with a fork.
5. Drizzle with dressing and toss lightly. Add avocado and toss.* (Makes 2 ½ cups or 625 mL.)
6. For individual servings, using a cylinder (diameter: 3 inches or 7.5 cm), arrange 1/6 of the salad mixture on each of 6 dinner plates, packing it down lightly with a spoon.
7. If desired, for a final presentation, drizzle plates artistically with sesame oil and basil-infused olive oil. Add a scattering of capers and fresh thyme leaves; crown individual Tuna Sashimi Salads with fried wonton pieces.

*Note: It may be necessary to increase the final dimension of flavours. Therefore, stir together a little more of the dressing ingredients and add to the mixture according to taste. If appropriate, season with more salt and crushed black peppercorns.

Margaret Dickenson is a cookbook author, TV host, menu/recipe developer, protocol, business and etiquette instructor. (

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Category: Delights

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Margaret Dickenson wrote the awardwinning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining (

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