Places, Images, Times & Transformations

Japanese Food and Cooking

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Visitors to Japan today witness a huge array of food choices, ranging from traditional Japanese cooking, Chinese, Korean, to the increasing available cooking of recent immigrants to Japan from various parts of the world. Of course, to this, so-called Western food goes into the mix. Western food comes in as many types as there are nations, with Italian and French now being very popular. Then there is fast food, offered by such outlets as McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and the like. On any block of a Japanese town, one is likely to find eateries offering a rich mixture of food choices. One finds, too, the Japanese eat meals that show a variety of foreign influences, without much cognizance of what influences come from which countries—for breakfast, they are as comfortable with ham and eggs, salad, buttered toast, and coffee as they are with a traditional breakfast fare, consisting of rice, miso soup, seaweed, and grilled fish. Lunch could be a plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce (originally Italian), hot bowls of rice with delicious, spicy toppings (originally Korean), or a steaming bowl of ramen noodles with soup (originally Chinese). For a snack, they may have cheesecake and English tea, Japanese sweets and green tea, or cold soba noodles dipped in sauce. Dinner may be sukiyaki, tenpura (originally said to be Portuguese, referring to fried vegetarian food eaten during Lent), or something as perennial favorite as curry and rice (originally Indian).

At many restaurants, customers can decide on their order by looking at very realistic wax models of their menu offerings at the storefront-so real that one can see details like bubbles in a carbonated drink and almost smell the melted cheese on gratin dishes.

Added to this availability is a general interest in good eating. When people get together, their topic often turns to food-new restaurants, regional cooking, recipes, and so on-more often than their counterparts do in the United States. This fervor is fueled by Japanese TV that broadcasts programs on food and cooking on a daily basis; in addition, travel shows, quiz shows, talk shows, game shows, and others frequently incorporate segments on cooking and eating. With show biz glitter and flare, a TV show like Ryōri no tetsujin (known as "Iron Chef" when shown in the United States) gained a phenomenal following, a show in which famous chef contestant and defender compete to create the best-tasting, luscious looking, and textually varied multi-course meal using one principal ingredient. Bookstores are replete with books and magazines on all types of cooking. Travel brochures and posters try to lure customers by showing beautifully prepared specialty dishes-in fact, we may say that a main attraction to a resort is food, perhaps superseded only by its scenery and its proximity to onsen (hot springs). Indeed, there seems to be no end to the length a Japanese would go to get something cooked just right, even if it is as humble as a bowl of noodles.

What makes Japanese so passionate about eating? How is Japanese cooking different from Chinese or Korean cooking, and for that matter, so-called Western cooking? What can we learn about Japanese people and their culture from what they eat? These are some of the fundamental issues involved.

No Meat in Diet: Milder Food

When one picks up a Japanese cookbook, one is often surprised by the variety of seafood dishes and a relatively small section dedicated to cooking of meat. This is for a reason: historically the Japanese avoided public eating of animals, animal fats, and dairy products, owing to Buddhism that shunned such foods (more on this below). The staple of the Japanese diet remains the same-with or without meat. It has always been seafood, vegetables, and grains (rice), due primarily to Japan's geography and climate. Except in pre-Buddhism days, meat eating in Japan without the danger of religious reprimand is a relatively recent phenomenon; it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the people of Japan began eating meat widely and making use of it in their own cooking.

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