In Japan, homemade miso soup has the most umami (photo by fto mizno)
The first time I heard about umami, I had started working in a run down sushi shop on top of Nob Hill in San Francisco. I learned how to steam Japanese rice and season it with the appropriate balance of sweetness and sourness. I cleaned and gutted small fish as I was not to be trusted yet to cut the more expensive fish. The head chef also took the time to explain how to make the staple miso soup. The most important part of the process was to dissolve the light brown miso paste in dashi Japanese fish stock. When I inquired to why I needed to add this mild tasting fish broth to the soup, the chef gave me one word: umami. Instead of trying to describe the elusive taste, he poured some of the soup he had just made in one cup. Then, he mixed a bit of miso paste with some hot water. I tried the soup with no broth first and then tried the umami rich miso diluted in broth. They both tasted exactly the same to me. Six years later, I sat at a sushi bar in Montreal on a cold winter night, a perfect night for a miso soup. However, the soup I was served was off. It had no umami. Over the course of a few years, I had discovered a new taste anchored in Japanese culture.
During its two hundred years of isolation, Japan pursued a policy that attempted to prevent foreign political and cultural ideas to penetrate the country. The goal was foremost to thwart the growing influence of the Catholic church by effectively cutting Japan off from the rest of the world. The law stated that Japanese leaving the country as well as foreigners entering Japan would be punished by death. This uncompromising edict did not stop the outside world from seeping into Japanese culture. As an island nation, Japan might at first glance appear to be a reclusive country with a culture very different from its immediate neighbor. However, the transmission of new cultural elements such as cuisine rarely respects national boundaries. In turn, these new crops or dishes were adapted to a new ecological and cultural environment. In the case of Japan, these transformations might not appear evident, as they became over time an integral part of the culinary culture. If we take a closer look at Japan’s cuisine, we will quickly realize that although these outside forces are far from obvious, they still manage to permeate the country’s culinary culture.
In recent years, sushi has gained tremendous popularity around the World. As a result of this global success, sushi has come to mean different things depending on where it is eaten. For example, sushi in Japan is different from sushi in California. At its most basic definition, sushi is seasoned rice with raw fish, yet, to better understand sushi we need to take a closer look at its history. The precursor of sushi, nare-zushi, was first developed in East Asia to preserve fish. The fish would ferment between layers of cooked rice. The rice would be then discarded giving the fish a characteristic sour taste. With the elaboration of better forms of transportation and refrigeration, Edo period food stalls replaced fermented fish with raw fish served on vinegary rice called edo-mae sushi. Continue reading
Although one might think it’s suited to the Western palate, okonomiyaki, a dish emblematic of the Osaka region, has never gained the same popularity abroad as ramen. Okonomiyaki is popular in Japan in every sense of the term and its various iterations can be found just about everywhere in Japan. Okonomiyaki which translates as “grill it the way you like it”, seems more a reflection of Western individualism than of Japanese homogeneity. Unsurprisingly, its history, preparation and regional style are far from being clearly defined. Where does it come from? How do you make the dish? What are the different types of local variations?
Sato: premium Shochu from Kyushu.
When it comes to Japanese alcohol, there is a lot of confusion about the use of the term sake. Sake in Japanese is a generic term that designates alcohol and does not refer to Japanese rice wine in particular. In Japan, rice wine is called nihonshu which means Japanese alcohol. Japan also traditionally distills alcohol from various fermented starches in ways similar to the one used to make vodka. The product of this distillation is called shochu (lit. burned alcohol) and it has, in the last few years, taken a growing place in Japan’s drinking habits.
Quick sit down shops called yatai (photo by Justin C.)
Travel has historically been difficult in Japan. In medieval times, one had to request a special travel permit from the governing authorities to be able to travel. Although travel was limited, snack shops for hungry travelers was an unmistakable part of the premodern landscape. Today this tradition endures. Japanese people can travel freely, yet they most often take very little time off work. In order to make the best out of a short vacation, Japanese tourists will take many pictures of their trip and purchase local food that can be eaten on the spot or at a later time. In this way, tourism and food are inextricably tied to each other in Japanese culture. While travelling in Japan, it is worthwhile to try to discover the different regional foods available.