Japanese Food: Lessons Learned
While I am of Japanese heritage, my grandparents emigrated to Hawaii over a century ago, and like most Japanese immigrants of that period, they were poor farmers. So, emerging from a time warp and bridging a considerable economic distance, I took in Tokyo, Kyoto and towns large and small in a 25-day vacation that ended two weeks ago.
Although this was not my first trip to Japan, it was my longest, and gave me a chance to reflect upon Japanese cuisine with a little more insight. I’m no expert; I’m merely generalizing about my own experiences.
The main thing I came away with this time is that Japanese attitudes about food are surely a way to weight control. Through big cities and small towns, I was hard-pressed to find any overweight residents. We could all benefit from observing and practicing the following:
- In Japan, the beauty of each component of a meal and its artful presentation is as important as the flavor. Plates are not piled high with food—in fact, the amount of food is restrained to showcase the design of the carefully selected vessels the dishes are served in. This means you don’t overeat, but take great pleasure as you eat mindfully, enjoying each delightful bite.
- The Japanese are willing to pay for the freshest, best-quality food. Better to enjoy the highest quality and eat less.
- They eat following the seasons. Since we were there during the fall, we enjoyed chestnuts, gingko nuts, pumpkin and other autumnal ingredients. This makes each season a celebratory occasion to honor what is available at that time of year, when the ingredients are at their finest.
- Every meal, from breakfast to dinner, includes a bowl of miso soup or clear soup. A warming start to the meal, a light soup also helps to curb your appetite by filling you up.
- Most Japanese breakfast we had included a little tossed green salad. What a nice way to get some fresh vegetables in the diet from the start of the day.
- At the teahouse of some of Japan’s greatest gardens, refreshments consist of one small, perfectly lovely confection (wagashi), which is eaten first, then matcha is sipped, all the while enjoying the scenic beauty. Remarkably, just the one small sweet is enough to leave you feeling completely satisfied—quite a difference from the slab of pie or cake we think of for a coffee break.
Check out some of my Japanese food photos and learn more about what I encountered with Japanese food on our Special Fork Facebook page.
The following recipe is a take-off on a dish we had as the last course before dessert at a kaiseki meal in Tokyo. Japan’s haute cuisine, kaiseki restaurants feature many small, gorgeously plated courses of exquisite seasonal delights, ending in a serving of rice and pickles before dessert.
The photo pictured is from the restaurant, Ginza Maru, in Tokyo. By the time the rice course was presented, we were completely stuffed, so in addition to the bowl of the salmon rice we had on premise, the chef offered to package the remainder as rice balls for us to take home.
We didn’t say no.
1 piece of salmon (7 ounces), fillet or salmon steak, bones removed
4 cups hot cooked rice (about 2 rice cups of raw rice for an electric rice cooker)
1/3 cup salmon roe (2 1/2 ounces)
¼ cup chopped cilantro
1 teaspoon naturally brewed soy sauce
A half hour before serving, season salmon with salt on both sides. Refrigerate. Heat grill to high. Wipe moisture from salmon and grill on one side until moisture beads develop on the uncooked side of the salmon, about 2 minutes. Turn and grill about 2 minutes more, until the salmon is just done. Do not overcook. Actual grilling time will depend on the thickness of your salmon.
Spoon rice into serving bowl. Add salmon, salmon roe and cilantro; sprinkle with soy sauce. Using a spoon or Japanese rice paddle, break up the salmon and toss all ingredients together. Makes 4 servings.
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