The Taste Of Japan

Douglas Pilarski

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Furikake and SalmonPhoto via Pinterest

The Flavors We Love

Japanese food looks so simple at first. Digging deeper, it is a maze of intense flavors. Here are ten flavors that define Japanese food. Once you are familiar with these tastes, you will see them used over and over in a wide variety of dishes. Your tastebuds will say arigato gozaimasu!

Furikake

Furikake is a seasoned rice topping. It is common on tables in Japanese homes. The ingredients are many and limited to the basic building blocks of ground dry fish, seaweed, sesame seeds, and specks of sea salt.

You will find this popular condiment on Japanese grocery store shelves. No harm in picking up three or four shaker top bottles. Keep a small collection of favorite flavors on hand. There is a lot to choose from, so it is ripe for experimenting.

Do you want to create furikake? Start by crushing then toasting sesame seeds. Add a healthy amount of nori, sea salt, sugar, bonito flakes, chili flakes, miso powder, shiitake powder, dried shiso, and toasted salmon skin. There is no end to the combinations you can come up with. My advice is to find what you like in the store, then if you want to jump into the make-it-at-home game, get the ingredients, and experiment. Make notes to track what worked. Serving furikake over hot Japanese rice is a classic!

Miso

Miso is a ferment of soybeans. It can take up to three years in storage before it is ready to eat. An earthen crock is packed with soybeans paste and seasoned with salt. Koji, also known as Aspergillus Oryzae, is added.

There are modern methods for making miso that involve steel vessels to hold the ingredients during fermentation. An earthen pot is a more traditional method. The pots are sometimes buried in the ground for as long as three years to allow the fermentation process to proceed. Miso takes on the flavors of the local area where it is made. Locals will add barley, seaweed, rice, and other ingredients to vary and localize the end product.

Miso paste is used in a variety of Japanese dishes. Find the salty, earthy flavors in ramen, fish, and pickles. It is even used in Korean BBQ. Miso paste is commonly paired with dashi to make miso soup. Miso paste is gaining fans as chefs discover its unique flavoring and versatility.

Yuzu

Yuzu has a tart or sour taste. The citrusy flavor is between lemon and lime. The fragrant fruit is used mainly for its juice and often zest when a chef wants an extra punch in a dish. Yuzu is cultivated in Japan, China, and Korea.

Yuzu looks rough like a bumpy, mishandled lemon. Fresh, whole Yuzu are difficult to find outside of Japan. You can buy many yuzu-infused and inspired products in Japanese groceries. These products shake out like salt and give foods an unmistakable sour-tart taste. Try some yuzu-flavored mayonnaise or ponzu sauce for a welcome burst of flavor.

Cultivation of yuzu outside of East Asia is becoming more commonplace as it becomes more popular and accepted by a wider audience. Countries such as Spain, France, and Australia have adopted the fruit and are currently planting groves.

Dashi

Dashi is the root of the umami flavor that has grown so popular with foodies everywhere. It can't be simpler to make. It is considered a soup stock. Boiling water and shaved bonito flakes are the two main ingredients.

Traditional soup stocks can be made from meats, vegetables, and spices simmered for several hours. In contrast, you can make dashi with two ingredients in twenty minutes. So simple is dashi that you can vary the taste by changing up the ingredients. Instead of the dried bonito flakes, try dried kelp, dried anchovy, sardine, and dried shiitake mushrooms to add variety. Create your own savory, umami-packed flavor sensations by experimenting with different combinations.

Matcha

Serious tea drinkers are drawn to matcha looking for an intense green tea flavor. Unlike regular green tea, you consume the entire green tea leaf while enjoying matcha. Matcha is found in ice cream, pastries, and confections.

Matcha is full of flavor served hot or cold. It provides as much as ten times the nutrients of regular green tea and more caffeine than coffee. Matcha is grown in the shade which increases the amount of amino acid L-theanine and chlorophyll found in the leaf. Theanine is a powerful antioxidant. The extra chlorophyll gives the tea a vivid green color.

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Matcha Green Tea PowderPhoto via Pinterest

Sake

Polish rice grains and remove the bran - you are on the long and complicated journey to enjoy one of the best-loved flavors in Japan. Sake is an alcoholic beverage and is sometimes referred to as rice wine. The word sake in Japanese means alcohol. This beverage is a complicated, longer-process fermented drink rather than a wine.

One of the steps in the fermentation process is allowing sake to sit in large wooden open-top fermentation tanks. These open-top tanks have been used in sake-making for centuries. One famous fermentation tank maker has not had a new order since the late 1800s. The tanks age over time and impart the ferment with unique flavors that influence the final product. You will find sake makers around Japan. Were you to stop in small towns while making a tour of sake, you will find a tremendous variety of tastes, looks, and local traditions from village to village.

White Pepper

The chef will add a dash of white pepper to avoid seeing flecks of black pepper in the final presentation. White pepper is added when creating sauces, stir-fries, and hot-and-sour soups.

White pepper is made by removing the outer skin that coats the pepper berry. Once removed, the core is sun-dried and ground into a fine dust. White pepper is more commonly used in Chinese and Japanese cooking than black pepper.

One more thing, white pepper and black pepper both have the same power to make you sneeze! A-choo!

Chili Oil

Chili oil can be simple or complex. As simple as Red Chili Flakes infused avocado or sesame oil. There are a large number of ingredients available if you wanted to take a more creative approach to infuse the oil. Various combinations of cloves, Sichuan peppercorns, cinnamon, cardamom pods, bay leaves, black peppercorns, garlic, ginger, green onion, and black rice vinegar will take your chili oil to the next level.

Use chili oil in spicy ramen, as a topping for tofu or as a sauce for mabu-tofu, over eggs and eggplant, and in chicken salad for a warm, punchy flavor. Chili oil is always on the table at a dim sum restaurant and partnered with white vinegar, it makes a fine dipping sauce for gyoza.

There are endless recipes and combinations of ingredients. That leaves plenty of room for creating your taste sensations or in a classic tried-and-true recipe.

Wasabi

Wasabi is Japanese horseradish. A close relative of mustard and watercress. But wasabi isn’t an ordinary root - it grows in water. Wasabi patches are carefully cultivated in coldwater streams. Roots grow around pebbles in the stream and keep the plant from washing away.

The root is green in color - the taste is unmistakable. Wasabi stems, flowers, and leaves are used in dishes. When out for sushi, wasabi is a familiar sight. Along with soy sauce and ginger, wasabi brings sushi of all types alive. No matter which way you choose to eat it, freshly grated, from a tube, or mixed from dry wasabi powder, it packs a punch. Wasabi is versatile and can be found in noodle dishes, katsu, unagi, and soba.

Soy Sauce

Soy sauce originated in China more than 2,000 years ago. Salt was not easy to obtain if you were not located near a coast. Soy sauce was a way to extend salt. It is a ferment of soybeans, salt, water, wheat, and other grains. Fermenting agents such as fungal cultures and bacteria are introduced to ignite fermentation. The version known as tamari is made without wheat and therefore suits a gluten-free diet. The dark Chinese recipe is high in antioxidants.

Blending and brewing are the two ways of making soy sauce. Methods to make the salty liquid have changed over the centuries. It can take anywhere from a couple of days to several months to make soy from start to finish. Besides Japan, Korea, Vietnam, China, Indonesia, and Taiwan all make soy sauce. Methods and tastes vary with the country of origin.

Summary

For centuries, rice has been at the core of native Japanese cuisine. There is a rich tradition of eating rice with fish, seasonal vegetables, and other marine products. The rich food traditions continue to be explored by talented Japanese chefs on a mission to pay homage to the traditions in new ways. Foreign dishes have also been adopted and changed to suit Japanese sensibilities. The cuisine today continues to focus on presentation, fresh ingredients, and rich flavors.

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Douglas Pilarski is an award-winning writer & journalist based on the west coast. He writes about luxury goods, exotic cars, horology, tech, food, lifestyle, and workplace issues!

Beaverton, OR
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