While home cooks are happy to turn their hands to knocking up a stir-fry, grilling fish, making a bowl of noodles, or even rolling some sushi, cooking Japanese cuisine still, for some reason, sounds tricky. It isn’t.There may be different ingredients and techniques plus the odd bit of kit that you should buy to make things easier, but many of these have already crept into your repertoire or kitchen. You are much closer to being a competent Japanese home cook than you think.
Japanese home cooking is different to that found in restaurants, just as it is in any cuisine, but it shares the same ethos and is prepared with an equal amount of care. So here’s a selection of things that are useful to know, plus some very useful words of wisdom from chef and cookery writer Yuki Gomi about sake, ingredients, kitchen kit and beautiful crockery. If you’d like to learn more, take one of her classes. Yukiskitchen.com
A few tips to remember. Use the fat ends of your chopsticks to serve yourself from communal bowls, after all you wouldn’t double dip, would you? Pick little bowls (such as the one your rice comes in) up to eat from them, but leave larger bowls or dishes where they are. It’s good manners to eat everything in your bowl, and that means every grain of rice. Once you’ve finished, it’s customary to leave the table looking as you found it, chopsticks on their rest and lids on bowls.
Don’t drink until everyone has been served and you’ve said ‘kampai!’ then only pour more drinks for others, not yourself, someone else will pour yours (hopefully). Don’t put too much soy sauce into your dipping bowl when you eat sushi and sashimi, there shouldn’t be any left at the end, but feel free to slurp your noodles.
Yoshoku means western food in Japanese, it’s a culinary mash-up of Japanese and western cuisines that has resulted in some surprising,often dubious sounding,dishes as well as some genius ideas. Katsu (crumbed fried pork) is familiar, but hambagu (a burger served with a French demi-glace sauce), kare rice (a version of British curry) and Napolitan spaghetti with ketchup and stir-fried veg sauce are not. Nor is omurice, an omelette stuffed with chikin raisu (rice fried with chicken) and served with ketchup.
Yoshoku originated during the Meiji Restoration from 1868-1912 when Japan lifted a ban on red meat and started to look at western food for the reasons Europeans were so much larger than the Japanese.After the SecondWorld War, its popularity grew as the ingredients to make it got cheaper. If you want to try some yoshoku recipes, from teriyaki chicken rice burgers to steaks with seaweed butter and roast soy chicken, Jane Lawson’s book by the same name is worth looking for. You can pick up a second hand copy for a couple of pounds.
This means adorable or cute in Japanese, particularly in the context of popular culture. A Little Kitty macaron is kawaii, as is a panda doughnut, a marshmallow with a face, or a glass with ears.Type it into Instagram or Pinterest and marvel.
Japanese food styles
There are three main styles and many more types of food, each distinct and almost cultish in the way it is eaten. Honzen ryori is formal and elaborate and used for banqueting, chakaiseki ryori is the cuisine of the tea ceremony, and kaiseki ryori is served in restaurants. Sushi started life as a street snack and then became posher. Many restaurants and stalls sell one, or limited dishes such as ramen (soba and udon have their own joints), yakitori, okonomiyaki, tempura and shabu shabu. Izakaya are the equivalent of pubs and have a varied menu of drinking food like fried chicken, grilled dishes and sushi.
Plating-up Japanese style
Cooking and preparing Japanese food is only half the story; what you serve it on is worth putting some thought into, too. A few special pieces will make all the difference if you’re entertaining. Muji can help you out for everyday dishes. muji.eu
Now based in Portslade, Brighton, Brickett Davda’s tableware, and particularly the larger bowls for shared dishes and parties, have uplifting colours and slender shapes. brickettdavda.com
The distinctive bright-green glazes produced by Kashima Gozan are gorgeous, and particularly well matched to the slight irregularities in each piece. The medium bowls are great for lunchtime donburi (rice with toppings). A selection is available from David Mellor. davidmellordesign.com
Kaori Tatebayashi’s unique pieces are chic and honest due to her use of traditional Japanese ceramic techniques. The simple and minimalist result allows the colours of the food to shine. cargocollective.com
Richard Batterham is based in Dorset and fires his kiln only a handful of times every year. Small bowls work well for serving pickles at the table. davidmellordesign.com
Reiko Kaneka’s distinctive tableware draws on her British-Japanese background – she is based in Stoke. Use her bone china cups for warm sake at parties. reikokaneko.co.uk
Three surprising sakes
Visit any Japanese restaurant and you’ll be offered a list of sake to choose from. Like wine, they vary widely in flavour and suit different types of food or occasion. Here are three very different styles to try, you’ll find them all at the Japan Centre.
Sparkling Sake: Shochikubai Shirakabegura MioSparkling and great for parties, it is wonderfully light and aromatic. It is amazing that such a complex, floral flavour is creating only by fermenting rice. I would serve this as a welcome drink or aperitif.
Creamy Sake: Petit Moon Nigori A surprising sake which is rich and creamy. The texture comes from the filtering which leaves some rice particles behind, to give a distinctive full-bodied character. It’s a good fit for spicy dishes.
Citrus sake: Gekkeikan Unfiltered Yuzu Sake (Yuzu Nigorishu) Yuzu are the staple citrus fruit in Japan and give this sake its distinctive, zesty, refreshing flavour. Its strong taste mixes well with tonic or soda in long drinks.
Western ingredients that work well in in Japanese food
Just as Japanese ingredients such as wasabi, rice vinegar and sesame oil have found their way into everyday Western recipes, some of our most familiar ingredients and flavourings have gone the other way. These are Yuki’s favourites.
Tahini is a popular ingredient in Japan. Mix it with core ingredients such as miso, mirin or soy sauce to make dressings and sauces. The British brought English mustard to Japan with them and we developed our own version called Kona Karashi, which has a little less vinegar. Now when I am cooking here, I use original English mustard for dishes such as katsu, or to add a bit of kick to dressings. Okra is associated with Middle Eastern or Indian dishes. In Japanese cooking we like to preserve a bit of crunch and so never slow-cook or stew it. Instead, it’s quickly blanched or even used for tempura. Tomatoes are a surprising and welcome addition to the Japanese kitchen. I mix them with shiso leaves in salads, very much as you would with basil leaves in Italian cookery.
Lager, yes lager, I use it for pickling cucumbers as a snack to serve on rice, or as a small side dish.