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Dig in! Japanese Culture in the Kitchen

Mountains, plains, rivers and the sea… Nature has given the Japanese archipelago a tremendous variety of fine ingredients, and the country is a culinary delight. Recipes play up freshness, while seasonings and stocks bring out the flavor of the ingredients. Decorated tableware plays a role in the presentation, and food is arranged with an eye to beauty. Traditional preservation methods take advantage of the climate and natural preserving agents, and foreign recipes are absorbed with enthusiasm.

From a keen awareness of the pleasures of dining came culinary knowledge and expertise, and these have crystallized into a distinct food culture. So what is Japanese cuisine, anyway? These pages offer a taste.

When vegetables are pickled they keep longer than when raw, and they have extra nutritional value because of the lactic acid bacteria that grow as part of the fermentation process. Each part of Japan favors its own combination of vegetables and seasonings to make tsukemono. The photo to the left shows three types: clockwise from left, daikon radish pickled in vinegar, beets pickled in sweet vinegar, and cucumber pickled in soy sauce.

Above middle: Vegetables pickled in a salted rice bran paste.

Above right top: Eggplant, cucumber, and turnip pickled in miso paste.

Above right bottom: If the vegetables are pickled for too long, you can remove some of the salt by chopping them up fine and soaking them in water before eating.

French croquettes became a Japanese “Western” dish. In Japan croquettes are generally served with rice and come with a shredded raw cabbage salad.

Mashed potato with ground meat and minced onion added. The mixture is patted into easy-to-handle oval shapes, coated with breadcrumbs then deep-fried. The Japanese word korokke comes from the French, croquette.

It would be hard to imagine Japanese cuisine without shoyu (soy sauce). It is such an easy-to-use seasoning, ideal for soups and broths, simmered foods and a full range of other dishes. It sits on the table until someone grabs it to sprinkle directly on food. To make it, first of all soybeans, wheat and salt are added to water. Brine and a fermenting agent (a koji mold cultivated on soybeans and wheat) are then mixed in. After the resulting mash, known as moromi, ferments for several months, it is squeezed through a cloth to obtain as much of the liquid as possible. The liquid is heated to kill bacteria, and the final result is soy sauce.

There are three main types of soy sauce:

* koi-kuchi, with a dark color and a rich taste

* usu-kuchi, with a lighter color and taste

* tamari, with a higher concentration of soybean and less salt.

Most people buy the first type, so that today the word koi-kuchi is practically synonymous with soy sauce. Usu-kuchi sauce is given a lighter color so that it will not discolor simmered foods and other ingredients.

Tradition says that a Zen priest went to China in the 13th century and brought back the technique for making kinzanji miso. A liquid seeping out of vegetables pickled in this miso was a kind of soy sauce, and this, it is said, was the beginning of tamari, the third variety of soy sauce. Beginning in the 1500s, it was produced mainly in the Kyoto and Osaka region, but after the mid-1600s the population of Edo (present-day Tokyo) mushroomed and the main center of production shifted to an area just east of Edo, in what is now Chiba Prefecture. The older tamari manufacturing process, which produces a milder sauce, evolved to yield koi-kuchi, the dark-colored, salty sauce preferred by the people of Edo.

Chiba Prefecture remains Japan’s most important production center for soy sauce, even today. Miya Shoyu-ten is the only maker in Chiba that follows the old brewing process. Its soy sauce is sold under the trade name, Tamasa.

Miya Keiichiro, the company’s managing director, says, “When we make soy sauce, we aim for an excellent balance of fine fragrance and mild taste. When it comes out just right I feel glad I’m continuing my family’s manufacturing traditions. I still have years to go before I can be proud of my record, though.” He has been managing his ancestors’ business, which goes back 170 years, for 12 years so far. Miya’s goal is to achieve the best possible taste, so he uses traditional brewing methods that take advantage of natural changes in temperature. His company could change over to mass production, but that is not his ambition—he is after a superior taste. That means, of course, starting with the best ingredients.

“Our soybeans and wheat come from this prefecture. The water is ideal, from our own spring-fed well. We get the salt from Mexico, because of its higher amino acid content.” Miya is on to something, because many chefs prefer his variety of soy sauce. Miya Shoyu-ten’s Japanese-language website: http://www.miyashoyu.co.jp/3

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