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  Corkscrew Issue 43, Summer 2006   
Japanese Cooking and WineJapanese Cooking and Wine  Contents 
Issue 42, June 2006 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 44, September 2006

Japanese Cooking and Wine

Sushi, Sashimi and Sake: to many westerners Japanese cooking is just that, indeed, it is a refined art capable of joining flavors to aesthetics united by simplicity

 Whenever Japanese cooking comes to mind, the association with sushi and sashimi it is almost unavoidable, as if this refined as well as simple eastern cuisine is exclusively made from these two famous dishes only. If we think about the beverages of Japanese cooking, also in this case the association with sake and tea is the most frequent idea. Of course Japanese cooking is also sushi, sashimi, sake and tea, however these famous foods and beverages represent just a minimal part, if not exiguous. It is right from one of these renowned Japanese foods - sushi - the false belief it is raw fish and rice took origin. Despite this is partially true, in Japan raw fish dishes are called sashimi and can also be served with sushi. Indeed, sushi is a recipe made of cooked rice to which it is added rice vinegar, sugar and salt, and with which are being prepared “small balls” stuffed with fish, eggs, vegetables and seaweeds, or simply garnished with the same ingredients.

 

A Refined Art Associated to Aesthetics

 Japanese cooking is more than a simple method of preparing ingredients and transforming them in dishes. Japanese cooking is, essentially, all that to which it is added the charming ingredient capable of amazing all the times and which is represented by aesthetics. The way dishes are in fact presented to commensals represents the first and essential gratification of Japanese cooking, the anticipation of the pleasure that will delight the palate. Mainly made of quick and essential cooking techniques, Japanese cooking is widely based on the preparation of dishes by using raw ingredients, trying to respect, as much as possible, both the nature of ingredients as well as their original organoleptic qualities. Dishes of Japanese cooking are generally light and easily digestible, the cooking of ingredients - in case this is required - is simple and quick. What cannot be defined as simple are the countless techniques of cutting ingredients, strictly coded and requiring a scrupulous skill and mastery, because in Japanese gastronomic culture food must look aesthetically pleasing even before its preparation.


Makizushi, one of the most famous sushi types of Japanese cooking
Makizushi, one of the most famous sushi types of Japanese cooking

 In this sense, Japanese cooking can be in fact defined as a set of preparation techniques instead of the transformation of ingredients. Because of its geographical position - Japan is an archipelago made of four main islands and about one thousand lesser islands - the cooking of this country is mainly based on fish and sea products, as well as seaweeds, available in different varieties and found in countless dishes. Despite the area destined to agriculture is pretty limited, Japanese cooking is also rich in fruits and vegetables. Among the main ingredients of Japanese cooking are mentioned fish, rice, soybeans and its many derivatives, wheat, barley, potatoes, mushrooms and tea. As it can be seen, many of these ingredients are also common in Chinese cooking, however, whereas in China it is common the union and mixing of ingredients in the preparation of dishes, in Japan it is preferred to cook them separately and to present them in single trays. Another difference from Chinese cooking is represented by cooking techniques. Whereas in China frying is frequent, as well as stewing and sauteing in the typical wok, in Japan are preferred quick cooking techniques instead, such as grilling, steaming and boiling, sometimes frying.

 In Japanese cooking is always paid a particular attention on the matching of flavors with the consistence of foods which will be in harmony or in contrast among them, always “seasoned” with the essential ingredient of Japanese cooking which is represented by the impeccable aesthetics. In this sense, few other cuisines of the world have reached an aesthetic and formal level like the Japanese. The suggestive effect of colors, the use of natural and geometric shapes, the way in which foods are placed in dishes, it is a characteristic which in Japan has reached very high levels. The culture of the beauty and the aesthetic sense is also found in other cultural forms of Japan - such us in Cha No Yu, the famous tea ceremony - and in the table this aspect is completed by the proper choice of dishes, bowls and trays. In fact, no tools or dish which is to be placed in a Japanese table will be chosen without a reason: material, color and shape are scrupulously chosen according to the foods to be served and their aesthetics, therefore providing an expressive complement of cooking and the art of serving.

 

The Ingredients of Japanese Cooking

 Japanese cooking is widely based on sea products - fish, crustaceans, seafruits and seaweeds - rice and soybean derivatives, such as tofu, miso, soybean sprouts and soybean sauces, of which the main types are shoyu and tamari. Among the most common condiments of Japanese cooking are mentioned wasabi - a green paste produced with the root of a Japanese plant similar to horseradish, with a pungent and sour taste - rice vinegar and dried tunafish flakes. Traditionally, Japanese cooking does not make use of animal fats and also the introduction of the consumption of meat is a relatively recent custom, mainly represented by beef and chicken. An essential role - just like in China - is played by rice, used in every dish to accompany foods. The role of rice is so important that dishes generally served with it are considered as “side dishes”. An essential meal must be made by at least one soup, rice and a “side dish” prepared with vegetables, fish or eggs, whereas the typical meal is generally made of three.


 

 Very appreciated and used in Japanese cooking are seaweeds, not only served as vegetables or used as ingredients in the preparation of dishes, indeed, they are precious chests of tastes. The discovery of sodium glutamate - the highly debated chemical element which gave origin to the fifth taste, that is umami - was done thanks to the study of one of the most famous seaweed used in Japanese cooking, kombu seaweed. In 1908, in the University of Tokyo, professor Kikunae Ikeda was successful is extracting this element from kombu seaweeds, the vegetable with the highest content of sodium glutamate. This discovery was immediately considered of high interest and the taste produced by this element - different from the four fundamental tastes - was called umami (or umai), a term meaning delicious in Japanese language. The use of seaweeds in Japanese cooking also has the function of exalting flavors, by amplifying the taste of dishes. Concerning this, it should be remembered the exalting action of flavors done by sodium glutamate works for meat, fish and some types of vegetables only, and it is always advisable not to abuse of it.

 Another common ingredient used in Japanese cooking is sake, the famous alcoholic beverage made by the fermentation of rice, also known in the western world with the improper name of rice wine. Despite the Japanese meaning of the term sake is alcoholic beverage, in the western world the term is used for the alcoholic beverage obtained by the fermentation of rice, crystalline and with an alcohol by volume of about 18%. Sake is not only consumed as a beverage, it is also used as an ingredient for the preparation of dishes, such as soups, sometimes sushi, fish and meat recipes. In Japanese cooking the use of spices and aromatic herbs is pretty limited, however the use of sauces is very common, in particular used for dishes such as sushi and sashimi. Among the most common sauces are mentioned wasabi, karashi and the many soybean sauces, such as shoyu, tamari, teriyaki and urakachi. Soybeans are also used, just like in China, for the production of fundamental ingredients of Japanese cooking, such as tofu, miso and noodles.

 

Techniques of Japanese Cooking

 The secret, or better to say, the charm of Japanese cooking, consists in joining flavors to a strict aesthetic art made of colors, shapes and extremely complex cutting techniques. According to Japanese gastronomic culture, first of all, food must have a pleasing look, possibly keeping and respecting the nature of its original flavors. Of course, this does not mean Japanese cooking is poor of flavors, indeed, also the most humble looking and poor dishes can always surprise everyone's palate. The preparation of Japanese cooking is widely based on the preparation techniques instead of the transformation of ingredients, something which is widely appreciable in the many dishes based on raw foods. The fundamental skill of every cook consists in the knowledge of cutting techniques and the art of presenting dishes, last but not the least, the knowledge of the preparation and cooking. Among the most typical cooking techniques are mentioned grilling, steaming and boiling, stewing and the famous frying technique called tempura, used for fish and vegetables.

 Many of the preparation techniques of foods in Japanese cooking are considered as an art: the most talented and skilled cooks, who are capable of surprising with their excellent skill, are considered as masters. This is the case of two of the most characteristic foods of Japanese cooking - sushi and sashimi - which require not only skill, but also a high aesthetic sense and a perfect knowledge of fish cutting techniques, indispensable for a perfect result. Soups represent a fundamental dish in Japanese cooking, not only exquisite for their delicacy, but also used as a beverage, as the broth is drunk during the meal. A particular mention goes to the classic technique of Japanese frying - tempura - which term probably derives from tempora, that is the period in which it was forbidden the consumption of meat, introduced by Jesuits. Tempura, a frying technique used for fish and vegetables, consists in plunging foods in a batter made of eggs, wheat flour and iced water - frequently ice cubes as well - then fried in boiling oil for few minutes.

 

Typical Dishes of Japanese Cooking

 Sashimi is one of the most famous dishes of Japanese cooking and consists in thin slices of very fresh raw fish and seafruits, exclusively served with specific sauces and condiments. The most common sauce for sashimi is made of soybean sauce and wasabi, sometimes used for sushi as well. Sashimi is frequently served with sushi, that is cooked rice to which it is added rice vinegar, sugar and salt. Sushi, a preparation which frequently amazes for the contrast of colors and for its shapes before than it reaches the palate, can be stuffed with many ingredients, including fish, vegetables and omelettes. There are many types of sushi, of which the most famous is probably the one stuffed and rolled on a nori seaweed sheet, called makizushi, however are also famous the ones garnished with the same ingredients. Very appreciated and used in Japanese cooking are noodles made with many ingredients - wheat, soybean and buckwheat - of which the most famous ones are harusame, soba, udon and ramen.

 Noodles are used for the preparation of dishes and seasoned with meat, fish and vegetables, frequently with the broth, as a fundamental ingredient in countless soups. It should be noticed in the preparation of soups is generally used the famous dashi, a rich stock made of seaweeds and dried tunafish. Despite Japanese cooking requires a formal strictness both in the preparation and in the aesthetic of presentation, home meals are usually made of a unique dish, such as in case of donburi and katsudon. These two preparations are pretty similar and consist in cooking meat, usually diced and cooked in soybean sauce and sake, to which are added eggs and, at the end of cooking, it is poured on a bowl full of cooked rice. Another typical preparation of Japanese cooking is represented by grilled meat, usually grilled by every commensal, such as in case of yakiniku, made of beef slices grilled with soybean sauce and sugar. Grilling is also used for chicken - usually served on a spit - and for fish, in particular eels.

 

The Matching with Wine

 Despite the Japanese are used to drink the broth of soups during their meals, and recently the beer as well, we can however try to match these foods with wine. As always, the secret consists in evaluating the ingredients and cooking techniques - in this case the preparation technique as well - by remembering Japanese cooking is mainly light and delicate. With sashimi can be used wines with appreciable acidity - such as Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc - as well as classic method sparkling wines produced with white grapes, such as Franciacorta Satèn. The same consideration is also valid for sushi, by paying attention on the ingredients used for stuffing and for garnishing. In both cases, particular attention will be paid to the presence of sauces and pungent condiments - such as wasabi - and in this case it will appropriate to chose a pretty aromatic and persistent wine, such as Gewürztraminer or Muscat Blanc. With the many preparations made of grilled meat, can be certainly matched good bodied wines, such as Merlot and Sangiovese.

 




 Events  Share this article     Summary of Corkscrew column Not Just Wine 
  Corkscrew Issue 43, Summer 2006   
Japanese Cooking and WineJapanese Cooking and Wine  Contents 
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