Japanese cuisine mainly consists of ingredients that are native to their country. Some of these ingredients are rice; in which they have their own Japanese rice, vegetables; which are made into garnishes and side dishes, and seafood. Meats, however, are not that commonly used as an ingredient in Japanese cuisine. This practice began since Japan embraced Buddhism as their religion. Eating meat became a taboo since then, but these modern time they are able to eat meat but still in minimum consumption.
Food by Season
The foods of Japanese cuisine also depend on the season. They are also dependent on the availability of ingredients.
Here’s a sample data regarding the availability of seasonal ingredients in Japan:
In summer, there is an abundance of vegetables like eggplant, edamame, bell pepper, cucumber, lettuce, okra, tomato, bitter melon, myoga (Japanese ginger), and shiso (leafy vegetable).
For fruits there are peach, watermelon, grapes, cherries, Japanese apricot, and yuzu (citrus fruit).
For seafoods, there are eel, flounder, horse mackerel, sardines, sea urchin, and sea bass.
During autumn in Japan these vegetables richly grow: sweet potato, pumpkin, rice (first season harvest), mushrooms like shiitake and shimeji, satoimo (Japanese taro), and more mushrooms like matsutake and maitake.
For fruits there are Japanese chestnuts, Japanese persimmon, and sudachi (Japanese citrus fruit).
For seafood there are chum salmon, bonito, mackerel, octopus, sanma (Pacific saury), and ikura (salmon roe).
Although very cold, there are some fortunate vegetables that can grow during winter such as turnip, cabbage, daikon, Chinese cabbage, and renkon (lotus root).
For fruits there are apples, strawberries, and mikan (Satsuma mandarin).
For seafood there are oyster, tuna, yellowtail, fugu (pufferfish), Japanese amberjack, and amaebi (sweet shrimp).
Japanese spring vegetable crops are bamboo shoots, udo (shoots), shiitake mushrooms, and potatoes.
For fruits there are citrus, strawberries, and loquat.
For seafood there are flounder, turbot, grunt fish, clams, greater amberjack, and silver striped round herring.
Also for additional information, Japanese cuisine was heavily influenced by Chinese cuisine. (As a matter of fact, even the Japanese language contains Chinese elements known as kanji characters.) But even though they were influenced by the Chinese in terms of cooking – also including a little Western influence, the Japanese somehow managed to develop their own cooking color and style.
Fermented Foods in Japanese Cuisine
Fermentation is a food process that uses yeasts, bacteria, or other microorganisms to convert food carbohydrates into alcohol. This process makes ingredients into a new and different form of food and it also gives the food additional shelf life. This is the same procedure used in creating alcoholic beverages like beer, wine, and liquor.
The good thing about fermented foods is when they become a powerhouse of probiotics, also known as the good bacteria, that have the ability to enhance digestion, improve immunity, and promote weight loss.
In Japan, they offer a wide variety of fermented foods. As time goes by, the Japanese people already became familiar with adding fermented foods in their meals.
Let’s list down the most common fermented foods in Japan.
Tsukemono or “Japanese pickles”
As the Western people have their own style of pickled goods – which are called pickles – that are made of pickled cucumbers, the Japanese have theirs too.
Japanese pickles range from different vegetables such as cucumbers, carrots, eggplants, turnips, and daikon. These vegetables are then pickled in different choices of liquid fermenting agents like vinegar, sake lees, and water containing either miso, rice bran, or salt. There are also different methods used in pickling and from these processes the condition and taste of the end products differs.
Umeboshi or Fermented Japanese Plums
Umeboshis are Japanese plums that are fermented in salt through the process of lactic-acid fermentation. This fermentation is considered to be one of the oldest methods of food preservation.
The salt added to the plums or ume acts as an agent that helps with the formation of lactic acid bacteria. After that, the liquid is then produced from the plum and then the fruit gets soaked in the brine which then works as the preserving medium for the fruit.
The umeboshis are then added as an ingredient to different Japanese foods and drinks, one of them the famous Japanese rice balls called onigiri.
Katsuoboshi or Bonito Flakes
Katsuoboshi are the light colored fish flakes that are found as toppings for certain Japanese dishes like takoyaki and okonomiyaki. They are characterized by their smoky flavor.
The process of making katsuobishi involves the following procedures:
- The bonito fish is cleaned and the internal organs are removed.
- The fish is then filleted into four parts.
- The fillets are boiled for around 90 minutes.
- The fillets are then cooled and the skin, fats, and bones are removed.
- They go into the process of wood-smoking and sun-drying, this happens repetitively.
- The wood-smoked and sun-dried fillets are placed in a special mold to be stored in a culture room for two weeks.
- After the molds are removed, the fillets are dried again in the sun.
The making of katsuoboshi can take a few months.
Fermented soybeans, out of all the other fermented Japanese foods, can be made into different end products.
Miso is produced by combining soybeans with salt and koji mold (a fungus used in fermenting soybeans).
The miso products may then be used as an ingredient for cooking, and can also be made into miso soup which is a common side dish that comes together with Japanese rice dishes.
Shoyu or Japanese soy sauce
Just like other kinds of soy sauce, shoyu is produced from fermented soybeans. Shoyu differs from the usual soy sauce in terms of taste. It contains different ingredients.
As a very unique end product of fermented soybeans, the natto is unlike miso and shoyu. While the other two are either turned into a paste or into a liquid condiment, natto is still in the shape and form of soybean, it just differs in taste and texture.
Natto, just like any other fermented product, gets loaded with nutrients through the process of fermentation.
Natto does not contain any form of cholesterol. Also when compared to other fermented soybean products, natto contains less sodium content. Plus the nutrients present in natto are a lot, it is even considered to be rich in protein, fiber, and vitamins.
The other nutrients present in natto are iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamin B6, vitamin B2, vitamin E, and many others.