‘A lot of people think Japanese food is difficult, a lot of work. But you don’t have to buy the knife I have. You don’t have to train as long as I have. You can do my cooking in your kitchen.
-Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto
When I was younger, I used to watch chefs on TV like Jacques Pepin, Lidia Bastianich, and Martin Yan. Thanks to public access TV I learned the basics of French, Italian, and Chinese cooking. Then over the years I’d continue to practice and experiment and learn more about food and cooking, but almost always around these three cuisines. At home I’d have Filipino food of course, so really my only exposure to Japanese food ever was either at sushi restaurants, at Mitsuwa (my local Japanese grocer and food court), or watching the original Iron Chef series on YouTube. Based off of these sources I assumed Japanese food was always a) expensive b) mostly about hard to find ingredients and c) complicated.
One of my favorite items at Soba Azuma, the sashimi special with soba noodles
Of course, all that drastically changed in the past few years. I found ‘home cooking’ style Japanese YouTube chefs like Ochikeron and Cooking with Dog. More restaurants and more availability meant I was introduced to a greater variety of Japanese foods, like at Soba Azuma, a nearby Japanese restaurant that specializes in making their own fresh soba, or buckwheat, noodles. Nowadays I can say with confidence that if I could only ever eat one nation’s cuisine for the rest of my life, I would wholeheartedly choose Japan and Japanese food. But I don’t want to talk about how much I love to eat Japanese food. Actually, I want to talk about how much I love to cook Japanese food. As I learned more about Japanese cuisine one of the biggest surprises of all was just how accessible, easy, and fun it is to cook.
Japanese Cuisine is Simple and Convenient
This past Friday I had a ‘Japanese themed’ night where I cooked takoyaki (ball-shaped
batter filled with octopus) and yakisoba (a Japanese noodle stir fry) and we all washed it down with lemon sours (a popular Japanese cocktail of rice wine, soda water, and lemon). Now in the past if I were to say, cook an Italian meal or a French, I’d probably be looking at around five pots and pans in my wake, at the very least three if I was especially lucky. But cooking a Japanese meal leaves surprisingly few dishes left to wash afterwards. I think part of this has to do with how small the average Japanese apartment is. Most do not have the convenience of dishwashers. So Japanese home cooking has evolved to be practical and convenient, limiting the amount of mess and cleanup afterwards. I steamed the yakisoba noodles in one wide pan, poured them onto the serving plate, then used the same pan to stir fry the seafood, pork belly, vegetables, and then make the sauce.
Meanwhile, I also got to enjoy the ease of making takoyaki with a special takoyaki pan that was actually recommended to me by a fellow blogger. I love Japanese appliances. A lot of them extend the realm of what is possible in a simple home kitchen and, with most of them being electric, you can plug them in anywhere you like, making it again easier to cook in any way. Some of my favorite home cooking appliances are my electric takoyaki pan and my specially shaped tamagoyaki pan. This unique pan is great for making Japanese egg omelets which you can then stuff with seaweed or eel or cheese or whatever you want, but I’ve also used it to make desserts on occasion, like an improvised crepe pan or for baumkuchen, a rolled cake popular in Germany and, you guessed it, Japan.
Japanese Food Makes Use of Diverse Ingredients, Flavors, and Methods while Staying Healthy
The Japanese have what are considered to be the ‘Five Pillars’ essential to their cuisine. It
Homemade yakisoba with a thick, savory sauce and mixed seafood, vegetables, and pork
is so ingrained into their culture that they hardly realize it, but for outsiders looking in, it can unlock a lot of the secrets of Japanese food and cooking. The five colors (white, black, red, green, and yellow) are almost always present in some way or form in a typical meal. This is more than just aesthetically pleasing, it can be quite nutritious as well. When I try to be mindful of this I find myself balancing my meals with more vegetables and different sources of protein. It’s fun to think of the whole meal as a blank slate. I add white with a bowl of rice, yellow in the form of a delicate sweet rolled Japanese omelet, green and red with a simple salad of lettuce with bright plump cherry tomatoes and ginger dressing, and black in the dark but tender grilled fish, with its crispy skin. The five ways (raw, simmered, fried, steamed, and roasted/grilled) are the foundations of all Japanese dishes. While a traditional kaiseki (tasting menu) will highlight all of these, a typical home cooked meal might only need two or three. Again, ease, convenience, and yet still a variety of results, all with simplicity, clarity, and yet depth and complexity.
Japanese Cooking is Surprisingly Adaptable and Versatile
Aside from the fact that for the most part you don’t ever really need special pieces of
Homemade miso grilled rice balls filled with eel
equipment and what you will need you’ll need less of (one pot cooking before one pot cooking became a thing), the truth is Japanese food is also very easy and fun to make because you probably have already been doing a bit of it yourself. Some of the most popular and quintessentially Japanese dishes are in fact, not Japanese at all in origin. Take for example tempura, various vegetables and seafoods or meats that are lightly battered and then deep-fried for an intensely delicate and yet crispy texture. Or the even more home-friendly ebi-furai (heavily battered and fried shrimp) or my all time favorite, kaki-furai (fried oysters). These were all made after learning frying techniques from visiting Portuguese traders. Katsudon is an improvised breaded pork cutlet fried in oil after schnitzel, which is traditionally fried in butter, proved to be too heavy for Japanese stomachs. This particular style of western-influenced Japanese foods is known as washoku, and is a great introduction not only to those who are new to eating Japanese food but also those who are new to cooking it.
You can also use what you already know and are familiar with to highlight very
An absolute delicacy of the sea, uni is sea urchin roe
traditionally Japanese ingredients. A favorite pasta dish of mine to make when I can find it is mentaiko cream pasta, and nothing could be simpler. If you want to try this dish yourself at home, the hardest part is finding the mentaiko, or spicy cod roe. Otherwise it’s a simple matter of cutting open the roe and spilling the contents into a bowl, adding melted butter, black pepper, and cream, and then tossing freshly boiled pasta, letting the residual heat melt and cook everything together. If you are really lucky, you might even know where to find some shredded nori, or seaweed, to garnish. You can do the exact same thing with a much easier to find uni, or sea urchin. In fact, the salty-sweet fishiness of the sea urchin is very similar to Italian pastas that add anchovies. If you want to dress up your burger night without getting too risky, you can try wafu burgers, which are usually eaten sans bun and instead with a bowl of white rice. Into your usual ground beef mixture, add tofu, shiitake mushrooms, miso paste, soy sauce and freshly grated ginger root to give your burger a distinctly Japanese taste. A common favorite weekday dinner for Japanese homes with children.
Japanese food is so much more than just sushi, tempura, and ramen. Though there are
The ever popular ‘lemon sour” cocktail
few days where I could say I wouldn’t be more than happy with any of those. But in our own home kitchens we might not have access to the best and highest quality fish. Or be in the mood for deep frying. Or have the time to master the deeply rich and complicated secrets of ramen broth. But that shouldn’t stop you or anyone from trying to make some simple and delicious and satisfying Japanese meals at home. It really is much easier than you might think, and the reward of having the ability to enjoy this wonderfully rich cuisine any time you want is totally worth it. And I know none of you should have any problems finding some sake to go with it all.
Jerel says, ‘do my cooking in your home’.