Japan in context: food

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As I prepare to leave the land of the rising sun, I’d like to share some reflections, in the next few posts, on things Japanese, as seen through the eyes of a first-time visitor, and someone who has sped his way from one end of the country to the other.
Food in Japan
I have to say that I have developed a taste for Japanese food, and my gut has handled it very well for the duration of this journey. Rice and noodles are the universal staples, bulking out every meal, even breakfast. But the common denominator at breakfast is something called ‘miso’, a soup that seems to have seaweed and tofu as its ingredients.

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Above: scallop, miso and green tea
But I have to admit that some of the time I have little idea of what I’m eating, especially when buying in convenience stores. In the EU, we are used to food labelling in several languages. In Japan, it’s only in Japanese. As a result, I’ve been guilty of a few ‘faux pas’. The bread rolls I bought to go with sardines had chocolate spread in them. A carton of what looked like apple juice was, in fact, cold green tea. A small plain baguette turned out to be a jam sandwich….and the list goes on.

In restaurants I’ve been in, the menus have been invariably written only in Japanese, and normally without the useful little pictures that can give away important clues. And when you are presented with a tray of several little bowls of food,

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most of which are a complete mystery, and then look over at the condiments and think you can identify the soy sauce (but another sauce looks decidedly similar), and then wonder how they should be applied. One thing is for certain, never put soy sauce on your rice……why? Your rice will lose its stickiness and you’ll never be able to scoop it up with your chopsticks.

I have spent several hours observing Japanese people managing their food at the table, and they do a lot of scooping and slurping.  Indeed, the greatest pleasure to be had out of eating noodles, apparently, is in the slurping. A chap near my table once slurped so persistently and loudly, he would have been given a ‘yellow card’ in an English restaurant. Next offence…..and out!

I suppose a summit in the experience of Japanese food is reached when you have sampled, and survived, ‘sashimi’ (raw fish). You may remember down in Kyushu, a young tourist agent and his boss took me to a sashimi restaurant,

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and I had to take a deep breath before diving in with the chopsticks. It was good….I enjoyed it. It would never be my first choice, but I would certainly repeat the experience.
Have I missed any favourite dishes from home? Most certainly, I have. But then, after all, home is where your comfort zone is. Isn’t it?

About Frank Burns

My journeys around the world are less about riding a bicycle, and more about what happens when I get off the bicycle. Click on the Personal Link below to visit my webpages.

Posted on April 28, 2015, in End-to-End of Japan 3000kms and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. The strangest thing that I have learnt about Japan is that as opposed to slurping being rude, it is rude not to slurp! It was especially strange to be flying from Tokyo in the middle of the night, almost falling asleep only to hear “sluuurrp!” from the next row (our flight had “on-demand” ramen- very luxurious!). I’ve followed your journey with awe, and am looking forward to hopefully meeting you when you visit our school. Katherine (Kimbolton’s new(ish) librarian)

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  2. Great post. I have been to Japan twice, returning this summer, and the food there is just so good. I can’t wait for a bowl of ramen, some sushi, even the western food they serve is good.

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  3. Miso soup is, I think, dashi (a stock which may be seaweed, or something else – mushroom, or fish, for example) plus miso (which is soy bean paste, i.e. effectively a sort of tofu).

    Presentation is very important – just look at the photos! My main memories are lots of small bowls of rather unidentifiable but usually tasty items, and lots of pickles. Also, oddly non-sweet desserts, and green tea ice cream.

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  4. Nice to hear from you Katherine! Sue did tell me about you…..And thanks for your company on this extraordinary journey.

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  5. Ah, and I forgot to mention the excellent ramens I’ve had. And having seen one or two of their TV food programmes, the Japanese are great foodies….

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  6. They sure are 🙂 Will be some food posts during my trip there.

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  7. You’re right, dashi is the stock, but the solid bits can vary according to region and season. The ones I’ve had have always had a seaweed flavour, with bits of tofu or sweet potato lurking at the bottom.

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  8. My nephew is married to a Japanese woman and my sister is married to a half Japanese man. Needless to say we as a family have all experienced many forms of Japanese cuisine.
    On our visit to England one year our daughter took us to Wagamama which is a delightful experience of Japanese “fast food” eating.

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  9. Wagamama is a fantastic chain of pan-Asian restaurants. But did you know that Wagamama means ‘selfish’ in Japanese? The Japanese people find this very funny….

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  10. Looks like lovely sashimi! And the earlier meal photo too. As for putting soy sauce on rice, if it’s in a round lump rice in a bowl, then just put 1 jot of soy sauce. Not to darken all of the rice. Just a touch of taste and you can still pick up rice with chopsticks. It won’t always have soy sauce: that’s not the point. Otherwise that’s like throwing on too much salt on a dish. Of course, if you have a bowl of rice, learn to pick up the bowl closer to your neck area and scoop rice into mouth.

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  11. Absolutely right…there is an art to efficient eating over here…and you quickly learn to do things that would be poor eating etiquette back at home.

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  12. I had no idea that was what it meant.

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  13. Clive Randall

    Just catching up on your blog.
    Japanese food for me is
    A little of the very best,
    Presented impeccably,
    Grown with love,
    Shared with expectation,
    A world treasure.
    After the best part of 30 years in Asia I have reaslised that food still maintains its position as the most important part of family, community, culture and sense of place.
    Im glad you enjoyed the Japanese food challenge, the etiquette that surrounds food and the sharing of food.

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  14. Thanks Clive. There were many highs with the diet in Japan…..and only a few lows. But I learned to like some of the lows too….

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