Japanese Food and Sake Dictionary

Ingredients, dishes and drinks from Japan by Ad Blankestijn

Monday, January 25, 2016



Simmered foods, one of the basic cooking techniques in Japan. 煮物.

Simmered food is part of every meal except breakfast. It is the principal way of serving vegetables and also one of the popular ways for serving fish. The ingredients are simmered in stock over a long period of time, until the liquid has been absorbed by the ingredients or evaporated. The stock used is a general dashi plus soy sauce, and it can be further flavored with sake, mirin, sugar and other condiments.

[Tai no kabutoni - Simmered head of sea bream]

The simmering is done in a pan with straight sides. A wooden drop-lid called otoshibuta is used in order to spread the heat evenly throughout the ingredients during the simmering process.

Before simmering, there is often a preliminary step in the form of parboiling (blanching), which is done in water.

Depending on the seasoning used, the sort of flavored stock, various types of simmering are recognized. Some important ones are:
    • Misoni, also misodaki: fish, but sometimes vegetables, simmered in a mixture of miso and dashi, with soy sauce and freshly chopped ginger. Masks the fishy smell of mackerel and other fish.
    • Nitsuke: A mixture of sake, mirin (or sugar) and soy sauce. Also called "sake simmered." Mainly used for simmering fish. 
    • Shigureni: simmered in dashi heavily seasoned with soy sauce. 
    • Karani: simmered in sake and soy sauce.
    As dashi, top restaurants use ichiban dashi, but at home often niban dashi or even instant dashi is used. Seasonings are added to the stock in the following order: sake, mirin (or sugar), salt, soy sauce, miso.

    Here are some examples from the huge repertory of simmered dishes:
    • Saba no misoni: simmered mackerel in miso.
    • Nishin no nitsuke: sake-simmered herring.
    • Buri daikon: simmered yelowtail and rettich.
    • Furofuki daikon: rettich with white miso sauce.
    • Buta no kakuni: braised pork.
    • Satoimo no nimono: simmered taro.
    • Kabocha no nimono: simmered pumpkin.
    • Nikujaga: braised meat and potatoes.
    • Oden.

      Thursday, January 21, 2016



      Condiment, seasoning. 調味料。

      The Japanese have a wordplay (goro-awase) or mnemonic technique to remember the main seasonings and in which order they should be used during the preparation of the meal: sa-shi-su-se-so, or:  sato (sugar) - shio (salt) - su (vinegar) - shoyu (soy sauce) - miso. The traditional sweetener, by the way, is not sugar (the use of which is relatively restricted in the Japanese kitchen), but mirin. This is a sweet liquid flavoring, made by mixing steamed rice on which a koji-culture has been developed, with shochu (distilled spirits). Of the above list, sugar is modern, salt is used relatively little, and rice vinegar, miso paste and soy sauce are the major condiments of the traditional cuisine.

      [Traditional soy sauce brewing vat in Yuasa, Wakayama Pref.]

      That leaves out the major flavor enhancer in the Japanese kitchen, the basic stock called dashi. Dashi is not seen as a separate seasoning, but is the stock that forms of the basis of countless dishes and soups and that enhances the original flavors. It is typical for the umami concept in the Japanese kitchen.

      One more traditional flavoring that should be mentioned here is sake (nihonshu). Sake is often used to give a "hidden flavor" to a particular dish.

      Then there are some other flavorings which are only used in specific dishes, for example:

      Sunday, January 17, 2016

      Nihonshu (flavoring)


      Sake 酒.

      Besides its use as a delicious beverage, sake (nihonshu) is used as a flavoring in the Japanese kitchen to add some "hidden flavor" to a particular dish, to bring out the aroma or, in the case of fish, the cover up the fishy smell. In simmering fish and poultry it also acts as a tenderizing agent.

      In Japan, also special cooking sake (ryorishu) is sold. This is usually very cheap, because it has been made unfit for consumption as a beverage by adding salt and vinegar. It therefore is not subject to tax on alcoholic beverages. In other cases umami elements and sugar may have been added. This cooking sake invariably has a rather chemical constitution and I advise not to use it.

      It is much nicer to use real sake. I often put the left-overs (the last bit in the bottle) of sake away to use in cooking. For example, Junmai-shu is very suitable for this and gives a wonderful "hidden taste" to your dishes!

      Saturday, January 16, 2016



      Salt. しお、塩。

      All salt produced in Japan comes from sea water, there are no salt deposits in the country. The old method starts by first producing a heavily condensed saline solution (brine) from sea water through the use of so-called salt-terraces on the beach (located around the Inland Sea or on the Noto Peninsula), and then by boiling down this solution to yield a residue of edible sea salt (evaporation is not sufficient as Japan is too humid: the brine has to be boiled). Nowadays, salt is extracted from sea water via electrolysis (ion-exchange system).

      Until 1985 salt was exclusively sold in Japan under a government monopoly. Since 2002 it has been completely liberalized. Most salt produced in Japan is used as table salt. The much greater demand for industrial salt (80% of the total) is filled with imports.

      The Japanese intake of salt is high, but this is mainly via soy sauce, miso paste and tsukemono. You won't find table salt on the table in Japanese-style restaurants! Salt is sometimes used with tempura (instead of the dipping sauce) as well as with yakitoriShioyaki is a way of grilling fish by covering it in thick salt to avoid charring.

      Salt plays a ritual use for purification and protection from evil in Japanese culture (kiyome no shio). Take for example the scattering of salt at the start of a sumo match. Another interesting way of using salt can be seen in the small heaps of salt (morijio) placed at the entrance to bars in entertainment districts. Salt for use in rituals in the Ise Shrine is still produced in the traditional way, with salt terraces.

      Friday, January 15, 2016



      Sugar. さとう、砂糖。

      Japanese sugar is made both from sugar cane (sato-kibi, good for 20%), grown in Kagoshima Pref. and in Okinawa, and from sugar beets, grown in Hokkaido (tensai, good for 80%). Pure white sugar is the norm.

      Sugar consumption was 16.4 kg p.p. in 2010, down more than 5 kilos compared to 1985. Daily consumption per person is also rather low in comparison with other countries: Japan stands at just 45 gram, against 172 g. for Brazil, 167 for Australia, 127 for Germany and 89 for the U.S. (figures from Japanese Wikipedia).

      One reason is that in the traditional Japanese kitchen sugar is only relatively little used - there are after all also other sweeteners, such as mirin. Sugar is mainly used in nimono consisting of vegetables or fish which are simmered in soy sauce and sugar. In contrast, the use of sugar in the Western and Chinese cuisines is much more extensive. In Japan, sugar is of course often found in Western-style prepared foods.

      Saturday, January 9, 2016



      Glutinous rice cake. 餅。

      Made by pounding hot steamed glutinous rice (mochigome) into an elastic paste and then knead portions of this into the form necessary.

      Traditionally, the pounding was done with wooden mallets in barrel-sized wooden mortars (mochitsuki). This ceremony can still be seen at temple and shrine festivals, and also at some marriage ceremonies where bride and groom have to take a go at the pounding with an obvious double meaning.

      Today, most mochi are machine-processed and sold ready-made. Sometimes they are sold fresh, but, more often than not, vacuum packed in supermarkets. Shapes can be round, square or sheet-like.

      Mochi can be eaten "as such" by grilling them on a wire grill (mochi-ami) and then flavor them with a soy sauce dip. These are called yaki-mochi. Mochi double in size when grilled and develop a crispy skin.

      Like the rice used to make them, mochi are culturally significant as being a concentrated version of Japan's staple food, rice - like bread in Christianity, a certain religious (Shintoist) halo is attached to it. We already find mention of mochi as sacred food in the 8th century, and slightly later we find them as food for the New Year celebrations. Mochi were thought to symbolize long life, and also - very practical - to be good for one's teeth.

      Today the following use is still made of mochi at New Year:
      • Kagami-mochi or "mirror mochi." A decorated stack of two rounded mochi cakes put on display during the New year - usually from the 28th until several days after the New Year. The name comes from the round shape which reminded the Japanese of pre-modern, bronze mirrors. Finally, these mochi would be broken into pieces ("kagami-biraki," "the opening of the mirror"), roasted and eaten. (See also my post on Japanese customs in January at Japan Navigator).
      • Zoni. Mochi are a must at festive occasions, such as the New Year. The most common way to eat them at the New year celebration is to add them to a soup called zoni.
      [Shop producing mochi in Fushimi, Kyoto]

      Other ways of eating:
      • Abekawamochi. Wrapped in nori (isobe-mochi), or covered in roasted and sweetened soy flour (kinako). 
      • In zenzai and shiruko. Toasted mochi are also eaten in zenzai, a chunky sweet soup with azuki beans popular in winter as a snack.
      • In Chikara Udon, "power noodles" with mochi added.
      Finally, like the mochigome of which it is made, mochi are often used in confectionery, for example:
      • Sakuramochi, wrapped in salted cherry leaves, a spring specialty of Kyoto.
      • Kusamochi. Another sweet for spring made from mochi and leaves of Japanese mugwort (yomogi). Can also be filled with anko, sweetened red bean paste made from azuki beans.
      • Kashiwamochi. Round-shaped mochi filled with sweet bean paste (an) and wrapped in an oak leaf (from the kashiwa or Daimyo Oak).
      • Daifuku (-mochi), a small round mochi stuffed with sweet filling, most commonly anko.
      • Ohagi. Steamed balls of glutinous rice wrapped in red bean paste - so exactly the reverse of Daifuku.
      • And even "mochi ice cream," mochi with an ice cream filling, which is an internationally available Japanese snack. 
      Health hazard: every year people die in Japan because of choking on sticky mochi. Especially the elderly are at risk. To prevent this, cut the mochi into small pieces before eating it. 

      Monday, December 21, 2015



      Soy sauce. しょうゆ、醤油。

      Soy sauce is the basic condiment in the Japanese kitchen and is used in all sorts of dishes, in marinades, dipping sauces and also at the table. Soy sauce is made from soy beans, roasted wheat, salt and koji. Soy sauce boasts a hearty aroma and contains 15% to 20% salt (there are also low-salt varieties).

      Although soy sauce has ancient roots (in the form of a fish sauce which is still used in S.E. Asia, a product called hishio or uoshi in Japan), it was only in the middle of the 17th c. developed in its present form. In fact, soy sauce started as a by-product of miso production, in towns like Yuasa, Tatsuno and on Shodo Island in Western Japan. In the 18th c., the soy makers in Noda and Choshi (Chiba Prefecture) also came up, as they were close to Edo. Different from miso, which can be made by small producers, or even in individual households, for soy production large industrial presses are necessary, which asks for a more large-scale, industrial approach.

      There are various types of soy sauce:
      • Tamari consists only of soybeans without wheat or with very little wheat. It is a thick, sweet sauce that is especially suitable as dipping sauce for sashimi, as the basis for teriyaki sauce, for tsukudani or for the coating of rice crackers. This is the original soy sauce until the mid-Edo period: as also the name indicates, it was the liquid that runs off miso as it matures, a byproduct from the fermentation of miso. It was originally obtained by pressing miso, but nowadays the production method is the same as for soy sauce, with as only difference that little or no wheat is used. Mainly produced in the Chubu region (around Nagoya).
      • Koikuchi shoyu (with an equal amount of soy beans and wheat) is dark in color and has a strong taste. This standard type is good for 82% of all soy sauce. As a true versatile all-purpose sauce it is also used at the table. Koikuchi shoyu was developed in the late 17th c. in the Kanto area by improving tamari by adding wheat to the production process (this was done in 1697 by Higeta from Choshi). Koikuchi shoyu is now produced in the whole country, but the production in the Kanto area is still the highest, with companies as Kikkoman (Noda), Yamasa and Higeta (both Choshi) - in the past, these companies could transport their products easily to Edo over the River Tone. Another production center is on Shodo Island in the Inland Sea, where the climate is very suitable (Marukin). 
      • Usukuchi shoyu is lighter in color but (against expectation) also 10% saltier. This type is mainly used in the kitchen and is good for 15% of all soy sauce. Usukuchi soy sauce is especially popular in Kyoto and the Kansai area, for example in clear soups, udon soup and in simmered dishes (nimono). As it is lighter in taste and color it doesn't clash with the light cuisine of Kyoto (where dashi is made only with kelp, without the addition of katsuobushi). The production process is slightly different, too: the wheat is lightly roasted; during fermentation, less koji and more brine is used; and at the end amazake or mizuame (glucose) is added. The fermentation is shorter than for koikuchi shoyu. An important producer of usukuchi shoyu is Higashimaru in Tatsuno (Hyogo Pref.).
      • Saishikomi shoyu or kanro shoyu is "twice-processed" or "sweet" soy sauce. Both flavor and color are very rich. The koji is mixed with koikuchi shoyu instead of brine. This type was developed in the town of Yanai in Yamaguchi Pref., and is now mainly produced in the Sanin area and Kyushu. It is used for sushi and sashimi. 
      • Shiro shoyu or "white soy sauce." Is lighter in color than usukuchi shoyu, obtained by mainly using wheat and very little soy beans (so the opposite of tamari). Is rather salty and also very sweet, Suitable for simmered dishes (nimono), suimono (clear soups) and chawanmushi. Developed in Hekinan in Aichi Pref.  
      • Genen shoyu and Usushio shoyu are soy sauces with "reduced salt," and "light salt." The first one usually has 9% salt (half of normal koikuchi soy sauce) and the second one 13%. 
      • Sashimi-joyu or Ponzu-joyu etc. These are not pure soy sauces, but sauces on the basis of soy sauce. In the case of the first one tamari, sake and mirin have been added to koikuchi shoyu to make a dip sauce for sushi. The second one is the same mix, but with the important addition of the juice of citrus fruits like yuzudaidai or sudachi. Ponzu is used as a dipping sauce for one-pot dishes. There are many varieties in Japanese supermarkets of such mixed sauces.
      The production process of koikuchi soy sauce is as follows:

      1. Equal parts of steamed soy beans and roasted and shredded wheat are mixed together.
      2. Koji spores (Aspergillus) are cultivated for 3 to 4 days on this mixture. Koji spores have a high proteolytic capacity, i.e. they break up proteins into amino acids, and produce all sorts of enzymes which are important later on in the process. Other microbes contained in this culture include yeast and lactic acid bacteria.
      3. Next brine is added to make moromi, the main mash, which is fermented and aged in large tanks. Instead of brine, also dry coarse salt can be used for dry fermentation. The enzymes in the koji now start working and transform the proteins in the soy beans into amino acids. They also change the starch in the soy beans and wheat into sugars. Lactic acid bacteria produce lactic acid and yeast makes ethanol.
      4. The moromi is aged for several months. Through aging and secondary fermentation numerous flavor compounds typical of soy sauce come into being.
      5. After it has been sufficiently aged, the moromi is pressed so that the pure soy sauce is separated from the lees.
      6. This soy sauce is next filtered and pasteurized.

      It is possible to cut corners in soy sauce production by chemical processes (using acid-hydrolyzed soy protein instead of the time-consuming fermentation process - this takes only 3 days), so select soy sauce that has been labeled "honjozo" or "100% genuine fermented." When using soy sauce for Japanese dishes, use only soy sauce produced by a Japanese maker.

      Friday, December 18, 2015



      Paste of fermented soybeans, "miso." みそ、味噌。

      Japan's traditional seasoning and also a versatile health food - and on top of that very tasty! Made from fermented soy beans mashed into a thick paste. No traditional Japanese meal is complete without miso. Full of umami, the paste is used as a seasoning for soups and a host of traditional dishes.

      Miso originated in China and found its way to Japan in the 7th c., after which it was gradually transformed into an intrinsically Japanese seasoning. Initially it was a luxury product that could only be enjoyed by courtiers and priests. In the 14th century it finally reached ordinary Japanese. At that time, miso was an actual side dish that provided a major source of protein; as a preserved food, it was also carried by wartime troops. This miso side dish was chunky, as the soybeans were left uncrushed and so could be eaten easily with chopsticks. Today we still find this type of side-dish miso in Kinzanji miso in Yuasa (Wakayama).

      In the 17th century industrial scale production was started. But small-scale - even home - manufacture also continues. There are about 1,400 producers of miso in Japan. Total production is something to the order of 560,000 tonnes per year. The Japanese consume almost 5 kilos of miso per person per year.

      The fermentation and aging process of miso involves a multitude of factors. Variations in this process result in different tastes, colors and textures. Throughout Japan numerous types of miso can be found, each with its own distinct flavor.

      Miso can in the first place be divided into three types based on the type of koji-culture being used (koji-kin is a healthy mold that produces many important enzymes; it is also used for other food products and for sake making); one also speaks about three different "malt types," depending on which ingredient the koji culture is developed.

      The three basic types of miso are Kome miso, Mugi miso and Mame miso.

      Kome miso or Rice-malt miso: the Koji-kin (Koji spores) is grown on rice (ingredients are soybeans, malted rice and salt). This is the most common way – 80% of all miso is made according to this procedure. It can be sweet, semi-sweet or full-bodied, and the color can vary from white, via light yellow, to red. Color differences in miso are the outcome of the strength of the aminocarbonyl or so-called Maillard reaction, which is the result of the combination of amino acids and sugars during the fermentation and aging process. Based on color and taste Kome miso can be further subdivided as follows (there are also many other regional types which are not included below):
      • Shinshu miso (Miso from the Nagano region). The strong-flavored shinshu miso is used widely in households for the daily miso soup.
      • Red miso (Aka-miso). Aka-miso is higher in salt content and rich in amino acids and other nutrients, the result of the breakdown of soybean proteins, and therefore, it is particularly rich in umami. Examples of red miso are Tsugaru miso and Sendai miso.
      • White miso (Shiro-miso). Shiro miso possesses a lower salt content that reveals the sweetness of the rice koji. Shiro miso is preferred in the Kansai area surrounding Kyoto and Osaka. The sweetest type, with a higher percentage of rice than of soybeans, is called Saikyo miso and is exclusively produced in Kyoto. It is an expensive top-quality product that fits well to the Kyoto kitchen with its light tastes and is mainly used in restaurants. In ordinary households, white miso usually appears only on special occasions, as during the New Year, when it is used to make zoni soup.
      • Awase miso, finally, is not a type, but a combination of various kinds of Kome miso; it is usually light in taste.
      Mugi miso or Barley-malt miso: the Koji-kin is grown on barley (ingredients are soybeans, malted barley and salt). This type is popular in parts of South-Western Japan (Kyushu, parts of Shikoku and Yamaguchi Pref.). This type of miso is rich in minerals and has a mild aroma. It has a sweet taste and fits to a great variety of dishes. The color is light yellow; there is also a full-bodied type which has a reddish color. About 11% of all miso is Kome miso.

      Mame miso or Soybean-malt miso: the Koji-kin is grown on soybeans (ingredients are soybeans, malted soybeans and salt). Also called Hatcho miso after the Hatcho area in the town of Okazaki, where this type of miso is made exclusively by only two producers. Hatcho miso is fermented for two years and has a dark, almost black color. It is a powerful, dry miso that looks a bit like chocolate. It has a bitter flavor and lots of umami. This type is popular in the Nagoya region.

      In the past, it was customary for every household to have its own special recipe for miso, one to boast about. This is the origin of the Japanese expression, temae miso, "to sing one's own praises."

      Miso is made as follows:
      Steamed and crushed soy beans are mixed with water and salt. A koji-culture, that has been separately developed on either steamed rice, steamed barley or steamed soybeans, is added to the mix. The mix is then put into vats of cypress wood where it is allowed to ferment and age for a year. During that process, several micro organisms play a role and all ingredients are transformed into a nutritious paste.

      Miso is very nutritious because the paste contains high-quality proteins. Miso also contains amino acids and has a hearty and aromatic taste - it is the embodiment of umami!

      Some dishes in which miso plays a large role:
      - Miso soup (miso-shiru)
      - Gindara no yuanyaki, grilled black cod marinated in miso;
      - Saba no misoni, mackerel simmered in miso - the miso masks the fishy taste;
      - Tofu dengaku, skewered, grilled tofu coated with a warm miso glaze;
      - Miso-zuke, one of the many ways to pickle vegetables.

      Tuesday, December 15, 2015



      Pleasant, savory taste; "umami" 旨味, うまみ

      Umami is one of the five basic tastes (together with sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness). The term was devised by Professor Ikeda Kikunae of Tokyo University, who in 1908 identified glutamic acid (glutamate) as the component responsible for the tastiness of dashi stock made with konbu-kelp. As this fifth taste was first recognized in Japan and there was no word for it in other languages, the Japanese term UMAMI has come into general use.

      After the scientific identification of glutamic acid in kelp by Professor Ikeda Kikunae in 1908, two more umami components were discovered by Japanese researchers. Professor Kodama Shintaro, a disciple of Ikeda, discovered in 1913 that katsuobushi (smoked and fermented bonito flakes) contain another umami substance, inosinic acid or inosine monophosphate (IMP). And in 1957, Kuninaka Akira realized that guanylic acid or guanosine monophosphate (GMP), present in shiitake mushrooms, also conferred the umami taste.

      Another discovery of Kuninaka Akira was the synergistic effect between inosonic acid / guanylic acid (both ribonucleotides) and glutamate. When foods rich in glutamate are combined with ingredients that contain ribonucleotides, the resulting taste intensity becomes many times higher than that of the individual ingredients. That is the science behind dashi, where the glutamate-rich konbu is combined with ribonucleotide-rich katsuobushi or shiitake mushrooms.

      People taste umami through receptors in taste buds specific to glutamate. Umami of course not only occurs in Japanese food - in fact, all humans first come across this taste in breast milk! In larger or smaller amounts, umami is present in fish, shellfish, cured meat, mushrooms, vegetables as ripe tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, spinach, celery, etc., and fermented and aged products involving bacterial or yeast cultures, such as cheeses and soy sauce. Rice also contains umami and umami is an important characteristic of sake as well.

      Umami was especially important to the Japanese. Already 800 years ago the Japanese spoke of umami, and in writings from the Edo-period (17th-19th century) it is stated that umami forms the basis of all taste. It certainly is the basic principle of the Japanese cuisine, which doesn't use strong sauces or spices to give taste to food, but which aims to bring out the original taste of the ingredients themselves in a delicate way. That is exactly the function of umami.

      By the way, nowadays umami components can also be artificially produced according to the methods of the fermentation industry. It was in fact Prof. Ikeda Kikunae who already in 1909 developed a process for mass-producing monosodium glutamate or MSG (he called it "Ajinomoto," "the basis of taste," and this is now the name of one of the largest food companies in Japan). In that case we speak about “flavor enhancers.” During the production of flavor enhancers, guanylic acid and inosinic acid are added to monosodium glutamate, making this another example of the synergistic umami effect.

      Sunday, December 13, 2015

      Konbu Updated

      The post on Konbu (kelp), one of the most important ingredients in the Japanese kitchen as it is used to make the basic stock, dashi, has been rewritten and expanded!