The Food of Japan
Wooden chopsticks are delightful for placing morsels of a meal into your mouth. The experience is so different from using a metal fork to stab or shovel food. (OK, maybe it’s somewhat frustrating until you get the knack of it, but I recommend learning. The benefit of cadenced, thoughtful eating is worth it.) Eating with chopsticks is a great way to savor meals.
Japanese cuisine first came to my attention in 1981 on my first journey there. Later came many evenings as a guest at the table of my long-time aikido sensei, Gaku Homma. In the early 1980s when he founded his Japan House Culture Center (now Nippon Kan) in Denver, he regularly invited students back to his place for dinner after training. Little did I realize then that he had a dream of opening what became Denver’s Domo Japanese Country Food Restaurant. The restaurant garnered Zigat’s designation as the 5th best Japanese restaurant in America (and best in decor) in 2001 and 2008 (it’s still delicious today!).
My enthusiasm for the food of Japan was reignited in October, 2018 when I joined fellow travelers to hike the Kunisaki Peninsula of Kyushu (with Mario Anton of WalkJapan and hosted by Iain Allen from Tropical-Ice). The daily fare varied widely, as does the cuisine of many nations. It is not all sushi (although the sushi we had was so tasty...!). The bewildering array of offerings at each meal, where it was typical to count 20 or more plates or bowls in front of us, required continual foodie-overviews from our guides. Then, when you thought it couldn’t go on, more courses would arrive.
I often watched surreptitiously how the locals tackled meals for clues how to configure the many options for combining textures and flavors. Tofu, rice, and tea were constants. I was amazed to taste such a variety of consistency, flavor, and even color in the tofu (a soy product I’ve used in cooking for years). The “sticky” rice famous in Japanese cuisine, seemed predictable until the day we had “new” rice from the recent harvest. Flavorful? You bet!
On several hiking days, we were treated to “bento-box” lunches. A bento box is a centuries-old traditional method for packing food. Bento boxes are lunchboxes in the lovely style of Japanese culture, filled with delectable food sectioned thoughtfully, a real treat to unpack and eat. Bento boxes were available in impressive varieties, especially at train stations.
When wandering through city markets, it wasn’t unusual to see vendors offering a taste to the curious from the sprawl of their food for sale. (I gambled in my functional illiteracy on an item one day, only to discover an inedible flavor when I’d kinda thought it might be a filled donut. I have an accumulation of such cultural “swing and a miss” moments.)
Miso soup often came at the end of evening meals. It was delicious! And nothing like at home. Similarly, the pickled vegetables, the abundant and variety of vegetables, meats and seafood were each a new adventure at every meal. A couple of times, the evening’s cuisine led to cooking meats and veggies at the table, hibachi style.
Since ours was an authentic experience set mainly in rural areas at traditional inns called ryoken, we often sat at traditional tables. This involved sitting on mats on the floor. It took some getting used to for the bones and tight hips and knees in our advanced-years bodies. Occasionally, back supports or even stools could be found.
Green tea was as widely available in Japan the way coffee is typically available in the West. Our coffee-addicts had to struggle a bit, I fear, and were always joyous when real coffee was offered. Of greater interest were the options for alcohol. The sake (rice wine), local beer, umeshu (plum wine), and shochu (distilled spirits) were always popular. The etiquette, when drinking such beverages, is to serve one another, and never yourself. The goal is to replenish friends’ glasses before they are empty. When being served, it’s correct to make space in your glass (if it is full) and hold it up while the libation is poured, and to take a sip before setting the glass down. [Source: japan-guide.com/e/e2037.html, accessed March 13, 2019] Unfortunately, in 1981, I didn’t know this. Taught to always “finish your plate,” I emptied my sake cup often...only to find it refilled. I was in a stupor before learning to leave it full!