Our IELP students come from all over the world, and our STEP 3 session has a large percentage of Japanese participants. Although I have tried basic types of (American=ized) sushi, edamame, and poke bowls, I wanted to learn more about the traditional cuisine. On our field trip to Seattle Center last Tuesday, I asked the students to share some of their favorites, and did some research to find out more about these dishes and their origins.
Monjayaki is very popular in the Kantō region, and is one of Tokyo’s most famous dishes. Although often compared to okonomayaki, a similar dish made in the Kansai region, it is a lot wetter and cooks flat on one side, whereas okonomiyaki is drier, firmer and thicker. The ingredients also differ. Monja is created by frying the dry ingredients (usually some variation of cabbage, noodles, cod roe, mochi, and flour) in a circle, and filling said circle with a liquid batter after a few minutes. The result? A delicious savory pancake with the consistency of melted cheese!
Often simply called “katsu” in the States, this classic Japanese dish uses pork fillet or loin that is dipped in salt, pepper, flour, and beaten egg before being deep fried in a coat of “panko” or bread crumbs. It is usually served with cabbage or tsukemono (Japanese preserved vegetables), rice, and miso soup. In Korea, tonkatsu is known as don-gaseu (돈가스) or don-kkaseu (돈까스), which derived from a transliteration of the Japanese word. There are many variations of this dish, and tonkatsu is also popular as a sandwich filling (katsu sando) or served on Japanese curry (katsu karē).
Japan’s Yamanashi prefecture is dubbed the “kingdom of fruit,” and rightfully so! The reason lies in Yamanashi’s weather– low annual precipitation and extreme differences in heat and cold help to create sweet, juicy fruit year round. Not only is Yamanashi the biggest producer of peaches and grapes in Japan, but there are fruit picking facilities year-round boasting multiple varieties of cherries, plums, pears, strawberries, blueberries, and apples. People from all around the world flock to Yamanashi to admire their expansive orchards and to pick fresh, delicious produce.
Unagi is a cult summertime favorite among Japanese, but can cost up to 30 American dollars served in a restaurant. For this reason, many have incentive to make this delicacy at home. This calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and iron-rich treat is known to help combat the scorching summer heat. One student adds that July 25th is the designated “unagi day!” Intrigued, I did some research and discovered that the name of the period for eating Unagi is called ‘Doyo-no Ushi-no hi’. “Doyo” is an 18 day period between summer and autumn, mid July to early August, and is the hottest time of the year in Japan. “Ushi no hi” can be directly translated to Ox day, originating from the traditional Japanese calendar that uses the Chinese Zodiac system. Legend has it that a struggling eel restaurant owner during the Edo period began advertising unagi on the day of Ox, because both Ushi (Ox in Japanese) and Unagi begin with the letter ‘u’. This play on words worked well as a promotion, and eventually developed into a Japanese folklore that if you eat unagi on the day of ox, you will regain power!
Obviously, this blog post does not scratch the surface of Japan’s rich culinary heritage. Other favorites frequently mentioned include sushi, nikujaga (boiled meat and potato), nattō (fermented soybeans), shabu-shabu (meat and vegetable hot pot), udon (thick wheat flour noodle), soba (thin buckwheat flour noodle), and wagashi (sweet snack often served with tea). However, I hope that this post could provide some insight into traditional Japanese cuisine and inspire you to try something new!