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Food and Drink

Japan - Food and Drink

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Japanese cuisine is characterized by its emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients that makes it quite unique. The key ingredient of most Japanese meals is white rice, which is usually served steamed. It is called gohan (ご飯) in Japanese, which also means "meal". Soybeans are a key food source in this country and take many forms: miso soup (味噌) which is served with almost every meal, tōfu (豆腐), bean curd, and the famous soy sauce (醤油 shōyu). Seafood is very common in Japanese cuisine, including not only sea animals but also many varieties of seaweed. These meals are always rounded out with pickles (漬物 tsukemono).

One of the best things when getting out of Tokyo and traveling within Japan is discovering the local specialties. Every region in the country has a number of delightful dishes, which are mostly based on locally available crops and fish. The best known specialties in Hokkaido are the fresh sashimi and crab. In Osaka there is the okonomiyaki stuffed with green onions. Japanese food is mostly eaten with chopsticks, called hashi (箸). Curry rice and fried rice are eaten with spoons. Eating with chopsticks might seem easy, but mastering this skill takes time.

Restaurants

The number of restaurants in Japan is immense, so people never really run out of places to go. For cultural and practical reasons, Japanese people very rarely invite guests to their homes, so socializing generally involves eating out.

According to the world famous Michelin Guide, which rates restaurants in major cities around the world, Tokyo is listed as the most "delicious" city in the world. This is because it has over 150 restaurants that have received at least one star out of three. In comparison, Paris and London received a total of 148 between them.

Most Japanese-style restaurants practice lunchtime teishoku (定食), or fixed set meals. These generally include a meat or fish dish, with a bowl of miso soup, pickles, and rice. These meals can be as inexpensive as ¥600. Menus for most establishments are usually in Japanese only. However, many restaurants have models of their dishes in the front window, so those who cannot read the menu can take the waiter outside and point at the desired meal.

Traditional meals

The typical Japanese meal includes a bowl of rice (gohan), a bowl of miso soup (miso shiru), pickled vegetables (tsukemono) and fish or meat as the main ingredient. While rice is the staple food, several kinds of noodles, such as udon, soba and ramen, are cheap and very popular when it comes to light meals. As an island nation, the Japanese rely very much on their seafood. A wide variety of fish, squid, octopus, eel, and shellfish are included in all kinds of meals from sushi to tempura.

Rice

Sticky and short-grained rice is the staple food in Japan. Uncooked rice is called kome. The cultivation of rice in paddy fields is a tradition that requires great cooperation, and it can be considered as one of the central factors in the evolution of Japanese culture. There are several thousand types of rice that are grown in Japan, with Koshihikari and Akita Komachi being among the most popular.

Rice is also used to make mochi (rice cakes), senbei (rice crackers) and sake, the well-known Japanese rice wine. Rice can also be cooked with red beans (sekihan), seafood and various vegetables (takikomi gohan), or served as a kind of watery porridge seasoned with salt (kayu) which is quite popular as a cold remedy. Onigiri are rice balls with seafood or vegetables in the middle, usually wrapped in a piece of dried seaweed called nori. These are traditionally part of a packed lunch or picnic. Individually wrapped onigiri, usually in a triangular shape, are a good snack and are available at convenience stores across the country.

Noodles

Udon noodles are made from wheat flour. They are boiled and served in a broth, usually hot, and topped with ingredients such as raw egg to make tsukimi udon, or deep-fried tofu aburage to make kitsune udon. Soba are buckwheat noodles that are thinner and a darker color than udon. Soba is usually served cold (zaru soba) with a dipping sauce, sliced green onions and wasabi. When served in a hot broth, it is known as kake soba.

While udon and soba are believed to have been brought over from China, only ramen retains its image as a traditional Chinese food. These are thin egg noodles which are served in a hot broth, flavored with shoyu or miso. They are topped with a variety of ingredients such as slices of roast pork (chashu), bean sprouts (moyashi), sweetcorn and butter. Ramen is very popular in Japan and different regions are known for their local variations of ramen. Good examples of this are corn-butter ramen in Sapporo and tonkotsu ramen in Kyushu.

Seafood and Meat

Japanese people consume a lot more fish than people from Western countries. This is believed to be one major factor in the country's relatively low rate of heart disease. Seafood is eaten in many ways, from raw sushi and sashimi to grilled sweetfish and clams. The spread of ¥100 kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurants has made sushi into a fast food that offsets some of the influence of imports such as McDonalds.

Meat consumption was illegal in Japan until the ban was finally removed during the Meiji Restoration in the 1870s. As the country opened up to Western culture, eating habits slowly began to change as well. Nowadays meat is a common part of the everyday Japanese diet, with popular dishes including yakitori (grilled chicken), yakiniku (Korean barbeque) and gyudon (beef bowl). This has led to an increase in related health problems, though the Japanese still maintain their position as the world's longest-living people.

Important tips about eating in Japan

Here are some chopstick guidelines for newcomers to Japan:

- You should never place chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice, and avoid passing something from your chopsticks to another person's chopsticks. These actions are associated with funerary rites.
- When you are done using chopsticks, you should rest them across the edge of the bowl or plate. The nicer restaurants even put a small wooden or ceramic chopstick rest (hashi-oki) at each table for this purpose.
- Licking the ends of the chopsticks is considered low-class in Japan.
- Using chopsticks to move plates or bowls is considered rude.
- Pointing at things or people with chopsticks is rude as well.
- Spearing food with chopsticks is generally rude and should only be done when there is no other option.

Many Japanese dishes come with different sauces and garnishes, so Japanese people never put soy sauce on their rice, though they do dip their sushi in sauce before eating, and they also pour it on grilled fish. Tonkatsu (pork cutlets) come with a thicker sauce, tempura comes with a lighter, thinner sauce made from soy sauce and dashi (fish and seaweed soup base), while gyōza (potstickers) are usually dipped in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar and chili oil.


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