It’s an understatement to say that Canadians love Japanese food. Recently, Vancouver was named the most “sushi-obsessed” city in the world outside of Japan. Montreal has more izakayas than bagel shops (just check Google Maps). And it seems like, every week, a new ramen joint opens in Toronto.
But for all of that abiding obsession, how much does the average Canadian really know about Japanese cuisine? What’s the history? What are the staple ingredients? How does regionalism within Japan affect its culinary output?
This article attempts the impossible: to answer those massive questions in a few hundred words. By looking at four exemplary dishes, let’s unpack the ingredients, history and philosophy that make Japanese cuisine so special. For a more in-depth analysis of Japanese food culture, check out the SkipTheDishes Foodwiki, an authoritative encyclopedia of international food cultures from the Canadian food delivery service.
Among the most popular cultural imports, nigiri sushi is a beloved staple of Japanese Canadian menus. Essentially, it is a piece of raw fish overtop a ball of rice. But don’t let its apparent simplicity fool you. This is a dish that speaks volumes about Japanese cuisine.
Nigiri sushi celebrates the geography of Japan. The staple crop of Japan’s interior is rice, grown in sprawling patties that have been operational for centuries. But the country is also comprised of several islands, uniquely located amid fertile fishing waters in the Pacific. With nigiri, the two come together in a beautiful expression of Japan’s topography – dipped in soy sauce, another of Japan’s staple ingredients.
Next, nigiri tells a historical story. The dish began as a way to preserve fish by lacto-fermenting it with rice. After the advent of modern refrigeration, sushi chefs started using fresh fish, adding a splash of seasoned vinegar to the rice to replicate the fermented taste.
Toothsome noodles, rich broth, a slab of pork belly and a square of seaweed – ramen is one of the most satisfying Japanese dishes.
But is it really Japanese? Yes and no. The next thing to know about Japanese food is that it often builds on outside influences, namely from China and the Korean peninsula. Ramen began as a Chinese import (probably la mien) before enterprising Japanese chefs put their own twist on it. You see this process play out in several beloved Japanese dishes, like yakiniku (grilled beef inspired by Korean BBQ) and gyoza (adapted from Chinese jiaozi).
Another thing to note about ramen is its use of dashi, an umami-rich stock typically made from steeping kelp (kombu) and dried tuna flakes (katsuobushi) in water. You’ll find dashi pop up in several Japanese dishes – from miso soup and stews to various condiments.
Speaking of outside influences, Japan’s ultra-popular curry rice (or kare raisu) owes a debt of gratitude to its Meiji period, when the country reopened to the world after a period of isolationism. Curry rice wasn’t adapted from Indian curries but rather from English interpretations of Indian curry. And it was part of a broader fascination among Japanese chefs with Western foodways.
The dish is part of a class of food known as “yoshoku” or “Western food.” Several dishes that we think of as quintessentially Japanese are, in fact, yoshoku cuisine. Take tempura as a great example – Japanese chefs learned this method of battering and deep frying from Portuguese traders in the 1600s!
This last one is cheating a little. Kaiseki is a meal comprised of several dishes rather than a single dish. But it’s too important to omit, and tells us several things about Japanese food.
First, kaiseki is built around seasonality. Rather than following recipe books, Japanese chefs let the season guide their imagination, creating new dishes each night. It’s part of a broader philosophy in Japanese thinking about remaining linked to the natural world, celebrating the passage of time and honouring the landscape.
Next, kaiseki can tell us about how food is treated in Japan. As a formal type of washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine), there are several customs and etiquettes surrounding it. For instance, it’s customary to sit on mats around the table, wait for the guest of honour to begin eating, and refrain from playing with your chopsticks (or sticking them upright in a bowl).
There’s much more to learn about Japanese food than the points covered above, but hopefully, you walk away from this article with a deeper understanding and appreciation of this much-loved cuisine. Again, those wishing for a deeper dive should check out SkipTheDishes’ Foodwiki, which devotes a large section to Japanese cuisine.