This is a bit of a preview of the blog posts to come, as I am traveling in Japan and trying to experience, amongst other things, Japanese cuisine as much as I can.
I’m posting this prematurely because I feel like I’ve had such a eureka moment, I am just that elated, and want to share the knowledge.
Photos to follow another time.
What follows is what I have gathered as the most essential concept to help understand “Japanese” cuisine. Whilst you may be familiar with the idea that there is “no single Chinese cuisine” or “no single Italian cuisine,” the Japanese take this even further, transcending regionality altogether.
It was only later in my trip that I did some reading up on something called “yóshoku.”
In a nutshell, Japan followed Buddhist principles for close to 2,000 years, and during that time, eating land mammals was forbidden, even taboo, and emphasis on minimal handling of ingredients and seasonality was de rigueur. Cooking with oil was very rare. Stewing, broiling and grilling were the only notable ways of cooking. For most of the country, fish was eaten only occasionally, largely due to poverty, with soy and rice being the staple diet, along with various root vegetables. Pickling became an important technique for preserving food, but also for flavouring; spices apparently were not common fare. With Japanese isolationism in place, very little influence came in until the 19th century. At that time, Emperor Meiji decided that interaction with the outside world, most notably Europe and America, would greatly benefit the advancement of Japan and the taboo on eating meat was lifted. Japan then entered the “modernization era.”
Two things happened at this point culinarily: oil cooking, and European fusion cooking. What we know today as “tempura” is a style of cooking the Japanese adapted from Portuguese cuisine. Where oil frying used to be a very rare thing, this now was a possibility, and production and common use of cooking oils expanded. The second thing is that many European dishes were adopted and adapted to Japanese tastes. Both of these are a form of yóshoku, which translates as “Western Cuisine.” An important thing to stress is that yóshoku is not in fact Western cuisine, but specifically a Japanese practice using Western food as its base.
One thing I still have not quite pieced together is that yóshoku is always heavily sweetened. Teriyaki sauce, regarded as so quintessentially representative of Japanese cuisine is yóshoku, at least as far as I can tell. “Katsu,” the Japanese breaded meat slice, is derived from the loan-word “katsuretsu,” the word “cutlet” in katakana spelling. I’ve been told by one person that it probably stems from the early development of the cuisine when sugar started entering the market at the same time as yóshoku, as a luxury commodity. Using it in Western-based dishes was probably an expression of sophistication by the elite classes who were able to afford fancy Western dishes. I suspect that this is the same symptom as to what happened in Britain, when we started sweetening tea… which was unheard of in China!
This explains the sweetened pasta meat sauces, the sweetness of the dressing on various takoyaki and yakitori, and the yakisoba. The omuraisu is most definitely of this category. Ketchup is well loved, the recipes for mayonnaise and Worcestershire sauce (“Worcester sauce” in Japan) and others all call for significant amounts of sugar (a tablespoon’s worth is common for every three eggs in mayonnaise for example).
This also explains why the sweetness is not experienced in the dishes that make use of roots and vegetables, soy and other items – such as soba, oden, nabe and the likes. These are washoku, traditional Japanese, and are not expected to be sweetened.
And so, you can expect any heavily meat based dish to step from yóshoku. I am due to be in a cooking class that will involve “nikujaga,” translating as “meat and potatoes,” which is an interpretation by the Japanese navy of a British-style beef stew. And sure enough, the recipe calls for sugar
This, is enlightenment.