Monday, March 21, 2005

Japanese cooking .101

Believe me, there are many, many people who aren't even remotely Japanese who know a lot more about this than I, but I figured I'd put a primer on my site that I can reference with future posts.

Much of my knowledge is derived from cookbooks on the topic, and you always have to ask yourself if what they are presenting is a reflection of true cooking habits and recipes, or just crap someone made up using a handful of ingredients. I've cross referenced recipes to make the following generalization: traditional Japanese cooking is more like French cooking in that technique is just as, if not more important than the ingredients. My Japanese recipes all have rather exact measurements, ingredients, and techniques that are rather intimidating at times. This contrasts with much of western cuisine, and what I know of Chinese cuisine: get your two spices, mix it in a big pot with the other ingredients, pour over a starch of some sort.

As part of this, I want to hit some common ingredients for Japanese cuisine:
  1. Miso. This brown paste is made from ground up, fermented soy beans. It tastes better than sounds, largely because it is half salt. It has a 'soy saucy' taste, but is a little more pleasant. It's quite handy for making thicker sauces without dumping a bunch of soy sauce and corn starch into the mix.
  2. Mirin. Although defined as a type of rice schnapps, the more affordable cooking ingredient sold in the States is an alcohol and rice flavored corn syrup mix. Mirin has a mild sweetness that is hard to pin down. It is quite handy to be added to anything. I typically add about a half a teaspoon to a teaspoon per serving of rice or scrambled egg. (If nothing else, pick this up and add it to your scrambled eggs, it works wonders on them).
  3. Rice Vinegar. Get the clear version, my current yellow incarnation has a bit of a funk taste to it.
  4. Sake. Can't be added to just anything, but definitely helps out the dishes that call for it.
  5. Sushi/Sweet/Sticky rice. A lttle more pricey than the normal rice. I always thought that any rice would do, but this is the only rice I saw in Japan, and it's the only rice in the recipes.
  6. Soy Sauce. I long hated soy sauce, until I had a fresh bottle and I noticed what a complex flavor it actually has. Turns out what I hate is stale soy sauce, which is what I'd always had up until that point. As with all the ingredients listed here (except the rice), they must be refrigerated to ensure a fresh taste!

Something else to keep in mind is that Japanese cooking can at times be a dish cleaning nightmare. Typically a meal will be made up of a variety of small, time consuming dishes which are prepared separately and put into separate dishes (Japan is by no means the only Asian country guilty of this). As well, some affinity for fish might help. There are a couple ingredients I didn't list because of their fishy nature.

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