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Why Japanese food is so much more than just sushi and ramen

From using over six different names for rice, to having a variety of vegan dishes, Japanese food is so much more nuanced than just the sushi-ramen-tempura triumvirate

A stall in a food market at the Buddhist Oeshiki festival in Tokyo that is celebrated in October every year.
A stall in a food market at the Buddhist Oeshiki festival in Tokyo that is celebrated in October every year. (Istockphoto)

Any trip to Japan is sure to come with its own set of well-intended advisories. More so, if said trip is a food-focussed one. While there are a few obvious ones like “learn a bit of Japanese” and “befriend seafood”, there was one that I had no trouble making peace with.

Ever the rice lover, I was warned by my Japanese friends that it was imperative that I acquainted myself with the many ways of referring to my favourite carb before I started my foodie sojourn in the Land of the Rising Sun.

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Rice and shine
If ine refers to rice that is still in the husk, kome is uncooked packaged rice you can normally buy at a supermarket. This one is further divided into two categories: Genmai (dried and threshed but with bran still attached) and Hakumai (white rice that has been milled to remove bran).

Taking things in a more confusing direction is the way rice is cooked and served in Japan. Cooked rice is referred to as gohan, with the word doubling up to also broadly denote a meal or food. For in Japan, the name for cooked rice is a synonym for food in general, much like how we use the word roti in India. Meshi is how blue-collared workers refer to rice akin to the English slang grub. And finally, as the pronunciation of the word might allude to, there is raisu. This one is mostly used to describe rice that is served with foreign dishes.

Particularly in one dish that became my favourite one of that first trip. Yes, katsu karē raisu or simply put, curry and rice is an insanely popular dish all over Japan. With the coriander powder- and turmeric-fronted Indian curry-inspired gloopy karē enveloping a katsu pork cutlet, served over hot rice.

Sumo and shabu
One of the first things I had to tick off my list involved a bit of sumo action. But not the kind you’d be expecting. Chanko-nabe is a hearty stew developed to put the heft into apprentice sumo wrestlers. Made from a base of chicken stock to which copious amounts of chicken, tofu, and vegetables like onions, shiitake mushrooms and Chinese cabbage are added, along with herbs like ginseng root to bulk things up. Half a bowl of this power-packed concoction at downtown Kyoto’s Chanko Tomoegata restaurant, and I was ready to call time-out on this calorific meal.

Offering me a taste at another one of Japan’s edible wonders was the Matsuzaka restaurant in Tokyo’s trendy Akasaka area that specialises in shabu-shabu—a dish popular with the Gen Z set. A variation of sukiyaki, wherein thin slivers of meat are blanched in a herbed, citrus-y broth and then served to patrons, this dish puts a D.I.Y. spin on things by making diners do all the cooking themselves over the pots of steaming broth that are fitted onto gas stoves built right into the tables. And in case you were wondering about the etymology of the name, shabu-shabu is an onomatopoeia for the swishing sound made by the meat slivers in the broth.

Street treats
The streets of Kyoto, particularly the Geisha-populated alley of Ponto-chō were my Aladdin’s cave of treasures, as far as street food went. Rushing me past restaurants, whose window displays featured plastic replicas of assorted food and drinks, my former university buddy and de facto Kyoto guide, Satoshi Abe led me to his favourite local Japanese style pub called an izakaya. Featuring on its menu were grilled skewers of offal like gyutan (ox’s tongue), torikawa (chicken skin) and motsu-nabe (pig’s heart) along with octopus balls called takoyaki. All criminally encore-worthy.

Another über popular D.I.Y. preparation is the famed okonomiyaki. Literally meaning ‘grilled as you like it’, this pancake-meets-pizza doppelganger is as fun to make as it is to eat. My friend Rei Kosato at whose suburban Tokyo pad I was crashing at, threw an impromptu okonomiyaki party for me, where she and her friends introduced me to the dish’s nuances. Made from a slurry of flour, water, shredded cabbage, ginger, beaten eggs, seafood and any other meat or vegetable of your choice, the diners are supposed to pile all these up in layers onto a hot oiled flat top griddle. Once ready, the pancake is drizzled with a sweet brown sauce and sweet Kewpie mayonnaise and sent off with an embellishment of dried bonito fish flakes that seem to dance due to the ensuing steam.

As I travelled south of the country to the historic city of Hiroshima, I learnt that there is a lot of conjecture with regards to the provenance of the dish. While some believe that the okonomiyaki made all over Japan is the Real McCoy, there is a whole other school of purists who is adamant that the Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, made with soba noodles, with pork or beef substituting the seafood, is the only kind there can ever be.

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Vegging out
It was back in Japan’s erstwhile capital and current bastion of all things cultural, Kyoto, that I discovered the long tradition of shojin ryori or Zen Buddhist temple cuisine, which is entirely vegan. Shigetsu, a large temple-style restaurant housed in the Tenryu-ji Temple complex, was where I as introduced to the subtle nuances of this genre of cuisine that is based on simplicity and harmony. “After the second world war, meat was expensive and vegetarian food was the only option. Since then, vegetarianism has become associated with poverty, starvation and penance,” the person serving my meal told me.

Made from fresh seasonal vegetables, fruits, herbs, and wild plants, my meal was a procession of dishes such as the wobbly goma-dofu (sesame tofu), konnyaku (steamed cake made from the starch of the elephant yam), stewed warabi or fiddlehead fern, and the yummy yuba, the delicate film lifted off coagulating soy milk. All these, served with bowls of hakumai, a variety of crisp and tangy umami-saturated Japanese pickles called tsukemono and the ubiquitous fermented soy bean miso-shiru soup. This particular version of the soup, I was told, eschewed the de rigueur addition of bonito fish flakes with the rather meat-y, dried shiitake mushroom stepping in as a flavour substitute.

Enriched with history, cultural nuance and geographical diversity, Japan on-a-platter is one tasty treat waiting to be savoured.

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

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