Authentic Japanese cuisine focuses on quality over quantity

There’s so much flavor in broiled sea bass napped with fresh pea puree and enlivened by a young ginger shoot that a couple of bites taste like a feast.

AT THE TABLE • Story and photos by Katherine Larson
A happy concatenation of circumstances brought me to Japan recently, and two factors—the joyful awakening of tastes I didn’t even know I possessed, and the urging of my editor—prompt me to set aside the planned article on watermelon for another time and instead share with you a few things I learned on the far side of the world.
1. Presentation matters. Until now, when I’ve “cooked Japanese,” I’ve served it American style, with each person’s helpings laid out on a single dinner plate. Of course I’ve tried to make it look nice, but when the meal consists of mostly a big portion of rice and a big heap of something on top of or next to it, there’s only so much that even a conscientious cook can do.
Contrast that with meals in Japan, where I regularly sat down to a whole array of small—often tiny—ceramic dishes, one or two perfect bites nestled in each one. Nothing matched, but everything was harmonious: the balance of colors and textures and flavors.
Rice was featured, naturally, but it came in its own dedicated hand-shaped bowl, where the appreciative eater could admire the perfection of this seemingly mundane grain (more about that below). Moreover, in most of our meals rice came at the end of the meal, along with a dish of pickles and a bowl of soup.
I was surprised but became a convert: the appetizers enticed; the succeeding dishes built contentment; the rice and soup filled in any gaps, settled the meal, and eased digestion.
The importance of the presentation went beyond sheer beauty. I discovered that I appreciated each bite more because of the singular focus on the specific item of the moment. And I didn’t overeat, because the dazzling array convinced my eyes that my stomach received a true feast.
I also found that I became comfortable with meals that included just a bit of meat or fish. For example, I didn’t need or even want a big slab of beef if I was presented with three thin bite-sized slices, rosy pink, curled in an elegant porcelain nest around a sliver of pickled onion and a couple of pea shoots. This knockout dish made such an impact that my beef-eating urge was satisfied, and my body thoroughly appreciated the fact that the balance of the meal shifted to grains and vegetables.
Will I go buy a whole new set of dishes? Of course not. But on July 27 and 28 I’ll hasten to Marquette’s Art on the Rocks in quest of a few small bits of pottery.
2. Rice matters. Rice is rice, right? Well, no. The quality of cooked rice depends on the quality of the uncooked rice and the quality of the cooking technique.
Here in Marquette, the best most of us can do in terms of quality is to go to our local bulk store and check out the offerings. There’s a surprising variety—long-grain, short-grain, brown, white, basmati, jasmine, sushi. Every one of them smells different and tastes different and cooks differently. Buy a small quantity of several and steam up a taste test; you’ll be amazed. You’ll also realize that different circumstances call for different rices, and never again will you offer sushi rice when only basmati will do.
As for cooking technique, a confession: I had always thought that rice cookers were a needless extravagance, one more single-purpose appliance to clutter up the kitchen, and that an ordinary pot could do the job just fine.
I confess that I was wrong. Rice cookers—at least, Japanese-made rice cookers with their thick walls, careful calibrations, “fuzzy logic” technology, subtle heat, and ease of cleanup—make a measurable difference. They’re not cheap, alas, but I now know what’s top on my Christmas list. (The two best Japanese-made brands available in the U.S. are Zojirushi and Tiger.)
Unless and until Santa Claus comes through, I’ll do the best I can with a broadened repertoire of rices from the bulk store plus a pot. But I’ll know the difference…

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