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.
3. Courage matters. Some of the tastiest things I ate remain complete mysteries; I still don’t know what they were, but boy were they good. Some of the tastiest things I ate were only vaguely identifiable (good menu translations proved surprisingly rare), but boy were they good, too. And some of the tastiest things I ate pushed me way out of my comfort zone, but—mostly—boy were they good, too.
If I had stayed with things that I knew I liked or thought I might like, I’d have missed one or two disappointments. But I’d also have missed dozens of delights.

“According to the menu, this is ‘Oiled eel, boiled turban with vegetables, tofu by asparagus, yam stalk with sesame, duck. Potato mousse, corn.’ According to me, this is supremely delicious,” said At The Table writer Katherine Larson.

Tofu skin, for example. Yuba is made by soaking soybeans overnight, then grinding them into a paste, boiling that, and straining the resulting porridge. Bean curd (tofu) is left behind, while the thin soy milk is boiled again until a film forms on top. That film is tofu skin. It may sound repulsive, but in fact it’s one of the most delicious foods I have ever eaten.
Delicious, too, was the broad array of seafood, cooked and raw, as anyone contemplating travel to Japan expects; courage led me to sample sea snails and firefly squid and tiny whole fish to be enjoyed head, tail, bones and all. And yakitori, little skewers of sauce-daubed chicken, provided an eye-popping lesson in the wonders that can be wrought with bits of the bird that, if they were to appear on a plate in the U.S., would likely be shoved aside as presumptively inedible—tail, for example. Or gizzards, or breastbone cartilage. All astonishingly delectable.
Then there was the dizzying variety of vegetables, many wild, that rewarded courage so richly. The words “mountain vegetable” on a menu, I learned, signaled that a skillful hunter had been out in the forest foraging for some of the tastiest tidbits Mother Nature offers.
To any traveler abroad, I earnestly recommend: go for it! Whatever “it” might be, it’s part of the eye-opening and palate-enlivening point of the journey.
4. Temperature matters. Lots of little dishes might be all very well for a restaurant, you may reasonably be thinking, but how does a regular human being manage to assemble all those little bites in such a way as to get them to the table simultaneously, all piping hot?
The answer is that they don’t all need to be piping hot. With the exception of rice (which stays at a perfect temperature for a long time in the trusty rice cooker) and deep-fried tempura, just about everything I sampled was absolutely delicious at room temperature or just warm. Not only delicious but, actually, better: at cooler temperatures, both flavors and textures blossomed.
This is a win-win realization. The cook undergoes less stress; the diners enjoy tastier food.
5. People matter. That less-stressed cook will be better company at the table, especially since she won’t be popping up and down to the stove and back throughout the meal but rather will sit and participate in the sort of leisurely, insightful, companionable conversation that unfolds when people share a meal.
And conversation matters. It matters a lot. It matters among the people you love, you and your traveling companions. And it matters among the people you meet along the journey—for us, that included the young woman and her mother, both from Hong Kong, with whom we shared a meal while hiking along the trail of the Kumano Kodō pilgrimage; the thoughtful couple from New Zealand with whom we solved the problems of the world over a feast in Takahara; the elderly woman in Takayama who taught us, with loud hoots of laughter, the easiest way to fold a sheet of the seaweed called nori around a mouthful of rice; the chef in Takamatsu who, at the end of our meal, darted out from behind his counter for numerous bows and even a hug before sending us on our way in a torrent of voluble Japanese. (Do we speak Japanese? No. Did that matter? Equally no.)

Masao Yoneda, along with his wife Bonnie, hosted a Japanese cooking lesson in their home. Here he is shown using a rolling pin to squeeze spinach dry.

One of our most satisfying evenings came in a suburb outside the ancient city of Nara, where Masao and Bonnie Yoneda hosted us in their home for a cooking lesson that turned into a shared feast. This sort of experience can readily be found online through such organizations as Traveling Spoon.
Sure, we learned a lot about cooking. We learned about ingredients, including the fact that the burdock root which is such a tasty feature of Japanese cuisine is the same plant growing by our woodshed out at camp. We learned about techniques, including Masao’s clever use of a rolling pin to squeeze excess water out of cooked spinach. We learned about flavors, and how the same basic ingredients of soy sauce, sake, sugar, and dried bonito can transform a meal into a whole symphony of different possibilities. And we learned about rice cookers…
But most of all we learned what people always learn when they open themselves up to those of other backgrounds and cultures and points of view: we’re all humans together, sharing hopes and dreams and goals on the planet we all share. As the four of us ate and talked and laughed, we joined in the community of the kitchen—the communion of the table.

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