The Art of Eating, Japanese Style


The women in Japan are wonderful. Most of them have less space in their kitchens than do many homemakers elsewhere in the world, but what they can create in this space is admirable. The typical Japanese kitchen is very small, and there is little room for food storage; refrigerators are about three or four cubic feet, so shopping for food is an everyday affair. After ten o’clock each day, the market places and supermarkets are like a bazaar, filled with women with children in carriers on their backs or on their arms and carrying small baskets or bags for their purchases.

Rice is the basic food in the diet of the Japanese, supplemented by side dishes of vegetables, pickles, and fish or meat. The Japanese homemaker goes to market each day to buy food for the side dishes, and she will mainly purchase fresh vegetables, pickled vegetables, eggs, necessary condiments, bread, sweets, fruits, and fish or meat. The Japanese eat meat in small portions; it is cut in small pieces and cooked with a lot of vegetables, then seasoned with shoyu (soy sauce), or salt, sugar, and other sauces.

Instant foods have begun to appear in the Japanese markets; this has helped to free women from their kitchen stoves, and they can create side dishes without the fuss their parents had to go through.

When we arrived in Japan, it didn’t take long for me to realize that delicious food could be prepared and served without the many utensils that cluttered my kitchen drawers and cupboards in America. Aside from pots and pans, dishes, knives, and chopping board, the most important and most-used utensil in cooking is the chopstick. Long chopsticks are used to beat, mix, stir, and fry and are very convenient instruments once one learns to manipulate them between the fingers. Other necessary utensils are the colander for draining vegetables and noodles, a grater, a suribachi (an earthenware mortar with wooden pestle for mashing and grating), and a flat wooden spatula for dishing rice.

Almost every home has a gas or electric rice cooker that cooks rice automatically. Most of the women also have small two-burner gas stoves. Ovens are now being introduced, but few people own them or know how to use them.

The Japanese people are said to “eat with their eyes,” and part of the enjoyment of eating is in admiring the beauty in the arrangement of food. Art is displayed in the manner in which the vegetables, pickles, meats, and fruits are cut and arranged, and only small amounts of food are placed on the lovely dishes. Therefore, as one sits at the table, he is first fed spiritually through his eyes, and then he eats and is fed physically. When the Japanese family gathers together to partake of a meal, there is a quiet, restful, and peaceful atmosphere that leaves us with the impression that the Japanese have learned the art of eating to live—and not living to eat.

Cooking Rice the Oriental Way

Wash rice well until the water is clear. It will cook better if left to soak first in clear water for at least thirty minutes to an hour. Use one cup of water for one cup of rice. Cook rice in a heavy pot with a heavy lid. Bring it to a boil quickly. When it is at a full boil, lower the heat and cook, without removing the lid, until the water is gone. Lower heat further and leave for 15 to 20 minutes to let rice steam.

Chicken and Livers on Skewers

1 pound chicken livers

1 pound chicken breasts, deboned

Bamboo sticks or skewers

Sauce:

1/2 cup soy sauce

1/2 cup sugar

Dash of monosodium glutamate

1/2 teaspoon ginger (fresh ginger is good if you can get it)

Place ingredients for sauce in pan and bring to boil. Stir until sugar is dissolved. Slice chicken livers and breasts to bite size. Put pieces of chicken and liver on sticks or skewers. (If you like liver, use only liver. It is best not to mix liver and chicken on the same skewer or stick.) Marinate chicken and liver in sauce about 20 minutes. Broil meat over charcoal and baste with sauce until meat is cooked. Serve hot with rice.

Pickled Cucumbers and Carrots

1/4 cup vinegar

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon monosodium glutamate

1 carrot

1 cucumber

Make sauce by mixing the vinegar, sugar, salt, and monosodium glutamate together until sugar dissolves. Peel the carrot and slice it diagonally. Peel the cucumber, scoop the seeds out, and slice it diagonally. Mix carrot and cucumber slices in bowl and sprinkle with salt. Let stand 20 minutes. Then wash salt off vegetables and let drain. Pour sauce over the carrot and cucumber slices. Let stand for 30 minutes. Garnish with chopped green onions.

Tempura

To make tempura batter, beat one egg well; add 1 1/2 cups ice water, and sift in 2 1/2 cups flour. Blend lightly.

Prawns Tempura: Clean prawns; remove shells but leave the tails on. Slit down the back and remove black veins. Lay prawns flat on a chopping board and pound lightly with the flat side of a knife, to give them a butterfly shape. Heat oil for deep frying, about 380° F. Dip fingers into batter and sprinkle batter into the oil. Repeat this several times until a lacy background is created on the oil. Then dip 3 or 4 prawns in the batter and place carefully on the lacy background. Sprinkle more batter on top of the prawns. After a minute turn and cook on the other side. Drain in paper towel and serve hot. (If lacy background is too difficult to do, just dip the prawns in batter and fry.)

Vegetables Tempura: Use one or more of the following prepared vegetables: carrots, peeled and sliced in thin, long strips; string beans, sliced in thin, long strips like French beans; round onions (Bermuda, white, etc.), sliced; parsley, washed and dried well; celery, sliced diagonally; sweet potato or yam, peeled and cut in thin slices. Carrots and bean strips may be bunched together and dipped in batter and fried. Onions may be fried as onion rings. Use batter only on one side of the parsley, and fry it until batter is golden. Celery, if cut in thin strips, may be bunched together and dipped in batter, then fried. Sweet potatoes or yam slices should be dipped in batter and fried one piece at a time.

Sauce for Tempura: Bring to a boil in a small saucepan 1/2 cup broth (chicken, beef, etc.), 4 1/2 tablespoons shoyu (soy sauce), 2 tablespoons sugar, 1/2 teaspoon monosodium glutamate. Put the hot sauce in individual small bowls, and add about a tablespoon of grated radish or turnip. Dip the prawns or vegetables in sauce and eat.

Teppan Yaki

Have the butcher thinly slice 2 pounds tender beef. Use any of the following vegetables that your family likes: round onions, sliced; chinese cabbage, sliced into 2-inch lengths; carrots, sliced diagonally; celery, sliced diagonally; bean sprouts; watercress; green onions, cut in 2-inch lengths; mushrooms, fresh or canned, sliced; broccoli, cut into small pieces; cauliflower, cut in small pieces.

To prepare and serve, seat everyone around the table. Heat electric skillet and add butter or oil to cover the bottom. Fry a little of the meat and some of the vegetables in the skillet. Each person takes some of the vegetables and meat when they are cooked, and more is added to the pan, with additional butter or oil. Serve the cooked meat and vegetables in the following sauce.

Sauce: Heat 1 cup shoyu (soy sauce), 1/4 cup sugar (more, if a sweeter taste is desired), and 1/2 teaspoon monosodium glutamate. Serve in individual dishes. Each person may add grated radish or turnip, lemon or lime juice, to his own liking. Dip meat and vegetables in sauce and eat with hot rice.

Sister Okazaki, who resides in Denver, Colorado, assisted her husband when he presided over the Japan Central Mission. She is a member of the YWMIA general board.