Big in Japan

By / Food / February 23rd, 2011 / 1

Ever since she was a little girl, my niece Jackie has dreamed of moving to Japan. Now at 27 and with a Bachelor’s in Humanities and a focus on Japanese culture, language and literature, Jackie lives and teaches in Tokyo. We miss her, but a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.


Recently, Jackie was home for her sister’s wedding and I asked her a few questions about Japan and its food customs.

Nancy: What’s a typical breakfast, lunch and dinner in Japan?
Jackie: The most typical breakfast includes white rice, miso soup, and fish. Sometimes we’ll eat yogurt, fruit, eggs, and toast. Rarely do we eat cereal or bagels. Lunch includes white rice, meat or fish and steamed vegetables. Rice is seasoned with furikake (foo-ree-kah-keh) which is salt, pickled plum, or fish flakes. Dinner includes rice, meat or fish and vegetables. Sometimes dinner consists of yakiniku (boiled seasoned meat) udon (noodles) and soba (buckwheat noodles). My students like KFC fried chicken!

Nancy: KFC? Do you have McDonald’s over there?

Jackie: Oh yes! And the Japanese love it! Especially junior high and high school students. We have McD’s, KFC, and Burger King. There are even Japanese versions of fast food joints like Mos Burger, Lotteria, and Matsuya. Some serve Japanese fast food like noodles, sushi, and baked meat. They also have flavours (like teriyaki burger) that are specific to Japan.

Nancy: What’s the #1 favourite food?
Jackie: I think Japanese people love fish the most, in general. When I go to aquariums, I usually hear how delicious the fish look or how they must taste. I think tuna is the most popular fish here.

Nancy: Why does everybody take pictures of their food — is that still a fad?
Jackie: The Japanese are obsessed with food. Food is all about presentation. Souvenirs are almost always some sort of sweet or food indigenous to the area. Most television shows are about eating food and they overly exaggerate how delicious it is (like they tasted heaven or something). I’m not exactly sure why they’re fascinated with food, but they are. If they don’t talk about food, they talk about sex… or so I hear.

Nancy: Any other food fads in Japan?
Jackie: Kit Kats come in a variety of flavours like ginger ale, apple cider vinegar, white chocolate, lemon cheesecake, strawberry coffee, and green tea. Sweets and foods are made according to the seasons. Convenience stores usually have a daifuku (stick rice covering a sweet centre of some sort) and the flavours change with the season.

Nancy: Have you ever had kobe beef?
Jackie: I haven’t, but everyone says it’s good. Also Mie beef is supposed to be good.

Nancy: Any weird food customs there that we don’t follow here?
Jackie: They slurp their noodles. Of course WE find that to be terrible manners but they do this to cool down hot noodles. They even slurp when they eat spaghetti. It’s just something they do when noodles are involved. I still can’t get used to it.

Nancy: Anything we do that would seem rude to the Japanese?
Jackie: Leaving utensils (especially chopsticks) sticking in food is considered bad manners.

Nancy: What’s different at the restaurants?
Jackie: Well, the best part — no tipping at restaurants!!

Nancy: Weirdest foods eaten in Japan?
Jackie: They season their rice with tiny, edible fish. These fish are whole but you can eat the whole thing. Also, they have dried up fish that you can eat whole OR boil in water to make a broth. They have a lot of calcium but it’s still a bit weird to eat a whole fish. Also, Japanese plums are usually pickled and people eat these like candy. They are incredibly sour and if you eat too many, your stomach turns sour. I have experience. Also in certain areas, they eat Natto — fermented soybeans. You usually add a bit of soy sauce to it and mix it for a few minutes. The more you mix, the less sticky it becomes. Most people put it on rice or eat it by itself. It’s definitely an acquired taste.

Nancy: What about street food?
Jackie: Street food includes chocolate-dipped bananas with sprinkles, okonomiyaki — it’s kind of like if a pancake and a pizza had a baby. It has cabbage, octopus, seaweed flakes, sauce, and mayo. You’ll also find street vendors selling yakitori (grilled chicken on a skewer) and yakisoba (buckwheat noodles in soy sauce, ginger and seaweed flakes) and candied fruit.

Nancy: How do they cook their rice?
Jackie: Japanese-style rice is pretty basic. You have to wash the rice first (make sure the water is clear after several washes) then add one cup water to one cup rice. Everyone uses a rice cooker here.

Nancy: What kind of tea do they drink?
Jackie: They have several kinds of tea. Green tea, regular tea (English), buckwheat tea (mugi-cha), black tea, and matcha (powdered green tea). They love all kinds of tea and you can buy a wide variety at the store.

Nancy: Any interesting vegetables or fruits?
Jackie: You can buy any kind of vegetable here. They try to grow what they can but it’s difficult since Japan is a mountainous island. Some things are imported. You can get fruit here that they won’t find in the west, like mangosteen and dragonfruit.

Nancy: One final question. When are you getting married?

Jackie: (rolls eyes) Oh, Aunt Nancy…

Try the recipes below. Then, come back tomorrow to read Rosemary Mantini’s exclusive interview with Canada’s very own olive oil producers, Amphora!

Yakitori (Grilled Chicken Skewers)

Serves 6

It’s best to use low sodium soy sauce as the mirin is quite salty. Mirin is a sweet rice wine that can be found in the grocery store. Sake is a sweet and complex Japanese wine that you will find in a spirits store.

Yakitori Marinade

1/2 cup low sodium soy sauce
1/2 cup mirin
1/4 cup sake
1 tbsp sugar
4 chicken breast fillets, cut in strips

Yakitori Sauce
1/4 cup low sodium soy sauce
1/4 cup mirin
1/4 cup sake
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp molasses or cane syrup
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
Wooden skewers, soaked in water for 1 hour

1. Make marinade: In a large bowl, combine soy sauce, mirin, sake and sugar. Add chicken breast strips. Marinate in refrigerator 1 hour. Meanwhile, make Yakitori Sauce: In a large saucepan, over medium high heat, stir in soy sauce, mirin, sake, sugar, molasses or cane syrup and Worcestershire sauce. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer uncovered for about 10 minutes or until sauce is slightly reduced. Divide the Yakitori Sauce (use 1/4 cup Yakitori sauce for basting and place the rest in small bowls for each diner to use as a dip.)

2. Preheat oven to 450˚F.

3. Remove chicken from marinade and thread on skewers. Cover a baking sheet with aluminium foil and coat with cooking spray. Place chicken on baking sheet. Roast for 10 minutes. Brush with Yakitori sauce and continue roasting until done, about 5 to 7 more minutes.
Serve chicken skewers with remaining Yakitori Sauce for dipping.

Served as an appetizer, the grilled chicken would be nice with a goblet of economical California or Spanish bubbly.

Soba Noodles with Asparagus and Tofu

Serves 4

I love the slipperiness of soba noodles. And since they’re made of buckwheat, they’re good for me, too! This is a basic recipe that can be changed seasonally. The asparagus can be steamed rather than grilled or broiled. Add more or less hot chilli flakes to turn the heat up or down. To toast sesame seeds, place them in a skillet over medium high heat until they are golden. Watch closely, as they burn easily.

350 g soba noodles, cooked
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed
1 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsp canola oil
1 block extra firm tofu
1 carrot, peeled & finely julienned
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup sake or dry sherry
1/4 cup mirin
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp hot red chilli flakes
2 scallions, sliced
1 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted

1. Preheat BBQ grill or broiler. Brush asparagus with sesame oil and grill or broil about 8 minutes or until tender and browned. Set aside.
2. Heat canola oil in a wok or large skillet. Add the block of tofu and sauté for 8 minutes or until golden and crisp. Remove and dice.
3. Mix soy sauce, sake, mirin, sugar and chilli flakes in wok. Over medium heat, add cooked noodles and stir to coat. Divide noodles among 4 bowls. Top with asparagus, scallions, carrot and sesame seeds.

Try a fruity Beaujolais or a white Bordeaux.

Stir-Fried Scallops & Shrimp
Serves 4

For years, women in my mother’s age group (the housewives of the 1960s) called anything made in a wok a “stir-fry” which always drove me crazy because I wanted to know “stir-fried WHAT?” In this case, the WHAT in this stir-fry are scallops, shrimp, mushrooms and red bell pepper. A bit of lemon juice lends a tart finish but you could use 1/4 cup of wine instead. Star anise is nice to keep on hand. It flavours rice during the cooking process. I also add it to my homemade chicken broth. Be sure to remove it before serving. If using shiitake mushrooms, use only the tops and discard the stems. They are much too tough to eat.

Canola oil
1 lb large shrimp
1 star anise (optional)
1/2 pound scallops, patted dry
1 tbsp grated gingerroot
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 sweet red bell pepper, cut into strips
1/2 lb mixed mushrooms (cremini, oyster, shiitake)
1 tsp cornstarch
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup low-sodium soy sauce
Cooked jasmine rice

1. In a wok or skillet, heat 1 tbsp oil. Add the shrimp and star anise. Stir-fry for 2 minutes. Add the scallops, ginger and garlic. Stir-fry 1 minute more or until shrimp and scallops are cooked. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from wok. Discard star anise.
2. Add another tablespoon of oil to the wok. Add mushrooms. Stir-fry 5 minutes or until mushrooms are cooked through. Remove from wok. Add sweet red pepper. Stir-fry 2 minutes or until crisp tender. Remove from wok.
3. Mix cornstarch with 2 tsp cold water. Stir until smooth. Pour the lemon juice, cornstarch paste and soy sauce into the wok, stirring until sauce thickens. Return shrimp, scallops, mushrooms and sweet red pepper to wok and heat through. Serve with rice.

A lovely, light and dry Riesling would be delicious with this dish.

California Rolls
Serves 6

Sushi rice, nori, wasabi paste and a rolling mat can usually be found in the international section of most grocery stores. This is a great starter recipe for mastering the art of sushi. Alternatively, you can just head to a restaurant and let a master sushi chef make the rolls for you. This recipe is adapted from Asian: The Essential Recipe Collection, Parragon Books Ltd.

4 cups cooked sushi rice
6 sheets toasted nori
Wasabi paste
1 ripe avocado, peeled, pitted and cut into thin slices
6 imitation crab sticks
1/2 cucumber, peeled and cut into sticks
Soy sauce and pickled ginger, for serving

1. Divide the rice into 6 equal portions. Place a sheet of nori smooth-side down on a rolling mat. Spread rice over nori, leaving a 1/2 inch border.
2. Dab a small amount of wasabi paste across the rice on one end. Lay a line of avocado strips on top of the wasabi. Add 2 pieces of crab next to the avocado. Add a line of cucumber.
3. Pick up the nearest edge of the rolling mat. Slowly roll the mat away from you to wrap the nori around the filling.
4. Transfer the roll to a cutting board, seam-side down. Cut into 4 even slices using a wet, sharp knife. Repeat with the remaining ingredients. Serve with soy sauce, ginger and wasabi.

Serve with a California Chardonnay, mais oui!

Sweet Orange Teriyaki Sauce

This is my all-purpose sweet orange teriyaki sauce that I use on fish and seafood of all kinds such as tuna, salmon, shrimp, and scallops. At last year’s New Year’s Eve party, I served guests a huge platter of seafood and udon noodles, smothered with this sauce and garnished with cilantro and sliced oranges.

2 tablespoons canola oil
4 cloves garlic, pressed
1/4 cup low sodium teriyaki sauce (such as Kikkoman)
1 cup ketchup
1 cup oyster sauce
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water

In large saucepan, sauté garlic in hot oil about 1 minute. Add teriyaki sauce, ketchup, oyster sauce, orange juice, sugar and water. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer 5 minutes. Pour over cooked fish or seafood.

Serve with a slightly sweet and nicely spiced Gewürztraminer.


Quench Food Editor, Nancy Johnson, minced, sliced, chopped, sautéed and sipped her way through George Brown College’s culinary program with a focus on food writing and wine. Nancy cooks by the code her Italian grandmother taught her: For the best results, always use the freshest, best ingredients. She writes for Ohio-based Wine Buzz Magazine and recently published a short story in Woman’s World Magazine. She is always on a diet.

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