Five Things To Learn from Japanese Gastronomy

Working a lot in Japan, and writing about the culture, its diversification and trends and changes, has led to increased understanding of how, in a broad sense, a Japanese approach to gastronomy differs from that of other regions and cultures.  This approach can inform and shape the cooking of those who come into sustained contact with it.

  1. Texture.  The texture of a food in Japan is paramount.  So, for example, slicing pressed tofu into thinner strips before frying can seem to improve its flavor.  Actually, it is the sensory perception of texture on the tongue that alters the experience.  Stewing turnips or poaching an egg.  Many examples introduced into many unlikely dishes.
  2. Heat.  The narrow range of flavors in most Japanese food means that the experience of  eating must be enhanced or heightened in other ways.  Temperature is key, with raw fish the most obvious example, but the warmth of grilled freshwater eel or the heat of a broth are other examples.
  3. Presentation.  The colors, timing, and plating of dishes adds a great deal to what is served.  Dishes are presented in succession with a timing that is established between the server or cook and the person eating.  This becomes ritualistic in high end or kaiseki dining,  but is also seen even when a Western breakfast is presented.
  4. Small Plates.  So much of the food in Japan comes to the table in bite-sized portions, whether it is a stick of grilled chicken or a piece of raw fish.  Savoring the small thing, which can be seen as representative of a larger or longer narrative, is symbolic, cultural, and in tune with how people eat ideally.
  5. The Thing Itself.  Food items are presented and prepared with a singularity that emphasizes the thing itself.  While sauces are part of the cuisine, and certain foods combined (like seaweed, rice, yuzu, and fish), the focus is on the thing itself.  There is no disguising what is on the plate, and there is an intensity, potentially, of flavor.

These are five things that appear to be true about Japanese gastronomy.

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