You may be one of those people that hear the words “Japanese food” and think of nothing but sushi, fish heads, and rice, or perhaps you just feel a bit awkward when a server hands you a hot cloth when you sit down at a Japanese restaurant. Whatever your reason for reading this article, I’m happy you decided to stop by. Japanese food encompasses a wide variety of delicious dishes, many of which really are not all that exotic, but hold wonderful taste in their simplicity. If you’re wary of trying Japanese food because of the intimation of entering the ritual and custom-involved nature of the dining experience, fear not. Here is a handy and simple guide to Japanese food-from an American girl that served it for more than a minute.
“Oh, uhhh… thanks.”
This is the reaction I’ve gotten many times after handing a hot towel (in Japanese, “oshibori”) to a customer not so familiar with Japanese tradition. If you happen to be handed one of these, it’s very simple-just wipe your hands off. Many times these towels will be rolled up and handed to you on a small tray. These are to set the towels on after you are finished. It’s nothing more than a courtesy (and it feels great in the winter when it’s nippy outside).
To chopstick, or not to chopstick?
Many people are under the impression that if they go to a Japanese restaurant that they will in fact be forced to use chopsticks. The fact is that every restaurant in America (within reason) has forks-you just have to ask for them if they are not present. Do not be embarrassed about this. We weren’t raised to use them, no one will expect you to be an expert. That being said, I hope you do try. It can offer a good laugh if nothing else. If you happen to use the chopsticks, just understand that you are not supposed to spear your food with them. Particularly, do not stand them up straight in a bowl of rice (or any other food, for that matter). This is done at funerals, and as such is a rather morbid and rude gesture. A thirteen year old customer of mine did this, and I’m fairly certain I terrified the girl when I said somberly, “and don’t do that. Just trust me.” I’m sure she had nightmares and I had a fairly sparing tip that night. Sushi can be eaten by hand, if desired. Soup can be slurped straight from the bowl-attempting to eat soup with chopsticks would not only feel, but look rather ridiculous. Spoons are usually provided with “chunkier” soups or for those who don’t wish to drink directly.
What to drink?
Of course in almost every Japanese restaurant here in the states common sodas are offered, but I’m talking about more traditional Japanese drinks. Green Tea (or “Ocha” in Japanese) is a popular choice. I’ve gotten incredulous looks when I’ve sprinkled sugar into mine from disapproving coworkers, but I’ve shrugged it off and they did in fact get over it. Traditionally, you are supposed to pour tea for the other, and not for yourself. The same goes for every other drink as well. In my experience, this practice is very important when considering Sake and Shochu. Many Americans are familiar with the term, “Sake,” and understand at a basic level that it is “rice wine.” This is true, though the taste varies substantially across different brands and types of Sake. It can be consumed hot or cold. Better brands of Sake are generally served cold-as the temperature of hot Sake tends to numb the taste buds a bit (making it more palatable to novice Sake drinkers). However, my favorite happens to be the unfiltered Sakes-they have a milky texture and tend to be sweeter. Shochu is similar to Sake, but is made with other grains or vegetables (including barley, potato, etc). I find these are best on the rocks.
Debunking the sushi myth.
The common misconception of Americans is that sushi is raw fish. Whereas it is true that many varieties of sushi involve raw fish, the word “Sushi” itself refers to the rice-which is mixed with a particular type of vinegar, and oftentimes a bit of salt and sugar, to get its distinguished flavor. Sushi is all about the rice. That being said, anything really can go into sushi. Nigiri style sushi are single pieces-a ball of rice with either a piece of raw fish, cooked fish, or even vegetables or sweet egg on top of it. These days (though a sushi snob at one time I was) I eat mostly sushi that includes cooked fish or seafood. This includes Unagi-which is a barbequed eel. This sounds weird to many Americans, but it isn’t too far off from our own palate, and is very “transitional.” Crab sushi will always be cooked (there’s no way around it without getting incredibly ill). For those that want to brave raw fish, knowing the varieties is important. Every different type of fish has a different texture and flavor. The fish in raw form will also taste nothing like it does when cooked. If you’re shying away from trying a piece of fish because it still has skin attached, understand that the skin is the first part of a fish to go bad-leaving it on is the sushi chef’s way of saying that fish is particularly fresh (not to assume that all of those without are bad).
If you are still uncomfortable with the menu at first glance, there are a few dishes that I would consider particularly “American-Friendly.” They don’t stray too far from our “traditional” fare, and if done right can be incredibly delicious. The first, naturally, is teriyaki. I have had steak, chicken, and fish all teriyaki style. My personal favorite is swordfish. It is nothing but grilled meat smothered in a teriyaki sauce-not the Kikkoman stuff you find in the store, but the same basic flavor. Another “family friendly” dish is ton katsu or tori katsu-which is either pork, or chicken that is breaded and fried, then served in this plain manner with a delicious sweeter sauce on the side (similar to barbeque sauce). If you want to get a little crazier with it, you can order katsudon-which is that same breaded pork (or chicken) that is put over a bed of rice, with sautéed onions, carrots, and egg on top. This is one of my favorite Japanese dishes, and is usually served with deliciously sweet radish pickles.
Though this obviously doesn’t cover every aspect of Japanese food, it does give some insight that could enhance your future Japanese dining experiences. I hope that you do opt to sample Japanese food-as it really has excellent flavor and I feel anyone would be missing out by overlooking it due to myths and assumptions. As always, enjoy-and don’t forget to dine local!