At the Tokyo Olympics, did you dream of top athletic performance and a Japanese vacation only to return to reality that you will likely never win gold in the pool or even travel between states, let alone overseas, anytime in the world? predictable future?
Even a night out at a Japanese restaurant can range from hard to come by to downright illegal, depending on the state you live in.
Best, my friends, bring Japanese cuisine into your own kitchen.
First, let me say that I didn’t grow up with Japanese food.
I probably didn’t eat sushi for the first time as a teenager, so moving to Japan 20 years ago was a big learning curve for me.
Teriyaki sauce can be used on chicken, pork, beef, and fish. Photo: William Meppem
I’ve been studying Japanese food for years and think I’m doing a pretty good job at it these days. The Japanese government even awarded me a prize for this a few years ago.
But this guide is not a masterclass in the technique and elegance of Japanese cuisine. This is out of the trenches and I fight dirty.
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If you want to make delicious Japanese food easy at home, this is it. Classically trained Japanese chefs please look the other way now.
Teriyaki isn’t as popular in Japan as Australian-Japanese cuisine would lead you to believe, but that doesn’t matter. What we call Teriyaki in Australia falls under different culinary generic terms in Japan: Teriyaki, Tare (pronounced “tah-reh”), Shogayaki (with ginger) and Yuanyaki (with citrus fruits). These are different spices in Japanese cuisine, but for our purposes we’d treat them roughly the same – a sweet marinade or soy-based glaze.
You won’t find teriyaki sauce in most Japanese supermarkets. In Japanese households, it is usually made right in the pan by adding soy sauce, sake, mirin, and sugar to something that is being fried. However, I always make my own basic teriyaki sauce because many of these dishes are based on these four spices.
Keep it simple No need to add yuzu, edamame, pickled ginger, and sesame seeds to make it more Japanese.
Unless you’re into the subtle variations in sweetness between, say, teriyaki-style chicken and yuanyaki-style fish, this is a great shortcut. You can marinate in it ginger (common in Japan, especially for pork), garlic (less common in Japan), meat for yakiniku, or try it with lighter seafood. It’s a bottle full of cheats for all kinds of Japanese dishes.
Try prepared sauces
While pre-made teriyaki sauce is not common in Japan, many other prepared sauces and condiments are. Curry blocks for making Japanese-style curries, powdered or liquid dashi, and bottles of concentrated tsuyu – a liquid condiment for cooked dishes like nimono and nikujaga (beef and potato stew; try my chicken version, chikujaga).
You can get these from Asian grocers and you shouldn’t be snobby about using them. They are a staple in Japanese households and you are more likely to get a result similar to what you would eat in Japan than trying to do things from scratch.
By the way, if you have a recipe that calls for dashi, a really simple version of the cheat that is absolutely inauthentic is to dilute a teaspoon of fish sauce in a cup or two of water. It works really well.
Use fewer ingredients
When we learn something new we tend to assume that it is difficult, but please believe me when I tell you that Japanese food is easy. The most common mistake people make when preparing Japanese food for the first time is trying to make it more complicated than it is.
Japanese cuisine uses very few spices or herbs. Instead, it focuses on seasoning ingredients to emphasize the flavor of the ingredient itself. The most common seafood or meat preparation in Japan is Shioyaki – just seasoned with salt and then grilled.
If you grill a piece of salmon with salt and then serve it with rice and cucumber and maybe some miso soup, that’s Japanese food. No need to add yuzu, edamame, pickled ginger, and sesame seeds to make it more Japanese.
Japanese food has many vegetable dishes that we could call side dishes, but in Japanese cuisine one could argue that all dishes are side dishes. Conceptually, the main ingredient in a standard Japanese meal is rice, soup, and pickles, and any seafood, vegetable, or meat dishes that are added to it are on the side.
Preparing more than one dish may seem labor intensive, but the opposite is true. Small vegetable dishes such as spinach with a little spicy dashi or soy sauce (or this version with lemon, soy and sesame, pictured) can be eaten over several meals, which makes the preparation of a “main course” even easier.
Home cooking v restaurants
When we experience a kitchen that we didn’t grow up with at home, we usually experience a restaurant version of it. Ordinary homemade dishes like nabe (a tasty broth used to poach fresh ingredients) or nimono (cooked dishes that resemble a light stew) are rarely seen in restaurants, but would be as common in Japanese home cooking as pasta is in Australia.
Temakizushi aka “Sushi Tacos” with avocado and wasabi. Photo: William Meppem
Don’t fall into the authenticity trap when it comes to learning a new kitchen. Cook to your own taste using ingredients available to you instead of trying to replicate the food for a Japanese stranger.
Many of the Japanese-inspired recipes I write are tailored to the ingredients and tastes found in Australia.
My big, clear vegetable soup is an adaptation of kenchinjiru, a vegetarian Japanese soup that often uses ingredients like konnyaku and burdock, which are less common here.
These “sushi tacos” are a fairly accurate representation of temakizushi, a hand-rolled type of sushi that is a common family meal in Japan.
As your taste and knowledge of Japanese cuisine improve, you can chase after authenticity if you prefer.
Other Japanese dishes of mine to try: