Japanese Cooking: Lesson 1

So after almost 2 years of living in Japan, last week I finally ventured into some Japanese cooking for the first time. I’m not sure exactly what brought on my sudden inspiration during the day last Tuesday. Maybe because one of my students was entering some kind of speech contest at the time, and had to write a speech on the topic of Western food’s increasing presence in Japan, and what are the potential consequences of this? She wrote that the speediness of Western cuisine makes it more suitable to the workaholic Japanese lifestyle, but recommended that Japanese people take the time maybe once or twice a week to make a traditional Japanese meal, not just because it’s healthier but because it’s important to pass on these traditions, and because, in her words, “we can feel our mothers’ taste and our hearts will be warmed” when we eat Japanese food, or something like that. She went on to explain how, if something bad happens at school, no matter what the cause or the problem, if she goes home and has a bowl of miso soup she’s immediately comforted and recovered. What a nice thought. She said all of this so sincerely and unpretentiously too, with none of the emphaticness about the preciousness of Japanese culture that I often encounter. She spoke practically and simply, with this sweet and natural warmth. It really made me want to try a bowl of miso soup to cure some of my life problems.

Anyway, following her recommendation, I stopped by the grocery store near my school on the way home and set to work buying all of the kanji-ridden Japanese ingredients that I would need and have thus far doggedly avoided. I learned that there’s a small handful of staple ingredients you’ll find in a bunch of Japanese dishes:


mirin (sweet sake, according to my dictionary) (below, right photo)

sake (normal sake)

-rice vinegar (below, left photo)

dashi (a kind of soup stock)

-soy sauce

This is one thing I both love and find intimidating about Japanese cooking. Instead of having one main course, or at most a main course and a side dish and/or appetizer, like in most Western meals, the whole meal usually consists of a wide assortment of small dishes. There’s some exceptions to this, like when eating massive soup-based communal dishes, like nabe (a hot pot filled with big pieces of seafood and vegetables), or shabu shabu (extremely thin slices of meat that you dip into boiling water or broth for a few seconds and then eat). But most home-cooked Japanese meals (drawing from my somewhat limited experience of eating in a Japanese home maybe 8-10 times, eating fancy home-cooked meals in ryokans— Japanese traditional inns—, and filling in the rest with the highly reliable resource of Japanese dramas I’ve watched) are made up of an assortment of small dishes. This is another example of the Japanese regard for form and presentation, which extends well beyond just the cuisine. I always found it funny when one of Haruki Murakami’s bachelor characters would lament that he’s only capable of putting together the simplest of meals, and then would rattle off at least 6 dishes he planned on preparing for a single dinner.

Highly elaborate ryokan dinner spread

For my first meal, I decided to cook gyudon (牛丼), which basically means “meat over rice”— a very simple dish to start with. You can find this is Japanese fast food restaurants for something like 300yen (~$3), but usually the cut of meat isn’t that great (unsurprisingly, I guess, for the price), so this seemed like the perfect simple dish to recreate at home. I found a Japanese cooking website that gave me a very easy-to-follow recipe, and casually suggested pairing this with miso soup and sunomono (酢の物, literally vinegared food, in this case a sort of vinegar-dressing cucumber salad) to make it a more complete Japanese meal.

I think the hardest part of the whole preparation was probably buying the ingredients I mentioned above. I had no idea which aisles of my grocery store to go to for each of these, and stubbornly refused to ask any of the friendly grocery clerks for help. I guess because words like “dashi” and “komezu (rice vinegar)” I had literally never seen before that day when my dictionary introduced them to me, and until I use them or hear them out in the world they don’t seem like real words to me, but just a senseless combination of sounds that are just as likely to elicit a blank stare of non-comprehension as anything else. I can just see the clerk stammering in wild confusion “dashi? da-shi? dashii??” trying to force a shallow sliver of meaning into these mindless syllables… I don’t even know if I’ve had the experience of this kind of alarmed affronted response before, or if this is just a scene I’ve played out in my own head many times.

Anyway, after circling my grocery store about 7 times, pausing surreptitiously in the same aisles many times and shielding myself from passersby while I took out my camera-enabled smartphone dictionary, an hour later I had all the ingredients I needed and headed home.

The cooking itself wasn’t too time-consuming or labor-intensive. The only hard part was towards the end trying to time everything so the rice, miso soup, cucumber salad, and sautéed pork strips were all finished at the same time. But the whole cooking process was probably less than 40 minutes. So flushed with pride at my first Japanese cooking success, I assembled all of my dishes on my glass coffee table along with a glass of 500yen convenience-store wine.

Gyudon (pork/beef bowl), sudamono (cucumber vinegar salad), miso soup

Unlike my inevitably over-sized Western meals, my Japanese meal was light and perfectly proportioned, and almost as delicious as the Western meals I’m so seasoned at creating. The next couple nights, my preparation time greatly reduced by the lack of ingredients I subsequently needed to buy, I tried a couple more dishes: tofu chicken meatballs, and chicken teriyaki stir-fry (not deviating all that much from the shape of my first meal).

Tofu chicken meatballs and miso soup
Chicken teriyaki stir-fry, miso soup, and Hibana

And each time I paired my meal with a glass of white wine and Netfix— opened to my new favorite Japanese drama (Hibana, a Netflix original) that I’m sure I won’t be able to resist talking about in a post very soon, especially as I only have 2 episodes left, and the more it slips away from me the more fanatically attached and invested I become.

As a non-Japanese person, I can’t say I had any experience of the nostalgia that my student described, but I really did feel a strange greater closeness to Japanese culture while making and eating my Japanese dishes. I’m not sure how to describe this exactly, especially without sounding kind of reductive towards a culture I do indeed admire. It’s not like I was thinking intently about the ingredients I was handling or the Japanese mothers who may be preparing the same dishes in their own homes at that very moment, or anything like that. But still I felt my attention drawn in this clean, light way to the actions I was performing. The form of the preparations was imbued with a kind of valuableness that drew in my focus pleasantly, drawing it away from deeper, buried concerns from earlier in the day. For the first time all day, or maybe even for days, I didn’t think very deeply or intently, or rather my mind didn’t fall into the deep recesses of normal life worries/anxieties/etc that are always churning in the back of my subconscious. The smoothness of my movements, slicing the pork strips and cucumbers, stirring the rice, cutting up tofu pieces for the miso soup, occupied my mind and filled me with a simple contentment, without having to think deeply over the source or justifiability of this contentment. I don’t know if this is quite what my student meant when she said that a bowl of miso soup can make all of your problems go away, but in a way, at least for a time, I guess it was sort of true.




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