A healthy and delicious food experience
The Japanese believe that food should be enjoyed with all five senses. The roles of taste and smell are self-evident, but the art of traditional Japanese cuisine lies in ensuring that sight, touch, and sound are also engaged fully.
For sight, each dish should be styled on tableware that has been carefully chosen to evoke the season, set off the dish, and contribute to the atmosphere of the meal. The wrong plate or bowl in the wrong colour or shape can deter from the enjoyment of the taste and scent of even the most perfectly prepared dish.
To engage touch, one must consider not just the texture of the food itself but also of the tableware and utensils used to serve and eat it. The lightness of hand-thrown porcelain, the sturdiness of stoneware, the rich warmth of lacquerware – each choice can work to showcase a dish, but equally to overshadow it.
While sound may not often be considered when dining, it is integral to any immersive sensory experience. A quiet dining room can help to concentrate the mind on the food served, and perhaps allow the sounds of surrounding nature—a buzzing cicada, a rippling stream, a crisp breeze through the pines—to filter through, complementing the seasonality of each dish.
Traditional Japanese cuisine seeks to use five specific colours, namely white, black, red, green, and yellow, in each meal. These colours are associated with Buddhism, where each colour is steeped in symbolism. Incorporating these five colours not only serves to make each dish look attractive—and thereby stimulate our sense of sight—but using a variety of different-coloured ingredients also helps to ensure rich nutritional content.
The 5th taste
There are five basic tastes (not to be confused with flavours), namely salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. This fifth taste, sometimes translated as ‘savoury’, comes from the Japanese word umai, meaning ‘delicious’. It is imparted by amino acids found in meat, fish, dairy, and vegetables, and can be enhanced to great effect by combining different types of amino acids. Umami is fundamental to Japanese cuisine—indeed umami was first identified from the dashi stock, made from kombu (kelp) and katsuo (dried bonito), used as the foundation for many traditional dishes.
Traditional Japanese cuisine makes use of five methods of preparation: raw, simmered, fried, steamed, and roasted/grilled. These methods are showcased most clearly in traditional kaiseki, or multi-course cuisine. Kaiseki starts with a raw dish, prepared to highlight the delicacy and subtlety of the ingredients. The dishes that follow should include elements prepared according to each of the five methods: a soup or other simmered dish, followed by a fried dish such as crispy tempura, then perfectly grilled fish or meat. The meal is rounded off with rice, miso soup, and seasonal pickles, and perhaps a light dessert.
To always ensure the right temperature, ingredients, portion size, method and sensibility.
Although kaiseki is a complex and stylised form of dining, its principle can be applied to any meal: to incorporate each method of preparation with the aim of creating balance and harmony with the season and the ingredients.
Sake and food pairing
If you are thinking you should only drink sake with Japanese food, think again! Food matches with sake go well beyond Japanese food. Compared to wine, where people tend to pay careful attention to ensuring that the wine is able to be enjoyed to its maximum flavour, sake tends to support the food. A common saying is: “Ryori ni jama shinai” which literally means – “sake does not interfere with the food”. This allows the food to take centre stage, while sake takes a complementary role, carrying the main dish throughout the meal.
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