Samui Wining & Dining
What Makes it Unique?

Discovering the secrets of Japanese cuisine.

 

Page14It’s a mysterious land. A land of ritual, custom and tradition. A country where ancestors are venerated and honour is a way of life. It’s ‘The Land of the Rising Sun’ and the home of the Samurai. And, although Japan traditionally always kept very much to itself and resisted outside influences, today things have changed. Japan has become more Westernised. And, in exchange, you’ll find Japanese products all over the world. But one of the best-loved exports isn’t the cameras, or even the cars – it’s the cuisine.

      It’s not easy for the novice to get to grips with Japanese food. One reason, of course, is that the dishes all have unfamiliar names – it’s hard to relate them to anything that you know. And another is the suspicion that you might keep finding yourself looking at plates of uncooked meat or fish. And what about chopsticks – will you have to cope with them?

      Actually, it’s all far easier than it sounds, even for the complete beginner. And for that we have to thank one of the traditions of which Japan is so rightly proud. It’s long been the custom of restaurants in Japan to have illustrated menus – menus with photographs of the food. In fact, the more prestigious restaurants declare their status by displaying detailed ceramic

replicas of their dishes in their windows. This is quite an art-form, and the Japanese place a high value on presentation. Everything has to be good, look good and taste good, too!

      The next point to ease your mind is the vast majority of Japanese food is cooked; not raw. (Although the delicate slivers of the raw fish or meat are mouth-wateringly delicious.) There’s a wide range of fare to choose from – curries or fried rice; noodle dishes; grilled fish; chicken skewers; pork cutlets; hot pots and stews. It’s only the sashimi dishes that have uncooked fish or meat – plus some of the sushi – but more about this later.

     Chopsticks? Well, using chopsticks is a skill that’s acquired through experience, and it’s true that you need constant practice to become effortless with them. If you go to Japan, you’ll find that there are strict rules of conduct in this area. For example, it’s considered most distasteful to plunge your chopsticks into your rice. It’s only at funerals that this is acceptable – and the bowl of rice, in this case, is on the altar. And if there are shared plates of food on the table, then it’s polite to use the opposite end of your chopsticks (the thick end) to serve yourself from these communal plates. But never mind. Outside Japan you’ll undoubtedly be also provided with a spoon, and there’ll be knives and forks available, if you want to use them.

      You’ll find that most Japanese restaurants offer a variety of set menus in addition to the individual items. And this is an excellent place to start, as it gives you several things to nibble at once. But, in order to make everything clearer, it is useful to know something about the different dishes that you’ll encounter.

       Firstly, as you’d expect, rice is the mainstay of Japanese cuisine, as it is in all Eastern countries. And you’ll find this in different forms. It might be a dish in its own right, such as egg or chicken fried rice, or mixed-in with other ingredients – combined with sushi, for example.

         And ‘sushi’ is simply the term that’s used to describe a certain style of dish containing rice. There’s lots of varieties, too. Nigiri are small balls of rice covered with meat, fish, omelette and so on. And, yes, here you may find that some have raw meat or seafood draped over them. Norimaki are distinctive in that their layers of filling and rice are rolled together and wrapped with thin, crispy seaweed sheets (nori). And in addition to these, you’ll also find sushi appearing as stuffed cones, in deep-fried bags, and, simply, in bowls. Similar to nigiri is onigiri – but this type of sushi takes the form of small balls instead.

         Domburi is the Japanese word for ‘bowl’ and these dishes are simply bowls of cooked rice with some sort of topping. Popular variations include beef, pork, chicken and seafood – all usually fried or grilled.

         And, along similar lines, you’ll also encounter yakizakana – meaning ‘grilled fish’. But this will be a much larger portion that the small slices found in domburi.

         Which brings us on to the meat dishes. These will be grilled, boiled or fried, and include such familiar items as skewered ‘kebabs’ and pork cutlets.

         The nabe area of the menu involves a hot pot with a burner, and the food is usually prepared at the table. One of the best known of these is suki yaki, which is made with slices of meat, vegetables, mushrooms and noodles. It’s interesting to note that the staple diet of the legendary sumo wrestlers is one of the dishes in this family – the chanko nabe. Weight-watchers take note.

         And to the delight of those amongst you who are vegetarians, finally, there’s the soya bean and the noodle dishes. Tofu, natto and miso are made from soya beans, and form a prominent part of the Japanese diet. And the noodle dishes come in the familiar thick, thin and ribbon varieties, and are served in the form of soups, or placed on the plate in a similar way to pasta dishes.

         Samui has several excellent Japanese restaurants, but if you (or the kids) are still not convinced, remember this. Japanese cuisine is not as formal as it once was – and it’s quite possible that there will be some surprises in store. And if you really don’t fancy going mainstream, then try the potato croquettes (korokke), the omelettes (omuraisu) or the hamburger (hamubagu) instead. Japanese food’s not really that mysterious.

         

Rob De Wet


 


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