This week's Where in the World Wednesday flies us to JAPAN, namely, Western Japan! Our tour guide du jour is my fellow college foodie friend Steph. Steph lived in Japan for 15 years (Osaka, Okinawa, and Kobe) and she has been going back 2 to 3 times a year since then. Other than Japan, she's lived in San Diego, Baltimore, London, and New York. She now resides in foodie city New York... perhaps we'll have to have her do a follow up of her favorite New York eats! Thanks Steph :)
On to JAPAN!
(1) How would you describe Japanese food in 10 words or less?
Healthy, seasonal, and adaptable.
(2) Are there any dishes that you think are traditionally Western Japanese? Do you have a favorite?
Popular regional dishes of the Kansai area (Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, etc) would be okonomiyaki (a Japanese-style savory pancake-like dish, which is my SOUL food), takoyaki (octopus balls, sounds weird but it's a ball of batter with a slice of octopus in it) and udon (Eastern Japan, like Tokyo, tend to favor soba).
I think my favorite would have to be okonomiyaki... it's the kind of dish that represents Japanese food to me, but it's hard to find good okonomiyaki overseas because Japanese food = sushi to a lot of people. But growing up, my grandma would always make this dish for me, and it's also street food that you can get in the stands when you're at a summer festival, or on-the-go. I miss it! (See below for picture of okonomiyaki!)
(3) How would you differentiate Western Japanese food from Japanese food from other regions?
There's regional specialties for every prefecture, but the basic differences between kanto and kansai (eastern and western Japan) is that kansai dishes have a lighter flavor, the miso is also lighter as well (used to always be a whiter miso, now that's more often used for celebrations than everyday), the broth of the udon is different, basically the more north you go, the darker and spicier the flavoring gets (although Japanese food never really gets too spicy), miso is different in regions as well.
Kansai people are often not a fan of natto (fermented soy beans, I hate them) and there tends to be more salt in kanto food, compared to kansai which is a bit sweeter. A lot of flour-based dishes come from kansai, such as the okonomiyaki or takoyaki I mentioned before.
(4) Do you find that the food in Western Japan has been greatly influenced by certain cultures/ethnicities/religions? If so, which ones?
Japanese food has been influenced by different cultures - Chinese influences especially in Okinawa, tempura and castella coming from Portugal, etc. But i don't think western Japanese food has had any particular outside influences.
(5) If you were putting together a food gift basket representative of Japan for a friend that was visiting you from somewhere else, what would you include in it?
I'd probably include some Japanese snacks, called wagashi - probably yokan (which is a jelly dessert made of red bean paste), senbei (japanese rice crackers), manju (rice cake with red bean paste inside), etc. Castella is also a popular snack to bring, for example, when you're visiting someone's house. (you usually don't go to someone's house empty-handed!)
(6) Say that you’re taking me around Osaka, where would we go for breakfast and what would we have? Where would we go to cap off the night for late night eats and what would we have?
Breakfast in Japan has been really westernized - a lot of people just eat a piece of toast, an egg, some sausage for breakfast. However, a traditional Japanese-style breakfast that you might have at a ryokan would usually be a set of of rice, miso soup, small vegetables, and fish (often salmon).
As for late-night eats, there are plenty of stands and street food (takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and others), ramen stands are open late-night so ramen & gyoza after drinking are always a favorite, and izakayas are popular (Japanese tapas-type restaurant/bar where you can get lots of small dishes and share with friends over cheap drinks). I love umeshu (plum wine) and there's a bar that I like to go to in osaka that has a menu of only plum wine, so many different types, and lots of delicious small dishes to go along with all the alcohol!
(7) Where was your last amazing meal in Japan and what was in it?
I feel like every meal I have in japan is amazing, but I do appreciate kaiseki, kind of a fancier, multi-course meal with lots of different small, beautifully prepared seasonal dishes. It's very artfully prepared and balances the taste, texture, and appearance of the food, decorated with a theme in mind and often times dishes are arranged to look like real flowers, and plants, etc. I had a kaiseki lunch with a former neighbor of mine in Kobe and took a picture, but there were lots of other dishes that came as part of this lunch! (See top picture!)
(8) Are there any special "holiday" foods that you used to have to celebrate particular holidays?
There are quite a few Japanese holidays and foods that are associated with them, but the main holiday would be New Years. Osechi ryouri is eaten during the New Years, always prepared prior to the New Years by the women in the family, and its all preservable foods that are kept in jubako (like bento boxes) usually around 3-5 stacked on top of each other. All the ingredients of the jubako often have symbolic meaning - kamaboko (broiled fish paste), red and white are alternated to look like the rising sun, mame (soybeans - my grandma likes to dedicate an entire box to beans, for some reason) symbolizes good health, tai (red snapper) associated with Japanese word "medetai" which is like good-luck, celebratory. Gobou (burdock root) for long life, and kazunoko (herring roe) for numerous children in the coming year, etc... it's usually home-made (although of course now there are delivery services where you can buy prepared osechi, and even grocery stores sell them).
Originally it used to be a taboo to cook during the first few days of the new years (plus no stores were open, although of course now stores are starting to open on the 2nd or 3rd, instead of the 5th or so) so families ate osechi for a while (I used to get tired of it though). Also, we eat toshi-koshi soba (year-crossing soba) on new year's eve and it's supposed to lead to long life and energy in the coming year.
(9) If you could pick one food item that you had in Japan that you could have with you always, what would it be?
Kind of a tough one as there's so much japanese food that i love and would want to cart around with me for life if i could... takoyaki would be an easier one though, I still keep frozen ones in my freezer here so that I can defrost them and eat a few when I come home after a long night of drinking... but I would have to say that if I had to pick my last meal, I would probably pick a simple Japanese meal of rice, miso soup, vegetables, and gindara misozuke (silver cod in miso).