Eating in Japan – Part 1: Rice and Fish
I must admit that unlike many visitors to Japan, the food was not something I was looking forward to. The little I knew of it consisted of a few failed attempts to like sushi and sashimi, and a rather more enjoyable experience of eating gyoza (a small, fried dumpling filled with pork and cabbage).
During my first visit to Japan, last summer, I tried a lot of foods I had never eaten before, many I had never even heard of. It was interesting, but the combination of incredible heat and humidity, along with the stress of a lot of life changes happening at once, meant that even relatively straightforward and in fact rather delicious foods seemed challenging. So I was a little concerned about what I would eat when I moved here.
I needn’t have worried.
As I have settled in, shopped in local supermarkets, started eating school lunches, grown accustomed to styles of restaurant and so on, I have discovered a world of delicious food and am now revelling in the enjoyment that finding new comfort foods can bring.
So, I want to use a few posts to talk about my experiences of certain types of Japanese food. This blog was never intended as a travel guide, so although I hope this (and related) post will be informative, its main purpose is simply to relate my experiences.
Rice and Fish
At school, where I suspect I am eating Japanese food in its most traditional “home-cooked” form (akin to school meatballs, mash and semolina pudding in the UK!), rice and fish is very much the mainstay. Of five meals a week, in general 3-4 will consist of a box of cooked plain white rice and a piece of cooked fish, usually mackerel, but sometimes salmon or an unknown white fish. Interestingly for me, salmon is the least popular with students, of all the carbohydrate options, rice is the most beloved. On Fridays, we have bread, and slightly less than once a week we have some kind of noodles, but neither of these are as popular as rice.
Photo originally from here: http://www.thejapanguy.com/ten-days-of-japanese-school-lunch/
When a Japanese person asks me “what Japanese food do you like?” I sometimes have difficulty answering. Not because I don’t like Japanese food, but because I don’t know exactly what Japanese food there is. It seems odd to say “rice and fish” because that isn’t really a dish per se, but this may not be such a bad answer. So much of Japan’s land is taken up with growing rice, and so many of its foodstuffs are made from rice (or soybeans, but more on that later), that it is difficult to underestimate how important rice is. The rice itself is not like any I have ever eaten in the West. It is shiny and sticky, so that you can pick up clumps of it easily in chopsticks. It has a really delicious flavour, and as such, is rarely served any other way than plain. Sometimes toppings such as wakame (dried seaweed), furikake (dried fish, vegetable and spice flakes) or natto, are added, but rarely sauces. Honestly, I like it best plain. It’s taken me a few months, but today when I sat down with my lunch tray, I felt a genuine delight lifting off the lid of a bento box of steaming, Japanese rice. On a cold, wet day like this one, it’s really comforting.
As for fish, I’m afraid I’m really still only in the shallow end when it comes to sampling the many types and styles of Japanese fish. The fish counter in our local supermarket is easily three times the size of its equivalent in any UK supermarket I’ve been to, and a considerable amount of that space is taken up with products I’ve never even seen before. Not only fish, but every imaginable sea creature is available to buy in Japan, making for a colourful, if slightly overwhelming display.
I've definitely eaten more types of fish and seafood since arriving here. A lot of it is cunningly concealed in my miso soup or "salad" at lunch time. I now regularly eat several different types of seaweed, squid, and prawns, none of which I was particularly keen on before moving here. Fish forms the basis of a lot of the stocks, sauces and soups too, so a lot of dishes which don't feature fish or seafood still taste strongly of fish, a flavour which I'm gradually getting used to. Still my favourite is the whole piece of cooked fish that often accompanies the rice at lunch time. I really like the cooked mackerel, with its weird shiny skin and sweet and sour juiciness. I'm also improving in my ability to take it apart and remove the bones with my chopsticks before eating it under the watchful eyes of my students, all curious about how the westerner will manage with chopsticks!
So, that gives you a "taste" of one aspect of food in Japan. Next up, noodles!