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Sonoko Sakai's Ten Commandments of Japanese Cuisine

Migrant Kitchen Japanese episode. Chef Tetsu of Wolfgang Puck's crudo with the black cod | Courtesy of Life & Thyme
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Whole grain activist and Japanese culinary expert Sonoko Sakai wrote these words more than 30 years ago. She continues to stand by these tenets of Japanese cooking today. Read more about the foundation on which Japanese cuisine is built on. The following is an excerpt from Sonoko Sakai’s 1986 “The Poetical Pursuit of Food: Japanese Recipes for American Cooks.”

The keys to Japanese cooking are four: freshness, beauty, simplicity and health. To which might be added, ease and quickness of preparation, economy (because not much meat is used), seasonality (foods of the season for winter, spring, summer and fall) and a special kind of artistic fun for the creative cook.

Learn more about Japanese cuisine on "The Migrant Kitchen." Watch S2 E3: Omotenashi.

Like all national cuisines, Japanese kitchen work is the product of national history, physical resources and tradition. Japan consists of four main islands and perhaps a hundred small ones. The country’s primary environmental factor is the sea. Hence, the emphasis in its cuisines on marine foods — nutritious seaweed, crabs, squid, octopus, shrimp, eel, clams, oysters and a marvelous variety of fish.

In general, the following theory and practice of Japanese cuisine apply. Keep these principles and tips in mind when planning, shopping for and preparing a Japanese meal.

1. Use broth as your basic "sauce." Japanese cooking is mostly oil free, with no cream, cheese or oily sauces and dressings. Use broths made from fish, mushrooms and seaweed in flavoring foods. Another type of sauce commonly used in Japanese cuisine is "teriyaki sauce," made of soy sauce, a little sake and sugar (or honey, if you prefer). This sauce is thicker than broth, but much lighter than flour-based Western sauces. Chicken and meat broths are not traditionally used, but in modern big-city Japan (and in your American kitchen) they are acceptable.

2. Dairy foods have no role in Japanese cooking. That means no milk, cream or cheese.  This accounts, in large part, for the rarity of cholesterol disease in Japan. But you may use small amounts of butter as modern Japanese do occasionally.

3. Concentrate on these basic kitchen preparations: sliced raw, boiling, broiling, steaming, braising and deep frying . They are quick, healthful, and already familiar to you. Though much of Japan's culture derives historically from China, the wok was not used until recently; Japanese cooking is done in pots and on grills. But if you have a wok, do make use of it in sautéing and deep frying Japanese foods. Japanese did not fry foods until the Portuguese arrived in the sixteenth century. They introduced Christianity, medicines, guns and deep-fried fritters. These were modified by the Japanese to what today is called tempura (deep-fried vegetables, fish and shrimp). Some Japanese found such foods too heavy and discovered that serving grated daikon radish with tempura acted as a natural digestive agent; adopt this tasty and traditional practice. Japanese braising involves sautéing foods lightly in oil and then simmering them in broth or stock, so the foods are never greasy.

Kara-Age - Fried Chicken Ebi Harumaki from Tsubaki | Courtesy of Life & Thyme
Kara-Age - Fried Chicken Ebi Harumaki from Tsubaki | Courtesy of Life & Thyme

4. Use spices, herbs and pungent vegetables sparingly. Compared to Indian or Szechuan foods, Japanese dishes are very lightly seasoned, and herbs and spices are often used for their medicinal properties. What's emphasized is the natural seasonal taste of fresh vegetables, seafood and fruits. These original and sometimes subtle flavors must not be diminished. Use spices and strong flavorings such as mustard seeds, ginger, red pepper, sesame seeds, and green horseradish sparingly, for their healthful properties and to accent flavor. Two important exceptions are ginger ice cream, an idea imported from America, which has a pronounced ginger flavor, and sushi and sashimi, the unique deliciousness of which requires that each mouthful be dipped in soy sauce mixed to taste with pungent green horseradish.

Hiramasa sashimi with aged soy from Tsubaki | Courtesy of Life & Thyme
Hiramasa sashimi with aged soy from Tsubaki | Courtesy of Life & Thyme

5. Include some type of seafood in your menu every day. Seafood is the most traditional and popular main course. A typical meal, whether breakfast, lunch or dinner, is based on food from the sea. Tiny shrimp are used in salads. Dried sardines are a principal ingredient of many broths. Dried squid is a favorite snack. Tuna fillets are popular for sashimi. A whole fresh red snapper might be the Japanese family's Thanksgiving turkey. Japanese often plan their menus around seafood and a bowl of rice; other dishes are served to enhance and balance these two main foods (one reason why many Japanese appetizers use small amounts of meat and chicken). The high consumption of seafood is another reason for the rarity of cholesterol disease in Japan.

6. Serve meat in moderation. Buddhist tradition prohibits the eating of animals with four feet. Land is too scarce in Japan to graze cattle. Birds, the rooster in particular, were not commonly eaten as they had the sacred role of telling time. Not until the nineteenth century did meat and chicken begin to appear on the dining tables of a few Western-minded upper-class families. Today, young Japanese eat more meat than their parents. While chicken (quick-broiled teriyaki) and pork are very popular and reasonably priced, beefsteak is reserved for special occasions, perhaps once or twice a year. Imported American and Australian steaks are very expensive. Even more expensive is Japanese beef from Kobe, a famous delicacy produced by feeding beer to the cattle and patiently massaging their bodies by hand to disperse and marbelize the fat. Enjoy meals with meat, but in moderation.

7. Create contrasts in your presentations. Flavor, color, and kitchen swordplay are very important. There are many different styles of cutting, slicing and arranging, each with both practical and artistic purposes. Since chopsticks are the basic tools for eating, the foods when served should not require cutting with a knife; they must be uniformly bite-size morsels. Irregularity of size can make them clumsy to eat, less attractive and less flavorful. The Japanese say that a person with a dull or rusty knife can never be a good cook. Knives must be washed after each use, wiped completely dry with a clean cloth, and sharpened when needed. Foods are combined and arranged on their separate plates, very much like flower arrangements. Each dish should be a beautiful small landscape. The cutting and slicing techniques below will help vegetables keep their shapes during cooking and make your dishes look more beautiful. The flower cut takes a simple slice of carrot and transforms it into a beautiful plum blossom; it takes some time and practice, but will bring a lovely message of spring to your table. Put the food processor aside and hone your knife as sharp as possible. In color choice you must become a kitchen artist. If you begin the arrangement with something white (like daikon radish or tofu), a morsel of red color will enhance it (common red and orange foods are shrimp, carrots, pickled ginger, red pepper and tomato). A few crisp pea pods will give you an intense green. Other common greens are gently washed and wiped leaves such as lemon, bamboo, apple, mint, parsley, camellia, maple, shiso, etc., and shoots, such as daikon radish shoots (kaiware). Use egg yolk for a strong yellow (also edible chrysanthemum flower, lemon rind and squash). Brown colors (like shiitake mushrooms, burdock or deep-fried tofu) can be arranged on the side of the dish, while red, green and yellow foods are arranged toward the center. No meals should be all white (rice and white fish) or all green. Spot your colors around. Use combination sweet flavor (such as braised vegetables sweetened with sake, mirin and sugar); sour (a salad with a piquant vinaigrette dressing; salty (pickled foods); bitter (ginkgo nuts, fern, bamboo shoots); and hot (green horshradish, Japanese chili pepper . Bland (tofu) and rich (teriyaki) flavors can also give a variety to meals. Also, when serving a grilled dish, such as grilled salmon, which is on the dry side, serve it with a moist condiment, such as grated daikon radish or ohitashi , a vegetable such as aspragus, spinach , dandelion, bean sprouts , etc . that has been blanched briefly in hot water , drained , and chilled to be served like a salad with soy sauce .

 Tsubaki's Asari Saka-Mushi: Sake-steamed Baja clams, green garlic dashi | Courtesy of Life & Thyme
Tsubaki's Asari Saka-Mushi: Sake-steamed Baja clams, green garlic dashi | Courtesy of Life & Thyme

8. Shop creatively and choose the freshest and most nutritious foods. Because Japanese foods are largely sauceless , spiceless  and oil free , the ingredients themselves must be beautiful , flavorful  and fresh. This usually means foods in season. Fresh spinach leaves must have no bruises. Shrimp fresh from the market don't need the disguise of a soupy sauce. Make a fetish of freshness. Buy avocados, apricots, cherries, the fisherman's morning catch! These days it's hard to find foods fresh from the ocean or just picked by the farmer.  Some frozen and dried foods have to be accepted. But do grow your own tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, sprouts and eggplants if you have garden space . Don't hesitate to improvise with non-Japanese foods like okra, squash , kiwi fruit (but not scrapapple!). Avoid bottled or canned foods if you can — they’re mostly heat-processed, lacking in vitamins and have added chemicals that won't do their taste or your health much good. Visit small ethnic shops that often have fresh specialties of high quality (Korean, Chinese, German, Italian, African, Arabic, Hungarian, as well as Japanese). Become a food detective .

9. Serve a variety of dishes in small portions. Western eaters new to Japanese cuisine often inspect with some dismay their first Japanese meal. It all looks beautiful, they will admit. But, they ask, will these little bits of food satisfy my hunger?

The answer, they will soon find out, is a tasty yes. Japanese portions are indeed small. But they are eaten in combination with several other dishes. That’s how Japanese meals are structured. The advantages of this tradition are many. A combination of dishes makes possible entertainment of the tongue by many colors, textures, flavors and aromas. Small portions mean minimum waste of food in leftovers. Finally, nutritionists and doctors of both East and West agree that a healthy diet should include a variety of nutrients, including enzymes, minerals and all the vitamins. The best way to achieve this healthful balance is to serve a variety of dishes.

10. Health and pleasure are the ultimate culinary goals. Eating a variety of fresh foods in their seasons is the Japanese way to table satisfaction and health. So is eating in moderation (few Japanese are fat and hear t trouble is rare). Once you've prepare d a few Japanese meals, the creative kitchen work and the deliciousness of the food will likely modify decisions and techniques in your regular American cooking. You're just liable to cut down on expensive butter, beef and rich desserts. You'll discover that fresh vegetables, fish and fruits are even more delicious than you thought. Your holiday roast will look prettier on its platter. And you'll find you have happier, leaner eaters who will live nearly forever.

Top Image: Chef Tetsu of Wolfgang Puck's crudo with the black cod | Courtesy of Life & Thyme

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