Uncompromising attention to ingredients, presentation, and taste is the true way of Washoku
First of all, let’s take a look at the most refined form of Washoku, with over 400 years of history, “Kaiseki” cuisine. Its roots are in the food offered to guests at a formally conducted tea ceremony. The basic structure is “One Soup and Three Dishes” (1 soup dish, 1 main dish, 2 side dishes), however, in the modern day, restaurants that specialize in Kaiseki cuisine offer much richer and many more dishes. For example, an appetizer of rape blossoms,salted salmon roe, and shellfish, all with individual dressings, thin slices of sea bream sashimi, and deep fried monkfish nuggets. The dishes come to the table one after the other, gracing it with their brilliance, and testifying to the diversity of this cuisine, and the extensive skill and effort that goes into its preparation.
Kaiseki cuisine makes a conscious effort to incorporate seasonal ingredients, such as newly sprouted wild plants and sea bream in spring. Further, the main components of the dishes are vegetables, fish, various grains such as rice, and beans. While chicken and other meat sometimes make and appearance, dairy products are never used. The cooking oils are used rapeseed and sesame oil. For these reasons, Kaiseki cuisine has attracted a lot of attention as a healthy cuisine.
To bring out the inherent flavor of the fresh seasonal ingredients, every dish keeps seasonings to a minimum. This manifests as a careful determination to show respect for the distinctive flavors of the ingredients, and to bring out their inherent deliciousness. For example, Dashi is a delicious stock made from Kezuribushi (a traditional preserved food made by preparing bonito using a special slicer to produced flakes of dried bonito), or from boiling high quality dried kelp. The Dashi made in this way can then be used to carefully bring out the flavors of other ingredients in Washoku dishes.
The presentation of Washoku demonstrates a thorough concern for ensuring a beautiful appearance. In summer, fresh bamboo grass leaves are spread beneath the dish, and the ingredients float on a bed of finely crushed ice. In autumn carrots are cut into the shape of maple leaves in “decorative cutting”. These things add a visual element of seasonality to the presentation of the dish.
In addition to this there are many other decorative techniques, such cutting turnips and giant radishes into petal shapes to resemble chrysanthemums, called “Kikkagiri”, while eggplants and cucumbers are cut into fan shapes called “Suehirogiri”. Of course, setting off the food is an important point. Carefully chosen plates are also used to highlight the food, such as when well grilled Ayu (a freshwater fish) with its tail neatly stretched out, is served on a rectangular plate that complements its shape.
100 tofu recipes! A great variety of cooking techniques that brings out the best in Washoku
The essence of traditional Washoku, as represented by Kaiseki cuisine, is alive in modern Washoku today.
For example, there are many methods of cooking. The variety of the Kaiseki cuisine menu makes possible the unrestricted use of a range of cooking methods; stewing, grilling, steaming, frying, dressing (mixing the ingredients with seasonings such as vinegar, miso, and sesame), drying, and fermentation. Even when the same materials are used, changing the cooking method creates a completely different dish. The variety of cooking methods normally used creates a rich variation in dishes, from restaurants that serve Washoku, to regional food that highlights the culture and representative ingredients of that region, and home style food “just like Mum used to make”.
A good example of this is the standard ingredient of Washoku, tofu, which is made from the straining and coagulation of the milk made of soybeans. In summer “Hiyayakko” lets you enjoy a cool feeling. In winter you can enjoy hot “Yudofu”, in addition to which there is fried tofu, with a thin coating and covered with a soy based soup stock, “Agedashi-dofu” which is eaten while hot, “Tofu Dengaku” which is sliced thin, cooked on skewers and covered in a thin miso sauce, and “Shiroae”, where white miso and white sesame seeds are ground up together and mixed with the marinaded ingredients. All in all tofu appears in many different forms. There is also a method of cooking where tofu is marinaded and then smoked, producing a flavor like cheese. But these are only a few examples. In the book “Tofu Hyakuchin” published over 500 years ago, there are over 100 recipes included!
When you feel like a little luxury, why not try Washoku?
Kaiseki cuisine allows you to enjoy the peak of satisfaction for your eyes and tongues, from the delicious taste of the food, to the selection of dishes and atmosphere of restaurant. For that reason, the prices are also appropriately high as well. However, even if you economize on a normal lunch, there is value to traveling the royal road of Japanese food! You can search for restaurants on the internet, but a good idea is to ask advice from hotel concierges. They can advise you on a restaurant that is convenient for you to get to, and doesn’t strain your budget.
One easy way to try Washoku is to visit the food halls in the basement of department stores, where there are many food stores that specialize in Washoku. The Dashi egg roll (an egg roll made with stock) is a beautiful yellow color that is guaranteed to whet your appetite, and there are also stewed vegetables like carrot, giant butterbur (fuki), and taro, vinegar pickles like cucumber and octopus, and lots of delicious little dishes that make it easy to choose something you would like to try.
There are many different types of tofu lined up at the specialist tofu store, and a bento corner with “Makunouchi Bento” containing white rice and an assortment of Washoku side dishes laid out colorfully, and more. Just going around looking at all the different kinds of food is an enjoyable experience.
There are also several programs that let you experience making Japanese food. At “Japanese Cooking & Culture School Salon de Hifumi-an” in Kagurazaka (Shinjuku, Tokyo), seasonal Japanese cooking lessons are provided. There is also a cooking school oriented at overseas visitors, “Cooking with Mari” (Bunkyo, Tokyo), where you can take on the challenge of preparing Washoku for yourself. At the “Institute for Japanese Culture Experience and Education” (Bunkyo, Tokyo) they offer a “Sushi Making and Sushi Party” where you can learn to prepare “maki sushi” (rolled sushi), “nigiri sushi” (sushi rice topped with a slice of raw fish) and “gunkan maki” (sushi rice wrapped with a strip of seaweed and topped with soft ingredients) using basic utensils. All of these experiences last 2.5 to 3 hours. Why not try learning the skills of Washoku, and surprise your family and friends?
Japanese Cooking & Culture School Salon de Hifumi-an
Address:102-1F, Yarai-cho, Shinjyuku-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Program Cost:From 18,900 yen (1 person)
Time required:Around 3 hours
Access:1 min. walk from Tokyo Metro Tozai Line Kagurazaka Station, 5 min. walk from Toei Oedo Line Ushigome-kagurazaka Station.
Cooking with Mari
Address:2-13-5 Shintomi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Program Cost:6,500 yen (1 person)
Time Required:Around 3 hours
Access:4 min. walk from Tokyo Metro Yurakucho Line Shintomicho Station
Institute for Japanese Culture Experience and Education (Sushi Making and Sushi Party)
Address:Room 405 Sasaki Building A, 2-5-7 Koishikawa, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Program Cost:From 14,000 yen (1 person)
Time Required:Around 2.5 hours
Access:3 min. walk from Tokyo Metro Namboku Line/Marunouchi Line Korakuen Station, 4 min. walk from Toei Oedo Line Kasuga Station