Here, Eat This: A Beginner's Guide to Japanese Cuisine (That's Not Sushi or Ramen)
Although it's all the craze lately, ramen is just one of the soups you'll find in Japanese cuisine. And although you'll find sushi everywhere these days -- from gas stations to grocery stores -- there's more to Japanese food than raw fish and rice.
Photo by Lars K
And while Houston may have far fewer Japanese restaurants than Vietnamese or Chinese, the Japanese food we're running down today is relatively easy to find in the Bayou City -- from super-casual joints like Cafe Kubo's to high-end haute cuisine at Kata Robata, we've [almost] got it all.
The list of dishes below is just a jumping-off point for Westerners (fitting, as many of the dishes, ingredients and preparation techniques were originally adapted from European influences despite Japan's famously isolationist policies in the past), and therefore only a slice of the delicious fare the nation has to offer. But what a tasty slice it is.
Photo by Daremoshirenai
In Asian cuisines -- Japanese cuisine included -- tofu isn't a meat replacement to be tolerated, but an ingredient of its own to be celebrated. My favorite form of tofu in any cuisine is the Japanese appetizer called agedashi (pronounced: ah-guh-dah-shee) tofu. Cubes of semi-firm tofu are battered in potato starch and deep fried, which gives them the same textural appeal of twice-fried frites: crunchy outside, soft interior. They're served in a sauce that combines all the best savory umami flavors (umami is the sensation of food tasting earthy, rich and meaty) of dashi, mirin, and shoyu (a.k.a. soy sauce) and then topped with green onions for a tangy bite. Many dishes of agedashi tofu are also scattered with bonito flakes, which appear to "dance" as they melt into the hot tofu and give the whole dish a final sweet, briny note.
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Imagine savory egg custard or flan. That's chawanmushi, which also incorporates those same umami-rich sauces as agedashi tofu. Dashi, mirin and soy sauce are mixed into eggs alongside mushrooms and shrimp. The whole thing is steamed inside a container no larger than a teacup ("chawan" means small bowl), but can be served hot or cold. I prefer my chawanmushi hot -- especially in the winter -- and those not practiced with using chopsticks will prefer this dish for another reason: It's always eaten with a spoon.
Photo by L.Richarz
Americans like to think we have the market cornered on fried chicken. If you're in that camp, I invite you to try the Korean fried chicken at Toreore, the Hong Kong chicken wings at House of Bowls or karaage -- Japanese fried chicken -- at Muishii Makirritos. Karaage (pronounced: car-RAH-gay) can technically be any fried meat, but you'll encounter chicken karaage most often. The fowl will usually have been marinated in a mixture of garlic, ginger and soy sauce, then battered in more potato starch and deep fried. Ever since they were introduced during the Edo Period as a convenient form of fast/street food, fried dishes -- called agemono as a group -- have been popular in Japan although the batter and technique varies, from tempura to karaage to tonkatsu.
Photo by Mike Saechang
At its simplest, tonkatsu is breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet. Unlike tempura or karaage, tonkatsu is breaded using panko for a fine, crumbly texture to the batter. Tonkatsu can be served on its own, but it's frequently found under curry (brought to Japan via England via India, for a very watered-down and non-spicy version of the original spice blend) alongside steamed rice, but can also be a sandwich filling. It's also popular in a hybrid dish called katsu-don, which pairs the tonkatsu and its sweet, vinegar-y sauce with a rice bowl (called donburi) and plops an egg on top.