The philosophy of Japanese cooking is pretty simple - it's all about serving food that has retained as much of its natural flavour as possible.
It is therefore essential when preparing or presenting Japanese food to choose ingredients that are absolutely at their best. They should be very fresh and in season. Also an important point to remember is that if the food needs to be cooked this is done for the minimum time possible.
The Japanese cook believes that vegetables are best eaten raw or only very lightly cooked to retain their crunchiness. Otherwise vegetables may be salted a little to draw out the cold water of the raw ingredient.
The Japanese are the race to appreciate the real taste of natural food and do not add artificial taste to it, excluding processed foods that may be made in Japan for other markets. The Japanese eat fruit only when it is ripe and delicious and don't process unpalatable food.
This may well be what has motivated some people to say that Japan is the country where the cuisine is in its primitive stage. The Japanese call a season the "shun" when the respective food is ripe for the table.
The cuisine is characterised by the use of the freshest ingredients from the mountains and the sea because the Japanese are surrounded by a plentiful and natural environment, giving us the traditional Japanese cuisine as we know it.
The country was closed to the outside world during the Edo period (1639-1867) and gave us the Japanese tea ceremony.
Above all, the most important aspect of Japanese cooking lies in the preparation.
As the food is eaten with hashi (chopsticks) it needs to be cut into bite- sized pieces. Vegetables of various shapes and textures are cooked to the correct crunchy softness so that they will be appetising as well as attractive.
Fresh fruit is almost always filleted and often thinly sliced to eat raw, as is sashimi. Meats are also thinly sliced most of the time or else minced meat is used. If the food, especially vegetables, is to be cooked it is always very lightly done to retain crispness.
Cooking methods include simmering, grilling, steaming and frying. Roasting as we know and appreciate is not really part of Japanese cuisine. Most fish and vegetable dishes involve cooking over a direct heat, although in modern homes this is not done so much because the smoke produced can be offensive, and in this instance pan frying has become a suitable substitute.
Japanese dining also requires some etiquette. It is the Japanese custom to hold your cup or glass when someone pours you a drink and you are expected to return that courtesy.
The same pair of hashi is used throughout the meal. When not in use the hashi are left on a hashi rest. They should be laid close to you, neatly parallel to the edge of the table. Never stick them upright into the rice as the Japanese are superstitious and hashi standing vertically in rice reminds them of the incense sticks that stand in ashes at funerals.
Never transfer food from one pair of hashi to another as, again, at Japanese funerals relatives of the deceased pick the human bones from the ashes and transfer them between themselves in that way. For all of that, dining at home in Japan can be a casual affair with each member of the family having a bowl of rice and miso soup, probably with an individual main dish of either fish or meat. Two or three other dishes, such as simmered vegetables, marinated fish and pickles, will be placed in the centre of the table for everyone to help themselves. Additional servings of rice and soup are always available and fruit along with green tea are always served to finish the meal.
Soup is a huge part of the Japanese diet all year round with ramen a favourite of mine. I have to admit that my second son, who spent some time living in Japan, has mastered the art of getting the pork stock absolutely spot on and I tend to leave that style of soup to him. However, another favourite of mine is a noodle soup in which I replace the ramen, udon or buckwheat style of noodles with simple rice noodles and find it very pleasing.
Join with me this week and enjoy some.
JAPANESE BEEF AND NOODLE SOUP
For six portions
1 Tbsp peanut oil
500g gravy beef cut into quite chunky pieces
3 onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 Tbsp peeled and grated galangal
1 Tbsp peeled and grated ginger
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
4 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
40g palm sugar
500g packet of rice noodles
a good sized bunch of baby bok choy, coarsely chopped
200g beef fillet, thinly sliced
125g bean spouts
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp bulldog sauce
4 spring onions, trimmed and sliced
1 cup torn mixed herb leaves (I use mint, coriander and basil)
Heat the tablespoon of peanut oil in a heavy-based stock pot and brown the beef in batches over a high heat.
Remove the beef, add the onions and cook over a medium heat until just golden.
Add the galangal, ginger, garlic, star anise, cinnamon stick and palm sugar and stir until the palm sugar dissolves.
Add 3 litres of water and the browned beef and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer uncovered for 1 hour.
Allow to cool to room temperature then cover and refrigerate overnight. Remove from the fridge, skim the fat from the top and strain the stock through muslin into a clean saucepan and bring quietly to the boil.
Cover the noodles with boiling water and allow to stand for 2-3 minutes, stirring to separate the strands, then drain.
Heat a little peanut oil in a large saucepan adding the noodles, bok choy and eye fillet of beef and the bean sprouts and pour the boiling stock over.
Now add the fish sauce and bulldog sauce and bring the mixture to the boil.
Spoon into warmed serving bowls and top with the sliced spring onion and herbs.
Graham Hawkes operates Paddington Arms at the Queens Dr/Bainfield Rd roundabout.
- The Southland Times