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Eat like the Japanese

Sushi platter.
Image courtesy: Lonely Planet Images

It’s not just raw fish and sticky rice that Japan has to offer. From hearty broths to buckwheat noodles, the Japanese kitchen is bustling with flavours. Here’s a quick guide to help you decode the menu.

Butterfingers cannot be friendly with chopsticks. The former means clumsy; the latter is the epitome of delicate perfection. I am blessed with butterfingers — I have a world record in breaking teapots, spilling curry on white linen, dropping martini glasses… The list is endless. Quite obviously, trepidation is the first feeling I experienced when I was booked on a trip to Japan. As I boarded the flight to Tokyo, I was confident of being the only passenger carrying cutlery in the luggage. Forks, knives, spoons from my modest home collection, along with a packet of disposable ones (just in case I found another butterfingered tourist in the Japan).

Thankfully, Japanese hospitality is extremely gracious and inclusive. No brows raised, no furtive glances, no whispers greeted me as I made my way through Japanese meals with cutlery instead of chopsticks. The Delhi forks and knives remained cushioned in my sling bag because every restaurant has its own supply.

What needed a bit more attention and guidance was what I ate, more than how I ate. And that’s what this article is all about. Don’t confuse the sushi with sashimi, or the tempura with tsukimi. Given below is a list of dishes you are most likely to encounter. Read well, choose wisely and enjoy the meal:

Yakitori: Skewers of charcoal-grilled meat and vegetables, usually had with beer or sake (cold sake in summer; hot in winter). There are special restaurants for yakitori where you sit around a counter and watch the chef grill your selection over charcoal.

Sushi & Sashimi: One of the healthiest and most soul-satisfying meal options ever. Fish served over rice is sushi; without rice it’s sashimi or tsukuri. The two main varieties of sushi are nigiri (served on a bed of rice) and maki (served in seaweed roll). Before eating sushi, dip it very lightly in soy sauce. Butterfingers, rejoice! It’s perfectly alright to eat sushi with your hands. There’s a different soy sauce for sashimi. And the wasabi paste is meant only for sashimi.

Sukiyaki: Think slices of beef cooked in broth of soy sauce, sugar and sake, accompanied by a variety of vegetables and tofu. And here’s the highlight: all ingredients are dipped in raw egg before being eaten. If you think you can handle that, you’re in for a sublime experience.

Shabu-shabu: This too is about thin slices and vegetables cooked in a light broth. What follows is dipping in sesame-seed and citrus-based sauces. Both the sukiyaki and the shabu-shabu can be cooked in a pot at your table.

Tempura: Portions of fish, prawns and vegetables fried in a light, crispy batter. A tempura meal starts with the arrival of two tiny bowls containing a light brown sauce and radish. Dip each tempura in the sauce before eating.

Ramen: Big bowls of noodles in a meat broth, served with a variety of toppings: pork, beef, bean sprouts and leeks. Some locals love to have gyoza (dumplings) and kara-age (deep fried chicken pieces) with their bowl of ramen. And you can be noisy (read ‘slurp’) when eating ramen.

Soba & Udon: Soba (buckwheat noodles) and udon (white wheat noodles) are served in a bowl containing a light broth. You can have it with fried tofu, prawns tempura or even raw egg.

Okonomiyaki: It’s called the Japanese pizza or pancake, and this can be cooked at the table. You sit around a hotplate and cook your choice of meat, vegetables and seafood in a cabbage and vegetable batter.

Kaiseki: This is nothing short of the elaborate tea ceremony. And it’s music to the ears of the vegetarian. Served in the private dining room of a traditional restaurant, this vegetarian meal consists of several short courses (soup, sushi, sashimi, tempura, pickled vegetables and so on). Fish may make a rare appearance but meat never does. Rice comes at the end along with an assortment of pickles. 

AUTHOR'S BIO: Aditi Sengupta is Delhi based and is a senior commissioning editor at Lonely Planet India.