Guide to Japanese Food
Gohanmono (Japanese Rice Dishes)
Gohan-desu! Come and eat rice! The name for cooked rice, gohan, also refers to a complete meal. A pot of cooked white rice is the centerpiece of the Japanese meal and at the heart of Japan’s culinary tradition. Traditionally, steamed white rice is scooped into individual bowls with a shamoji, a flat wooden paddle, at the beginning of every meal. A variety of side dishes or okazu often accompany the rice. Served with raw and cooked fresh fish, vegetables, chicken, beef and tofu, rice is the perfect complement to Japanese foods and flavors and serves equally well as a dish on its own.
A Nutritious Grain
Besides tasting delicious, rice has an excellent nutritional value. High in complex carbohydrates, rice is the ideal energy food, easily digested by the body in only one hour. Rice contains eight essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein, with only trace amounts of fat and sodium and is also rich in iron, potassium, calcium and phos – phorous . California-grown Japonica or Japanese rice is enriched with a topical coating of iron and B vitamins, niacin and thiamin, replacing nutrients lost in the milling process. Similar in taste to its short grain counterpart in Japan, the medium grain Japonica is the type used in Japanese restaurants and cooking in the United States.
Both short and medium grain rice contain high amounts of amylopectin, the gelatinizing agent in starch that expands when heated, “gluing” the grains together. The mildly adhesive rice cooks up moist and tender and holds together well when eaten with chopsticks.
Everything Goes Better With Rice
Rice is an amazingly versatile food. In the Japanese kitchen, cooks boil, steam and eat plain rice on a daily basis. Yet it lends itself to an infinite variety of preparation methods and often incorporated into soups, casseroles, salads, side dishes, breads and desserts.
In Japan, everyone loves donburi-mono, a collection of filling meals-in-a-bowl served as quick, popular lunch time fare. The word donburi means “a large bowl,” in fact, quite a bit larger than a rice bowl. Steamed white rice served in a donburi comes topped with a variety of chicken, fish, tofu, vegetable and egg combinations. Tempura fans will enjoy ten-don, rice topped with pieces of shrimp and vegetable tempura.
Gyu-don, thinly sliced, marinated cooked meats and vegetables over rice, is a hearty, satisfying donburi popular among Japanese students and salarymen. Donburi, in its many forms and variations, is the perfect meal-in-a-bowl quick and affordable. The cooking technique and ingredients are fairly simple, but the success of a donburi dish always depends on the quality of the rice.
At festivals and celebratory events, the Japanese serve special rice dishes to bring good luck. These dishes are an important part of Japanese culture and tradition. Katsu means “to win,” and katsu-don, fried pork cutlet over rice, is the dish served before a competition or tournament in Japan to bring good luck. Se kihan, a colorful dish of steamed red beans and rice, is served in honor of special occasions such as birthdays, New Year’ s, the arrival of guests and to celebrate the beginning of a new school year. The red color represents hapiness and vitality. Rice, of course, represents continuing prosperity.
When little else is available, the Japanese are quite happy with a simple bowl of plain cooked rice. Ochazuke, made by pouring hot tea over a bowl of rice, came about as a simple attempt to capture those last precious grains. The custom became so common that the popular dish was born. You can create an infinite variety of ochazuke by simply varying the ingredients you choose to top the rice. Everything from shredded toasted nori (dried seaweed), tsukemono (pickled vegetables), and sesame seeds, salted salmon, sashimi, and grilled salted cod roe are suitable for ochazuke.
Zosui, a rice porridge designed to stretch a small amount of rice, also has its origins in peasant cooking. Traditionally cooked and served in a heavy iron kettle or earthenware pot, zosui is a mixture of cooked rice, dashi (fish stock), eggs, vegetables, soy sauce and saké. Today zosui comes in many forms and varieties, from a simple tamago zosui, made primarily with eggs to warming shimeji zosui with shimeji mushrooms and trefoil. The only limits to zosui are the ingredients available and the cook’s imagination.
The popularity of foreign and particularly Western-style foods in Japan is often attributed to their compatibility with steamed rice. Omu-raisu, an omelet stuffed with rice, pork fried rice and hayashi-raisu, beef hash over rice, are just a few of the popular dishes Japan has adopted from other countries and altered to suit their particular tastes.
If you haven’t already cultivated an appreciation for this remarkable grain, begin with the recipe I provided for Basic Japanese Rice. Then move on and try the remaining recipes. The dishes are simple with wholesome flavors that rely on the freshest foods available and simple seasonings such as soy sauce, saké and fresh ginger. They are in keeping with the Japanese tradition of maintaining the natural goodness, textures and taste of each food.