January 2022 – Japanese Cuisine Month

I’m starting off this 12 months of cuisines with one of our favorites: Japanese food! 

Why Japanese food?

Outside of the “because it’s tasty” reason, I already have some familiarity with Japanese cooking, so it makes Japanese cuisine a good starter-month for this 12-month challenge. Japanese food is also often considered healthy, with its focus on vegetables and lean meats (mostly fish) over fatty and processed options (let’s not lie though. Japanese food has plenty of processed and fatty options too). Japanese home cooking also tends to feature a lot of soups, stews, and a balance of nutrients coming from fermented and fresh foods alike. This all sounds great for a healthier winter menu.

Also, after a month of indulgent holiday eating, a month of lighter, Japanese fare seems like a great choice. 

The challenges:

1. While Japanese food does highlight leaner meats and vegetables, it is also is very high carb. The biggest culprit being their dietary staple: rice.

There are plenty of resources that contest whether carbs are good or bad for you. Based on personal blood tests and past experiences, I know my body does not process sugars well and that any diet that is high in carbohydrates will not help with my gut health or related weight loss. That’s not to say I’ll cut rice from this month entirely, but that I’ll need to find ways to lower the quantity eaten (in a way that is not difficult to do).

Cauliflower rice is a default swap, but we all know the taste is not the same (especially when compared to the sweet and sticky freshly-cooked Japanese short grain varietal). 

2. Some Japanese ingredients are difficult to source

Things like soy sauce and tofu can be found in most grocery stores across the US now, but ingredients like Umeboshi, Shiokoji, and others may be more difficult. A combination of COVID and busy life makes it difficult to go to those specialty stores and lately some of the items have risen in price or become unavailable on shelves, even in a state like California where there are a lot of Asian stores to choose from. 

In areas where I use a special ingredient, I’ll try to provide a link to where to buy it or offer options for how to make it without. 

3. Fish is expensive and difficult to find variety

At least it is here in the US. When comparing meat options, poultry is the cheapest whereas fish can be some of the most expensive meat you can get, especially when you try to purchase healthier wild-caught options and adhere to the sustainable Monterey seafood watch list. Japanese common fish options (like large mackerels) are not as common here. There may be some work-arounds, like canned sardines. 

Starter Ingredients:

There are certain ingredients used in Japanese cooking that are quintessential to the cuisine and can be considered must-haves.I have a lot of these in my pantry and fridge already, b most of these ingredients can be found in a standard grocery superstore (the “international” section or your nearby asian grocer. Many of these are used in multiple cuisine types so will be useful to have if you try to cook other Asian styles of food. This isn’t a list of all the ingredients I’ll be using for these recipes but they’re a good starter set to build off of:

  • Soy sauce – a black/brown liquid full of salty umami. It’s the heart of many asian cuisines, including Chinese and Korean. There are many variations of this (dark, light, soup version, etc), but I’ve found I’ve been find with just the default regular soy sauce (sometimes I get low sodium as a personal preference though). For gluten intolerance, look for gluten free “tamari” (verify it’s gluten free by looking at the ingredients list. “Tamari”, while identified in western culture as the gluten free version of soy sauce, is actually a different item in Japanese cuisine and depending on the brand can still have some wheat in it). Tamari tastes different, but it works “well enough” for most recipes.
    • If you are not sensitive to coconut, I hear coconut aminos is also a good alternative
  • Sake – it’s a great mild-tasting alcohol for cooking and marinating meats. I use this a lot outside of Asian cooking too in place of other alcohols. Depending where you live, you can get giant 750ml or 1.5L bottles for under $10. I personally prefer the Ozeki Sake brand (smoother in my opinion and “good enough” to drink too).
  • Sesame oil – toasty and nutty tasting, a little goes a long way. 
  • Ginger – yum.
  • Garlic – yum.
  • Scallions – always keep a fresh batch either in the garden or in your fridge. Japanese actually have this much longer varietal that they use. The white parts are sharper like a raw onion but sweeter when cooked. The green parts are just like your every day green onions. Easily adaptable to more common ingredients. 
  • Miso – a brown/tan paste that is full of salty umami and probiotics. It’s primarily used as a soup flavoring ingredient. There are many varieties and shades of brown that have to do with how the miso paste is aged and can really change the flavor. For a starter miso paste, pick shiro miso (white miso). The flavor is mildest and is most commonly used and sold. 
  • Rice vinegar – milder than white vinegar, you’ll use it in sauces, seasoning for sushi rice, and for quick-pickling side dishes. 
  • Short grain rice – The core staple of Asian cuisines. You can sub for medium grain rice which is more commonly found, but really, if you can find the higher-priced short grain like Kohishikari or Temaki Gold, go for it. You won’t regret it. 
  • Seaweed – nori is what we use in sushi. Wakame is used in miso. Both are fairly common to find.

Special Ingredients

These are ingredients that may be more difficult to find but are common or healthy in Japanese cuisine. If you can find them, get them, but if you are finding this list overwhelming, feel free to skip this part. 

  • Umeboshi – a salty pickled plum. There’s also a candied dried version that can be found in many asian snack aisles. The kind we’re looking for is usually found in the refrigerated section and is not sweetened. This is a very strong sour and salty flavor that on its own, in my opinion is too overpowering to eat. But it makes for a great condiment in other dishes. I don’t know if there’s a good replacement for this….
    • Make sure to read the ingredients labels. Many packaged umeboshi brands use high fructose corn syrup to sweeten or preserve their product. Look for ones that contain minimal ingredients and dye their plums from red shiso (aka beefsteak leaves) and not artificial coloring (or alternatively, find plums that aren’t dyed at all).
  • Shiokoji – fermented malted rice. It’s a salty (and umami) alternative to plain salt when seasoning dishes and is a good probiotic as long as you don’t overheat it (I usually add it to dishes at the end of cooking, just before serving). 
  • Mirin – a sweeter-tasting aged form of sake.  It is still has a bit of alcohol in it, so it’s not alcohol free. If you can’t find this, just use sake + sugar to get a similar affect in cooking. 
  • Red pickled ginger – if you can’t find this, just get normal pickled sushi ginger. It won’t have that bright color, but it will still taste the same. 
  • Natto – a type of fermented bean that is a sticky and slimy side dish. It’s an acquired taste (but once you do it’s very addictive), but natto is probably one of the best probiotic foods since it’s not sweet like our store-bought yogurt, kefir, and kombuchas in the US and not overly salty like miso and shiokoji. If you can get your hands on it, please do and keep it in the freezer. There’s an easy way to replicate it from a single pack as well (as long as you have the right equipment, like an instant pot with yogurt settings)!

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