Looking In Abroad's Pantries - Japan

Looking In Abroad's Pantries - Japan

Hello and welcome to Kitchen Catastrophes. Today, we’re debuting a new segment, a sister piece to our ongoing work Meandering America’s Menus, but with a name roughly 69% more risqué and potentially offensive.  It’s going to work differently than MAM, however, so let’s quickly explain how and why.

Meandering America’s Menus tends to discuss the broad themes of a state’s cuisines, with a sprinkling of specific example dishes and ingredients. LAP…which I’ve just realized REINFORCES the pun, good lord… Looking in Abroad’s Pantries is actually going to be more focused on specific ingredients than the broad themes. Why? Three Reasons: Firstly, it’s often foreign ingredients or components that people object to when asked to try new cuisines. People don’t say “I don’t want to try this soup!” they point at an ingredient and ask “What’s that” or “Why’s it that color.” Specificity is the enemy of ignorance, and helping to break down and familiarize people with ingredients they don’t regularly use can help give them the confidence to try new things.

Second, right now, I just feel somewhat uncomfortable about the idea of speaking broadly about an entire nation’s culinary history and themes. Sure, a quick aside here or there as a joke is fine, but the idea of me, a kid who has never spent longer than two months anywhere other than the state he was born in, trying to tell you the entirety of Japanese food history, feels…gross, simply put. I started Meandering America’s Menus to show the broad diversity of foods, ingredients, and styles that one can find that all fall under the title of “American cuisine”. It would be disingenuous to not extend the same courtesy to other countries. (Though there is a limit, of course. Italy claims to have NINETEEN distinct regional cuisines.)

simmer down italy.GIF

They're claiming a new cuisine every 3/4s of a New Jersey, which is ridiculous. Though the knowledge that Italy is made up of 25 New Jerseys' worth of Italians goes some way to explaining it. 

Third, and lastly: List articles are easier to write.  

What? I didn’t say I had three GOOD reasons.

Anyway, let’s get started.


Japan: Don’t Let The Nip Slip!

Jesus Christ, Title Jon! I understand trying to tie to a theme, but that’s…

Look, I get the pun: Nippon is the “actual” name for Japan, in Japanese. “Japan” is an exonym: an external name used to refer to a place, people, or persons.  Like “Germany” is the exonym for Deutschland. Or how Ferdinand Magellan was actually Fernão de Magalhães. Yeah, seriously, back in the day, we rewrote EVERYONE’S names. Why do you think a bunch of Jews in the Middle East were named “John”, “Luke”, “Matthew”, and “Mark”? Because no English man wanted to hear stories from Yohanan, Luqas, Mattityahu, and “Biblical Scholars don’t actually know who wrote this, but the Hebrew name would be “Marqos”.  

not appearing in this bible.jpg

"John, Luke, Matthew, and Saint-Not-Appearing-In-This-Bible"
Side Note: this is just a medieval painting of Kit Harrington, right? You all see it, don't you?

Trying to make a clever linguistic wink while maintaining our frankly worrying overtones of sexual innuendo. But…did you forget “NIP” is a slur in English? This is why we’re not doing the broad themes, you can’t be trusted to not blunder in some sort of cultural quagmire, pushing the boundaries for a joke just that step too far! You're a LOOSE CANNON, Title Jon, and you're going to hurt somebody! Take another pass at that title, will you?


“Japan: Come-On to Nippon!”?

I’ll take it. Arguably MORE risque if you move the hyphen, but at least it doesn't include RACIAL SLURS. 

Anyway, VERY brief summary of Japanese geography/cuisine to set the stage: an archipelago on the eastern edge of the Pacific Ocean, Japan, while running very long, is fairly narrow in terms of landmasses. (He says, being born on the third largest landmass on the world. )


Yeah, most islands look small when compared to CONTINENTS. 

The furthest point in Japan from the ocean is a mere 71 miles. This means that at the lowest tech level, walking, you’re no more than 2-3 days from the ocean at any given point. As you can guess, this means Japan has a long history with seafood. However, the predominant food is rice: in Japanese culture, the rice is technically the “center” of the meal, the foundation.  An often repeated adage of Japanese meal design is “one soup, three sides”, referring to what comes WITH the rice. (Though in the north they use other grains, much of the same sentiment is maintained.) The easiest way I can explain this is imagine if you ordered a pizza, and it came without a crust: the sauce is spread on the plate, the toppings scattered on It, the cheese melted over, but there’s nothing under it all.  That’s what serving a traditional Japanese meal without rice would feel like: sure, all these things are probably GOOD, but their essential unity is broken.

It is into this cuisine that we root around in the closets and pantries to find our subjects for today. And while I have no doubt that even the most insular and land-locked among us today knows what Sushi and Wasabi are, there are a plethora of ingredients you may not be so familiar with, but are common staples in the Japanese home. Ingredients like:



Sure, okay, the name of miso is probably pretty well recorded at this juncture as well, but what about the IDEA of miso? Who knows what, precisely, miso is? How many varieties of it there are, and their uses? That’s why I started here: you likely know the name, so let’s explain what that name MEANS.

Miso is a fermented paste of soybeans and/or  rice, which also makes it ideal as an intro point for another reason: the ingredients. Japan is, broadly speaking, Soybean Central. Soybeans makes snack foods, oils, salads, the sauces. Rare is the Japanese meal that has no soy connection at all. Rice, of course, we’ve already touched on. But the last ingredient is another good one to touch on: aspergillus oryzae, the preferred mold for fermenting soy. For ALL uses. The mold is used to ferment sake, soy sauce, shochu, and, of course, miso. Miso is a unifying force for many of the distinct products of Japan.

no clue.png

If only there were some kind of convenient metaphor for that kind of unifying action.

Miso comes in many varieties, and the general rule is: the darker it is, the saltier/more funky it is. In terms of biology, and flavor, think of it like...cheese. It’s salty and funky, and used in tons of dishes, from coating proteins, flavoring soups, salad dressings, etc. White miso is the kind you dissolve in soup, while red is the kind you can crust on top of salmon and it’ll hold its own.


Here’s another one that’s likely pretty easy to grasp. Seaweed, kelp, and other oceanic vegetables are eaten all over the coastlines of Europe and Asia, though few do it with the dedication and aplomb of Japan. Japan acknowledges more than six distinct varieties of seaweed, used for various culinary purposes. Let’s hit 4 main ones:

NORI – The all-star, Nori is the dried sheets of seaweed that shows up in Musubi or Sushi. It’s also sold in dried sheets, sometimes flavored like you would potato chips. There’s a saltiness to it, of course, but it’s mild compared to some of the others.

KOMBU – Dried Kelp, Kombu, bitten ‘raw’, is like beef jerky made of ocean. A big use for it is as a primary component of dashi broth, the mother sauce of Japan, used as the foundation of soups and sauces across the island. Think of it like Celery: it’s a common ingredient in soups, but few people eat it straight. It’s a little BETTER than celery, in fact, because it can also be caramelized into a sweet, salty chew, and put into rice-ball snacks.

WAKAME – Wakame is the seaweed you find in your miso soup. It’s the MOST eaten seaweed in Japan. It’s used in salads and soups, it’s grilled, and it’s in a common pickled-side. Think of it like the Cabbage of Japan in terms of usage: it shows up next to a lot of main attractions. It’s slightly sweet.

MEKABU – Mekabu is actually the flower of the Wakame. It’s saltier than wakame, but still has some sweetness. It’s also a neba neba food, which means it’s…slimy. That’s a thing in Japan. Some foods are intentionally made slimy.  



yamato pacific.jpg

The snack that slices back!

Remember the dashi broth I mentioned earlier? Well, here’s the other half of what makes it popular. Katsuobushi is dried, fermented, and SMOKED skipjack tuna meat. The bricks of hardened fish are shaved into soups, onto hot meals, on top of okonomiyaki, on top of rice, stuffed in rice balls…they’re everywhere. The closest I can come to explaining it is that it’s the ‘bacon’ of japan: a salty cured product used as a main ingredient, as a showy condiment, and as an essential flavoring component. It’s an intensely umami product rather than being hugely fishy.  

The other really cool thing about it is that the real stuff is so solidly dense that it has to be shaved off the brick by a tool that's basically a wood plane in a box. (For those who aren't woodcraft enthusiasts or carpenters, a "wood plane" is not the same thing as a "woodEN plane": it's a device made for "planing" (leveling) wood. It's basically a shaving razor for 2 by 4s)


I’d make a phone call joke here, but it would only be for the otaku readers on the site, who probably didn’t need any of this explanation, so bringing it up at all just serves to interest but never satisfy, a tactic I’ve been informed can describe a tragic number of activities I’ve tried.

Anywho, Mochi is a cake made by pulverized rice. It forms a sort of gel-like cake, which is then used in soups, candies, and desserts. A common usage is using it to contain ice cream, forming in essence a spherical “cone”. Texture-wise, the closest thing to compare it to is the ‘bubbles’ in Bubble Tea, an Asian smoothie drink. The inability to describe the texture in English is a well-known phenomenon, leading to the creation of the term “Q Texture”, after how Taiwan describes the texture of the aforementioned Tapioca “bubbles”. It’s the umami of textures, or ‘rubbery’, except not an insult. Think of a soft gummy bear: there’s a resistance, and chew, but gentle, enjoyable. That’s mochi.


Red Bean Paste, in a great turn of events, is often served inside mochi! It’s like I planned this all out, despite honestly just writing the list as it occurred to me! Red bean paste is a weird name for most Americans to process in its Japanese usage:, even leaving alone the idea that it sounds like what would happen if Rowan Attkinson failed a stunt in one of his movies.

mr bean.jpg

Hey, don't look at me like that. Sure, it's a little graphic, but it's a joke, man. calm down. 

See, red bean paste is mostly used in desserts in Japan. They have a Kit-Kat based on the flavor! Ice creams! And, honestly…Look, I’m not the BIGGEST fan. It’s not bad, just strange. The parallel I’d use for it is that it’s refried beans, but for dessert. That’s the texture, soft with a slightly graininess. The flavor is pretty close to that idea too: there’s an earthiness to the sweetness.


Wrapping up the write-up

And that’s our first peek into the pantries of abroad! I honestly really enjoyed this process, and hope you did as well. It’ll be a little while till we revisit it, since I don’t like stacking Thursday topics too closely, but I’d expect one in January, probably touching on India, for reasons that may become clear in a couple weeks.


And if my pantry-raiding ways, as well as my weird mixture of self-deprecation, arrogance, overly cautious decency and worrying inhumanity, appeal to you, you may want to seek help. But if you’re brave enough to forge on ahead past the fragile barriers of safety, consider supporting us on Patreon! More funds for the site means I can dedicate more time and attention to it, and you get access to some swanky perks, like helping me choose the topic of future posts, audio recordings of me reading the posts, secret posts put together just for the Patreons, and hopefully more stuff as things continue!  Barring such generous support, you can always simply invite your friends to like us on Facebook, and share our content, so I can feed my constant need with validation with increasing numbers on graphs of readership.  Thanks for reading!