The utterly simple elegance of Japanese cuisine

I’m fresh off the plane from Japan, where in addition to sampling the cuisine (see my field report below) we followed the peak of cherry blossom blooms from place to place by train. Peak bloom is only one week, and which week is not entirely predictable. We hit it!  And we were utterly and delightfully besotted. :)

Cherry blossom blooms

Japanese Cuisine

It’s the first time I’ve ever been to this side of the world.

Previously, my most intensive exposure to Japanese cuisine was In the summer of 2014 when I spent a few days with my culinary partner in crime, Dr. Andrew Weil, in Cortes Island, British Columbia. He loves Japanese food, has taken nearly a hundred Japanese cooking classes, and cooked with Japanese home cooks. That summer we prepared food from his garden and tested recipes for his cookbook, Fast Food, Good Food. My eyes and tastebuds were opened wide to the Japanese influence and flair inherent in Andy’s fresh fusion cuisine.

Tasting in-country, in the culture, was a stunning discovery of the uniquely refined, quiet, elegant, subtle, nuanced, clean, organized, simple, tasteful character of Japanese cuisine. The umami flavor is not bold, it’s coming from seaweed, soy sauce, fermented foods… it’s much subtler, quieter, like a whisper. You have to listen carefully. There is no garlic in Japanese cuisine! Your tastebuds are on an entirely different playing field. It’s like quiet footsteps.  

Japanese cuisine, like the culture, is extremely organized. There is a method, a way you cut the fish. The rice is served at the end of the meal, so it doesn’t fill you up. The pickled vegetables come out at a certain time. Little bites are carefully, artistically plated or offered in a bento box so that you savor a little bit of several things. A sushi dinner can be a major ceremonial event, with course after course after course. We had to stop! Japanese banquets are simply... exquisite.

And very clean. There’s a big emphasis on high quality. The fish is the freshest that can be found, in very small amounts. The beef—the very best. They eat wagyu beef in very small amounts. Ingredients are very limited, simple, quiet, tasteful, elegant.

Japanese cuisine

The experience is gracious. The presentation is OFF the charts, like ikebana, with thought given to, for example, how much space is left on the plate. Visually you are looking at art. And it’s immensely appealing, so you literally start salivating, eating with your eyes, developing those enzymes that will help us digest.

It’s not overdone. Not too precious, not super fussy, not haute haute. It’s elegant. It’s tasteful. It fires all the senses.

Try these gorgeous Japanese-influenced recipes

From Andy Weil’s gorgeous cookbook, Fast Food, Good Food—Fresh salmon fillets are baked gently and smothered with a flavorful preparation of shitake mushrooms. Quick and simple but also elegant, this is a main course for any occasion. The salmon must not be dry; be careful not to overcook it.  

Okonomiyaki is a savory Japanese pancake (okonomi means “what you like” and yaki means “grilled” or “cooked”) made with cabbage and other vegetables and a variety of seafood and meats. In Japan it’s popular street food and is also served in restaurants, some of which let diners choose ingredients and cook the mixture on a personal hot plate. Too often, okonomiyaki is smothered with a thick, sweet sauce.  I prefer this version with a miso mayo topping.  I think you’ll find it to be a great comfort food, either as a starter or main course. From Andy Weil’s gorgeous cookbook, Fast Food, Good Food.

This simple preparation is Japanese comfort food, good for everything from a cold to fatigue to an overworked digestive system. Miso is a traditional fermented food, made for centuries in Japan, with myriad health benefits.  To avoid damaging the beneficial microorganisms it contains, never cook it.  All miso is salty and needs to be diluted with water or other ingredients until the salt level is right for you. This quick and easy preparation is one of my favorite soups. From Andy Weil’s gorgeous cookbook, Fast Food, Good Food.

Don’t you love using red cabbage, in any event?

You know I can’t resist adding color! This is a lovely accompaniment to a Japanese-flavored meal. Don’t you love using red cabbage, in any event? It’s gorgeous, excellently crunchy, and a wonderful conduit for, in this case, Sesame Miso Dressing with bright notes of mint.

THE BIG TAKEAWAY: JAPANESE CUISINE IS CHARACTERIZED BY SUBTLETY, SIMPLICITY, AND ELEGANCE. I LOVED IT!!! I HOPE YOU’LL PLAY WITH THESE QUIET, SAVORY RECIPES AND LOVE THEM, TOO. :)