Delighting all the senses

cuisine and sake

A traditional Japanese multi-couse “Kaiseki” dinner


Cuisine and Sake

Japanese cuisine is famously light and healthy with very little sugar, salt, fat or oil. It is based on a rice, fish or noodle staple served with mountain or sea vegetables. It is made as much for taste and presentation as it is to fill you up, but even then Japanese people say “Hara hachi-bun”, which means they eat only 80% of what they can. Expect smaller servings, except if you’re trying Chanko-nabe (a hot pot), which is what sumo wrestlers eat to gain their bulk.

While sushi is the most recognisable Japanese food in Australia, it isn’t as celebrated in its native home. Instead, there are Ramen bars that serve noodles which are significantly better than the instant variety, and izakaya, which are reasonably priced corner restaurants with local vibes. Yakiniku (BBQ) is also popular with locals, as is other local styles such as Teppan-yaki. A battered mix cooked in Osaka on a hot plate is called Okonomiyaki, and Monjayaki, which is a Tokyo variation. Preparation of the battered mix is entirely up to the customer, meaning that the resulting pancake is only limited by one’s tastes and preferences, though helpful staff are always on hand to cook the house special. Besides Ramen, there are many types of soba, which is thicker with variations made from rice. Every area has famous specialties: Hokkaido is famous for king crabs and a salmon stew called Ishikari-nabe. Nagoya is renowned for Miso Katsu, fried pork fillet with sweet miso sauce. There are also fast food outlets, but with a Japanese twist, such as mayonnaise on pizza. A Japanese kind of fast food is Gyudon, essentially beef on rice that is tastier than it sounds. There is also high cuisine and specialty food to suit the most demanding gourmet, whether it is high-end sushi restaurants or Wagyu premium beef. For thrill seekers, there is fugu, a poisonous blowfish that is expertly prepared by a certified chef.

Sake (called Nihonshu in Japanese), or Japanese rice wine, comes in a wide range of qualities and distillation methods: micro-distilleries, premium aged types and local styles. Niigata Prefecture is known for its premium sake made from pure alpine water from melted snow. Another variation is Shochu, a kind of Japanese Vodka.


Japanese food, worldwide appeal


Japan as a nation may not be much larger than the state of California in the US, but the country’s dense population spread out over a diverse geography has given life to a unique culinary experience. In fact, as time passed certain types of food become associated with a different prefecture. That is why traditional Kyoto is famous for its soba (buckwheat noodles), Kamakura is known for its hato sabure (dove cookies), and in Osaka you can find okonomiyaki (Japanese style pancake). As this selection demonstrates, unique foods spanning the traditional to the modern can all be found in Japan.

Fresh sashimi is eaten throughout Japan.

With no shortage of customers looking for a bite to eat, particularly in metropolitan cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, numerous restaurants have branched out to focus on a particular speciality. Sushi and sashimi restaurants can be found in popular parts of town at varying prices, but people in the West are used to these foods for their variety. For those who want an entire culinary experience dedicated to fugu (blowfish), shabu-shabu (meat hotpot), or unagi (eel), Japan will likely have a restaurant that deals exclusively with that food. The specialisation is entirely dependant on the chef, typically is an expert in that type of cuisine and has the preparation skills to meet the needs of the unique menu.

Some foods that may be taken for granted in the West, such as tofu, are often elevated to a whole new level through this level of specialisation. Tokyo Shiba Tofuya-Ukai in Tokyo is an example of this. The traditional means of preparing and serving tofu means the everyday product is cast in a completely new light. Located at the base of Tokyo Tower and surrounded by trees that block out the outside world, the restaurant is housed in a traditional Japanese building and is run by skilled staff well versed in the ways of omotenashi (customer service). Though, one does not need to go all the way to Japan to experience omotenashi, as Sydney’s own Sake restaurant in The Rocks provides a glimpse of what it is like to be at the centre of the culinary experience.

In addition to good food, Japan has a long history and affinity with alcohol. The world has already become familiar with Japanese sake to the point where it has more or less become a household word, yet the country is also the home to many types of beer. Whether it is Asahi, Kirin or Sapporo, there is no shortage of local brew to enjoy in Japan. Bars and clubs have gained a foothold in the country in recent years, though the most common way to enjoy alcohol is at izakaya (Japanese style bars). Like restaurants, the establishments run the gamut from the affordable to the upscale, catering to any audience on a particular night. Izakaya do not only serve alcohol, but a wide variety of snacks to go along with the drinks, with edamame (soy beans) being a particular favourite for locals.

At the upper end of the scale, an izakaya such as Gonpachi in Tokyo is famous
among locals as well as overseas visitors.

The drinks and menu have made Gonpachi a mainstay in the posh Roppongi area, and it gained further recognition by being featured in Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 film, Kill Bill Vol. 1. Smaller and family owned izakaya can provide a similar experience at a reduced scale, and can often be found just about anywhere. In fact, they are not out of place in a residential area or neighbourhoods. Those looking for a more standardised experience can go to chains such as Domadoma, Warawara and Watami, where drinks and snacks are easily ordered from a touch screen. Yebisu in Sydney’s CBD offers this very experience, allowing locals to drink the night away with edamame on the table.

Japanese who want to experience the drinking culture of the West can find pubs
and bars often as readily as an izakaya.

International areas such as Roppongi in Tokyo and Amemura in Osaka provide a host of drinking venues that channel a British, American or Australian vibe. The Rose and Crown in Tokyo’s Yurakucho district, known for its imported beer and fish and chips, is a particular favourite among locals and expats. A younger audience is more likely to check out the Hub chain of British themed pubs or American flavoured TGI Friday’s for a quick drink and some snacks after a busy day at work.

Western alcohol is not the only beverage to gain foothold in Japan, with the tradition of drinking tea now being complemented by coffee. The enticing aroma and taste of coffee has enabled it to quickly and widely grow in popularity, to the point that a Starbucks can be found just about anywhere in Japan. Local chains such as Excelsior, Tully’s and Doutor have joined in on the craze to provide their own interpretation of the cafe experience. Areas such as Daikanyama and Sangenjaya in Tokyo have gained a reputation among cafe connoisseurs for their unique setting and method of preparing the beverage.

Japan is also famous for spinning the concept in a memorable way with maid cafes in Tokyo’s Akihabara district, where the staff at establishments such as @Home are dressed as French maids.

Japan, in particularly Tokyo, has an image of being expensive, though the reality is that cheap yet tasty food is plentiful and easy to find. Family restaurant such as Jonathan’s and Denny’s may have English names but they serve Japanese influenced
food designed not to break the bank, making them popular among students. The Ootoya chain is popular for its “home style” menu that hovers between 600 to 1000 yen for a typical teishoku (meal set), and there is no shortage of beef bowl and udon (wheat flour noodles) places such as Yoshinoya to grab something to eat for 500 yen or less.

This cheap yet tasty approach to meals has made Mappen and Oiden in Sydney’s CBD very popular among locals, not to mention visitors from Japan who want to have a taste of home while in Australia.

Japan may be the source of the recognisable and delicious food that we have all come to appreciate, but this growing popularity has meant that tasty sushi, sake and edamame can be enjoyed in an overseas city like Sydney without needing to step on an airplane.