Monday, August 2, 2010

Washoku 101

Okonomiyaki chef at Kagoshima. Photo by Zichar

Washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) is multi-faceted, rich in heritage, and most of all, extremely yummy. Regional variations of ingredients and recipes keep eaters on their toes. For example, did you know that sushi was originally an Edo (Tokyo) dish, and only spread globally in the past 50 years or so? Also, okonomiyaki (cabbage pancakes) were originally consumed in southern Japan and the Osaka region, but are now a staple of pubs all over Japan. Similarly, certain flavors are also traditionally associated with specific times of year.

Japanese cuisine also has the distinction of developing more or less in isolation. While historically Japan traded with the main Asian continent (including food!), starting in 1641 and continuing to the mid 19th century, the Japanese government enforced a policy of isolationism, and its culture (including cuisine!) developed independently. Of course, this changed significantly once the Japanese government re-opened the country’s borders, and especially now that fast food has become so common around the world. It’s rare to walk down the street in a big city without seeing a McDonald's or Starbucks on each corner, though you will notice shrimp burgers on the menu at McDonald's Japan.

Tamagoyaki. Photo by Meletta

Still, many traditional cooking techniques are unique to Japan. A good example of this is the tamagoyaki, a sweet/savory Japanese egg omelet. Ideally, they’re made in a tamagoyaki pan and are manipulated into precise, fluffy rolls using only chopsticks. Savory Japan has great illustrated report from a Japanese cooking class on making these delicacies. Have no fear, Japanese techniques aren't as tricky as they might seem. Learning to make and roll sushi, for example, is a fun and deliciously rewarding project.

A photo from 2008's Washoku 101. Photo by Kenji Takigami

Next week, Japan Society gets high schoolers in the mix with Japanese Cuisine 101: Washoku. The 11-day immersion workshop is full of cooking lessons, chef demonstrations, and instruction on Japanese culinary culture, including presentation and etiquette. The workshop takes place, from August 9-13 and 16-21, with a reception on August 21 for friends and family to sample the food students have learned to make. Very few spots remain, so if you have interest, submit the application form quickly!

If you miss the deadline (or have graduated from high school) there are a number of great resources for learning to cook Japanese-style. YouTube’s Cooking with Dog (motto: “It’s not what you think”) offers charming, easy-to-follow and authentic recipes, hosted by Francis the dog, as is the aforementioned Savory Japan. For lunch fun and younger kids, try hapa bento, cuteobento or bento zen. If you're over 21 and need to know what best to pair with your biscuit bunnies, we recommend a stop off at Sake World.

Happy Cooking!


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