Homestyle Japanese: Cuisine is good for you, simple and trendy

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"Let's go out for Japanese. I know a good place."

Lake Fong, Post-Gazette photos
A Japanese-style breakfast might include Tofu Miso Soup, fish, vegetables and rice.
Click photo for larger image.

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For most people that means a meal of sushi, sashimi, yakitori, teriyaki or tempura. That's like lumping all Italian cuisine into spaghetti and pizza.

What most people don't realize about Japanese food is that home-cooking, not restaurant cooking, is its bedrock. In Japan as well as in the United States, chefs and home cooks cater to two different audiences. But those lines are blurring. Trend-spotters are noting that as American palates become more adventurous and sophisticated, informed diners are seeking out Japanese cuisine beyond sushi and sashimi.

Their reasoning is simple. Americans want food that is low in fat and cholesterol, less dependent on red meat and dairy products with more emphasis on fish, seafood and vegetables. That's practically a textbook definition of Japanese food. Even though they have salt-related problems, the Japanese are known for having a low incidence of heart disease and a long life span.

I mentioned this food trend to my friend Masako Kikuyama. She has lived in Pittsburgh since her husband, Andy, opened Kiku, an authentic Japanese restaurant in Station Square, 25 years ago.

"What do you eat at home?" I asked her.

"I can show you. Come for lunch," she said. "My friends and I will cook a Japanese home-style meal."

At her door a week later, I was greeted by four aproned women, friends from Pittsburgh's Japanese community of about 500 to 600 people.

Masako introduced her sister, Setsu Furuya, who has been the chef at Kiku for the past two years. "My husband and I had a restaurant in Tokyo," Setsu said with a laugh. "When we closed it, we came to Pittsburgh to retire. But my husband, Gen, became the sushi chef at Kiku, and I sort of migrated back into the kitchen, too."

Fusayo Sasaki said, "I am a housewife. I cook Japanese food for my husband every day." He works for TYK of America, a maker of building materials.

Elegant and white-haired, Yoko Sando is the oldest of the four women. She has a twinkle in her eye that says she's full of life. Her husband, Isumu, is retired too, but he is still quite active and teaches the medical residents at UPMC.

At her home in Mt. Lebanon, Masako Kikuyama, left, and her sister Setsu Furuya prepare a Japanese meal including Tofu Miso Soup, fish, vegetables, lotus roots, noodles and rice.
Click photo for larger image.A Japanese-style lunch including Tofu Miso Soup, fish, vegetables, lotus roots, eggplants and rice.
Click photo for larger image.

Once in the kitchen, the women set to work in a blur of motion. After glancing at Post-it notes scribbled (to my eye) with Japanese characters, they began swirling around food-laden counters, swishing chopsticks in steaming pots, slicing vegetables piled onto chopping boards, squishing their hands in a bag of green stuff in the sink, all the while chirping in Japanese to each other and occasionally in accented English to me. I had no idea what was going on.

Hey, wait a minute. What are you doing? Slow down. Let's talk.

A healthy cuisine

Full of giggles, the women were eager to share. While we sat at the kitchen table, they presented a tutorial in Japanese cuisine.

Japan is made up of islands, a good half of which are taken up with mountains and forest, and the remaining half with cities, factories and rice fields. There is very little space left for vegetable growing, let alone pasture land for grazing.

As a result of the lack of space, the Japanese have become very resourceful in harvesting the land and sea. Fish and other seafood make up a central part of the diet. The Japanese do not just gather iodine- and mineral-rich seaweed, they cultivate it. In fact, kombu (kelp) is one of the most important flavors of the cuisine.

Rice, the basis of nearly every meal, is grown in a patchwork of paddy fields wherever possible, across much of the country.

Rice is the source of sake, a rich sweet wine that is splashed into almost every dish, like wine in French cooking. Mirin, a delicate cooking wine, also is made from rice, as is the sweet vinegar used in salads and for making sushi.

From soybeans comes soy sauce, another important flavor in Japanese cooking. Fermented soybeans are also the source of miso, an earthy and powerful flavor paste.

The stars of the show are the ingredients themselves. They are cooked simply and lightly and often separately, rather than mixed together, so that each taste remains pure. A touch of soy sauce or wasabi often points up flavor.

There are no heavy masking seasonings or heavy sauces as in many other cuisines. As a result, Japanese food tastes distinctly fresh and clean.

By way of show and tell, Masako picked up a magazine, "365 Everyday Japanese Dishes." As they pointed to the photos, they launched a barrage of explanations.

Fusayo: "Many people think Japanese is a difficult style of cooking. It's not. We simmer, grill, fry, broil and steam. Most of our salads are cooked vegetables. And most food is served at room temperature."

Yoko: "Japanese eat rice every day, at every meal. It is a short-grain, sticky rice. Almost every home has a rice cooker. We eat it the way Americans eat bread."

Setsu: "At every meal, there is a bowl of rice and a bowl of soup. We eat noodles, too, but mostly for lunch."

Masako: "Even when food is cooked in a large piece, it will be sliced or cut in the kitchen to make it easy to use chopsticks."

Yoko: "Japanese serve fish whole, always with the head. But the head must always face to the left."

Fusayo: "We eat many, many vegetables. Daikon radish, mushrooms, cabbage, green beans, lotus root, broccoli, pumpkin. The large bag of greens in the sink is seaweed."

Setsu: "Yakitori is marinated chicken, grilled on a skewer. It's very popular. Americans like the breast meat, but it's too dry. Japanese prefer the thigh."

Yoko: "Our meals are full of color -- red, green, white, yellow, and dark colors of purple and brown -- to have the best nutrition."

Setsu: "Our food is full of tastes, too -- salty, sour, bitter, sweet and umami, the fifth taste. Garnishes are important. We eat with our eyes."

(Though it's still new to many of us, Japanese gastronomes have known for 1,200 years about umami -- say oo-mommy -- the multidimensional, subtle savory taste that blends well and rounds out others.)

Back in action

Now it was again time to cook. With long chopsticks poised for action, Setsu took over the six-burner professional range where the blue flames blazed. Chunks of eggplant were added, to sizzle in an oil-slicked, flat-bottomed wok. Setsu pinched some fish granules from a saucer between her fingers, sprinkling them over a kettle of broth. "That enriches the fish stock." She seasoned by eye, adding drips of soy sauce, a glug of sake, a bit of mirin.

Fusayo leaned over to whisper, "Setsu has special talent. She has an amazing sense in the kitchen, the way she seasons, cooks and arranges her food. She goes to the airport every day to pick up her fish and ingredients for the kitchen at Kiku. You are eating home cooking today, but you are also enjoying the work of an artist."

Yoko bent over a mass of taro noodles, chopping them into manageable lengths. Masako set the table with bright red linen place mats and brilliant blue ceramic plates.

The cardinal rule is that all dishes in each place setting should be different shapes. The plates in a Japanese kitchen, usually small and of every imaginable shape, are as much a part of the meal as the food.

The food is carefully arranged, not filling the whole dish but artistically placed in the center. At each place, a set of chopsticks on a chopstick rest. Most dishes are garnished with a leaf or carved vegetable to give a contrast of taste, color or shape.

Traditionally, guests sit on tatami mats on the floor around a low table to eat, but we ate our lunch around a large Western-style table.

Rice bowls were placed to the left, miso soup to the right, and both in front of the other dishes. The table was crowded: eggplant stuffed with forcemeat; miso-marinated silver cod; noodles with cod roe; marinated lotus slices; seaweed with shallots; cubes of tofu and Chinese broccoli; salad of Western greens with soba noodles and two kinds of seaweed; burdock; steamed spinach topped with a tangle of bonito flakes; tiny pickled clams; and, of course, cup after cup of green tea.

After lunch, like women the world over, we talked about our families.

They talked of traveling back to Japan to see their children and grandchildren. Then it was time to leave, because it would soon be time for them to cook dinner for their families.

I had practiced a phrase at home, but then did not say it, afraid of mispronunciation and saying something inappropriate.

At the end of a meal, it is traditional to say, "Gochiso sama deshita," meaning "Thank you for the feast."

From left, Fusayo Sasaki, Masako Kikuyama, Setsu Furuya and Yoko Sando prepare a Japanese meal, referencing notes on Post-its as they go. The spread includes Tofu Miso Soup, fish, vegetables, lotus roots, noodles and rice.
Click photo for larger image.

Marlene Parrish can be reached at mparrish@post-gazette.com or 412-481-1620.


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