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A complete, unsatisfactory introduction to Japanese cooking by a superbly unqualified American

Text: Patrick Harlan

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Patrick Harlan, comedian, actor, commentator, and widely disrespected non-expert in Japanese cooking. You probably know me from NHK World’s Dining with the Chef (not a very challenging deduction, considering you are on the program’s web site). I am not the chef in the title, I am the dining part. The chef, of course, is the inimitable Rika Yukimasa. She’s a brilliant culinary innovator whose insight into Japanese cuisine is valuable beyond measure. Unfortunately for you, she’s not writing this, I am.

Over the last 24 years living in Japan and 5 years wiping the counter and grating vegetables on Dining with the Chef, I should have learned much about Japanese kitchen culture. Now, I would like to share my literally half-baked understanding with you. Hopefully this information will help you on your own long and arduous journey toward a similarly incomplete grasp of the subject.

First you should have extensive limited knowledge about dashi. Dashi is soup broth, but don’t ever let anyone catch you saying that. That’s like calling a fine silken kimono “a bathrobe” or a Sumo wrestler “a nearlynaked guy with weight and anger issues.” Dashi is much more than soup broth. It is the heart of washoku, Japanese cooking. It is used in everything from okonomiyaki (cabbage pancakes) to miso soup. Often, if you ask a Japanese cook what their secret ingredient is they will say “love.” That’s a lie. It’s dashi.

Dashi is most often made by boiling katsuobushi (bonito fish flakes) and kombu (kelp) but it can also be made from vegetables (vegetables), chicken (chicken) or even instant dashi powder if you happen to be in a hurry or a total incompetent (me). You should dashi out and get some today!

Now, dashi is a great source of umami flavor. Umami is the second concept you should have an inadequate understanding of. I wasn’t aware of this before I came to Japan, but umami is actually one of the five basic flavors the human palate can recognize. The others are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and passive aggressive. Umami gives dishes the savory, rich depth of flavor that characterizes Japanese cooking. However, it is also found in ingredients used in the West as well. Mushrooms, ripe tomatoes, cheese and of course, bacon --the lynchpin of American cuisine-- are all high in umami content. As is, in fact, breast milk. Actually, the first encounter with umami for most people is their mother’s milk, although, for Americans, I’m pretty sure bacon comes first.

The final step to complete your journey toward insufficient mastery of the Japanese culinary arts is an appreciation for sozaino aji, or the taste of the ingredients. Dishes here are designed to accentuate and emphasize the natural flavors of the things they are made of. Ideally, your food should not taste like sauce or spices, but like the stuff that came fresh from the farm, ranch or ocean only hours before it reached your table. It often surprises Americans like me, but taking a bite of something and saying, “Yum! This tastes like ingredients!” is a compliment here. People will eat a mochi, hand-pounded rice cake, and say, “How delicious! It tastes like rice!” That seems like saying, “What a lovely leather coat! It looks like cow!” But this is, strangely enough, high praise indeed.

Dashi, umami, sozaino aji. Now that we have covered these three basics of Japanese cuisine with painstaking neglect, it’s time to get cooking. Here on Dining with the Chef we have found the perfect way to help you bring delicious and authentic dishes from our kitchen to yours. And it’s all easy and effortlessly educational, thanks in part to simple recipes and Rika’s astute instruction, but mostly because of my excellent counter wiping.

Bon Appetit!

More from Patrick here:

Soup, Salad, SATORI: Enlightenment in the Kitchen