Sushi is probably the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Japanese cuisine. It’s easy to understand why. With hundreds of combinations of fish, rice plus complementary ingredients, the preparation has practically become a snack food in this country. That surprises Diane Arimoto of Pat Haven Drive, who lived in Japan for six years as a student, ultimately graduating with a masters in textiles from Kyoto Municipal University of Art.
Back then, she says, sushi restaurants were for special events, and the average family ate it only once or twice a year.
While there, Arimoto lived in the student neighborhood and enjoyed absorbing the culture. “I learned a lot of language, customs, patterns and how to cook,” she recalls. “The variety of things from the ocean is staggering. We have nothing that can touch it.”
Cooks think about the best use for each fish. Take flounder, for instance.
“There are many sizes in the markets from tiny to big,” says Arimoto. “The small ones are very tender and don’t have to be scaled; they are used in tempura or a pickle. Larger ones are grilled over open flame, charred, salted, lightly sauced and served whole.”
So if sushi isn’t the center of Japanese cookery, what is? That’s hard to answer for a cuisine that has developed over thousands of years and has numerous regional variations. Common threads are seasonings generally derived from fermented soybean and rice products. Those include shoyu (soy sauce), sake, rice vinegar, mirin (sweet sake) and miso. Dashi, a soup base typically made from dried kelp, dried bonito flakes and dried sardines, is another key ingredient.
To that list Arimoto would add ginger, salt and sugar to form the “foundation of Japanese flavorings.”
The trick is to be very sparing with even these few seasonings.
“Japanese like to taste the natural flavors of food,” says Frank Lin, owner of Little Tokyo, 636 Washington Road. A light touch is necessary to achieve what he calls “naked food.”
“Japanese cuisine does not use sauces,” Lin explains. “There’s no grease. It’s not heavy. I keep an eye on trends, but I don’t do fusion food.”
“A dish should also look beautiful,” he adds.
Lin was born in Manchuria to Korean parents who had moved there in 1937. Both he and his wife worked in restaurants after coming to this country, he in a Chinese one she in a Japanese. They opened Little Tokyo in 1997.
Lin is rigorous about ensuring the proper taste. He even makes his own miso soup and the wheat based udon noodles.
There is an extensive menu. Diners can choose from familiar tempura and hibachi dishes, or venture into Yakiniku (beef), Butaniku Shogayaki (pork) or Yakimeshi (chicken). Or they can build a traditional meal of soup and three sides (okazu), which can be any meat, fish, vegetable or tofu dish.
Sushi Three, 299 Beverly Road, also has an extensive menu but offers curry and some Chinese dishes in addition to Japanese.
“We consider ourselves pan-Asian,” saya manager Stella Eng of the restaurant that has been open since 2002.
Eng, along with Vivian Chen, the wife of one of the owners, pride themselves on being a neighborhood restaurant. There’s a big welcome at lunchtime for the kids from nearby Lincoln School.
Sushi lovers aren’t forgotten. In addition to the already large selection, Eng says that the chef is often willing to allow diners to design their own sushi rolls.
In keeping with such customized eating, Sushi Three takes special orders for sea urchin at the holiday season. For the truly adventurous, orange clam—aoyagi—from Japan can also be made available. It’s not for the squeamish. Even after preparation for serving, it “walks” on the accompanying rice.
Both Lin and Eng stress that all fish to be eaten raw has to have rigorous paperwork from the supplier. Once in the store it’s kept very cold with great care to make sure that it doesn’t dry out.
What about people who want to try their hand at cooking Japanese food? Arimoto assures them that the cuisine is within their reach.
“There are some dishes, teriyaki chicken for example, that with an understanding of the basic flavorings of Japanese cooking and a feel for its approach to food staples, are not hard to create,” she says. “It’s more a matter of thinking how each foodstuff is best complimented by the primary flavorings.” Many of the preparations are standards of the American repertoire, such as steaming, grilling and frying.
For those who want to move gradually into preparing the cuisine at home, Arimoto says to get “a good introduction to these flavorings by buying a sampling of pre-packaged foods.” She especially recommends seaweed salad. Creative cooks can find whatever they need at several markets locally and around the city.
At home or at a choice of restaurants, the light, healthy Japanese diet is readily available to Mt. Lebanon gourmets.
There are many tofu recipes but almost all call for special ingredients. This one is fairly easy and modified to be made with readily available ingredients
1 block tofu (silken preferable but firm is
canola oil for frying
corn starch or flour
Place tofu on kitchen or paper towels and let drain for about 20 minutes.
Cut drained block in half, then into ¼” slices.
Heat oil (enough to come up ½ side of tofu) in fry pan until shimmering.
Lightly coat all sides of tofu with cornstarch.
Fry slices in batches (they should sizzle and will splatter) until a pale golden and crisp.
Let drain on wire rack.
Arrange on serving plate.
¼ c soy sauce
¼ c water
½ t sugar
Stir these to dissolve.
Add 1 T grated ginger
Spoon over tofu slices. Sprinkle with ¼ c finely sliced rounds of scallion and serve.
The original recipe calls for a flavoring sauce of ½ c dashi, 1T sake, 1T light soy sauce, 1 t mirin. But the above flavoring is also very delicious and simple. Toppings vary by region and personal taste from grated daikon to fine katsuo flakes to sesame seeds and combinations thereof. The tofu may also be cut into 8 fat cubes and deep fried.