The simplicity, sincerity and sophistication of Japanese cuisine continue to make it among the best-known international cuisines. The dishes are usually presented in bite-sized pieces with each bite containing the meat, rice, and vegetables, even fruits. These are so meticulously prepared that the food preparation and presentation are an art unto themselves!
But for first-time diners in Japanese restaurants like Benihana, the significant differences between Western and Japanese style of dining can be intimidating. Even the act of using chopsticks for the first time can be a source of embarrassment, no matter how funny it may be in hindsight.
Fortunately, there’s nothing to fear! Japanese food can be enjoyed to the fullest even by clueless diners but the trick is in educating yourself about its unique characteristics. Let’s start here.
#1 It Has More Rules About Eating
Unlike the typical American fast-food where almost anything goes, Japanese restaurants are particular about their diners observing proper table etiquette especially where chopsticks use is concerned. Yes, slurping soup and noodle dishes is encouraged because it’s a sign that you’re enjoying the food – unless the soup contains rice, in which case, avoid slurping.
No, don’t run together the chopstick because it’s a rude gesture. This is also true when sticking them into a bowl of rice and laying them across your bowl of noodles or rice. You should also use the chopstick stand provided – and if it’s absent, make a tent with the chopstick paper wrapper and rest the tips of your chopsticks on it.
#2 It’s a Low-fat Cuisine
The Japanese chefs have perfected the art and science of low-fat food thus partly explaining the cuisine’s popularity in the weight-conscious West. The emphasis on vegetables, fish and rice with little to no fat (i.e., oil) is part of the reason for it, as well as the smaller portions.
But that doesn’t mean that Japanese food doesn’t have its share of high-fat food, especially in modern Japanese restaurants. You may want to skip the vegetable tempura, shrimp tempura, tonkatsu, oyako domburi, and chawan mushi because of their higher fat content. Your healthier choices include steamed vegetables, grilled shrimp, nabemono (casseroles), sukiyaki, sumashi wan, and shabu-shabu.
#3 It Isn’t a Vegetarian’s Dream
The emphasis on vegetables from cucumbers to seaweed makes Japanese cuisine a favorite among veggie lovers. But as ironic as it seems, completely vegetarian food isn’t as easy to find!
Most of the food are peppered with bonito flakes, cooked in fish or meat broth, and made with seafood from fish to shrimp, octopus and mollusks. But if you can overlook these non-vegetarian food, you will enjoy the unique flavors of Japanese cuisine. You may, for example, remove the bonito flakes or ask the cook to prepare a vegetarian dish.
#4 It’s Plenty of Food
In comparison with the large servings of American food, such as hamburgers with their sides, Japanese food servings seem tiny. But when you consider that a typical Japanese meal consists of several courses, you may feel too full to take another bite.
Indeed, you shouldn’t underestimate kaiseki, the traditional Japanese served in small portions! You will be surprised that the combination of carb-rich rice and noodle dishes with their meat, fish and vegetable fillings will fill up your tummy for several hours. In fact, Japanese food is considered as an excellent choice for healthy snacks and meals for active people.
#5 It Focuses on Simplicity and Sincerity
The integrity of the ingredients are respected so much so that Japanese chefs will manipulate the food as little as possible. The simplicity of the food preparation process results in dishes with fresh flavors, vibrant colors, and interesting textures.
#6 It Doesn’t Use Oil, Peppers, and Garlic as Much
Many of the dishes are eaten raw, as well as boiled or seared, usually with as little seasoning as possible. The famous umami flavor, the rich flavor profile for which Japanese food is known for, comes from a few selected ingredients including bonito flakes and broth, soy sauce, and miso. The usual Western seasonings like peppers and garlic aren’t common in the cuisine.
#7 It Uses Condiments for Variety
Diners can also customize their food up to a certain food. Your table will usually have citrus, wasabi, miso, soy sauce, and pickles as well as light dipping sauces for your use. You can dip your food into these condiments to enhance the flavors of your food according to your own personal preferences, such as dipped into wasabi for more heat.
#8 Its Choice in Dishes Has Meaning
Even Japanese restaurants with a fast-food concept or a conveyor belt process provides plates for their food. At the very least, you will like eating out of real plates instead of the Styrofoam and paper plates.
But there’s another charming aspect of Japanese cuisine – the dishes used have meaning and you are expected to ask about them, perhaps even briefly discuss their design and history. Japanese chefs choose the plates and bowls based on the dishes being served and the season, thus, giving your dining experience another level of interest.
And when you’re in a Japanese restaurant, don’t forget to compliment the chef, if possible, about the foods that you liked! It’s among the best rewards for their hard work.