March 19, 2015

One Soup Three Dishes: The Foundation of Japanese Cuisine

Five of the six courses that made up lunch at Fujita Japanese Cooking Studio
For all the incredible variety to be found kaiseki, the traditional multi-course Japanese meal that evolved from the tea ceremony, when you break it down to its  fundamentals, you'll arrive at ichiju san-sai, or "one soup, three dishes." Mentions of this meal-making concept can be traced back in literature over 1,000 years, and many attribute the healthiness and nutritional soundness of Japanese cuisine back to this ancient concept. The packed Japanese breakfast tray is an early morning riff on the concept, as is many a dinner on Japan Airlines, where the miso soup is poured from a plastic pitcher into paper cups.

An example of the packed Japanese breakfast tray,
this one at Tokaitei in the Dai-Ichi Hotel, Tokyo.

Learning about these basic building blocks of Japanese eating were part of a crash course in Japanese foodways that I participated in as a member of an eight-day food fellowship trip sponsored by the Foreign Press Center/Japan.

Fujita-sensei working on fresh sea bream.
We spent one morning in the small kitchen of Takako Fujita, a cooking instructor whose school, Fujita Japanese Cooking Studio is tucked away in the unlikely Tokyo business district of Toranomon. We watched, agog, as Fujita-sensei and her assistant Naoko Sugiyama, both dressed in traditional kimono, conjured up an excellent six-course lunch with a minimum of movement and no fuss. It was a technically understated yet flawless performance that evoked the tea ceremony, only with more utensils and a foundation of kelp and bonito instead of matcha tea powder.

Fujita-sensei salting pork back rib slices for her rice dish. 
Fujita-sensei, now in her twenty-first year of teaching, says she knew nothing about cooking when she was in her 20s. It wasn't until she married that she took up the study of cooking as part of her "bride's training," she adds. For our lunch, she started by working on a dish of rice cooked in stock. It was a traditional takikomi-gohan, or seasoned rice cooked with mixed vegetables, but with a twist--the addition of thin slices of pork back rib meat. It's a dish Fujita-sensei created recently for for a Japanese cooking magazine. Rice, like pickles, is a standard accompaniment to the soup and three dishes of  ichiju san-sai  and so much a given that it goes without mention.

The "soup" in this iteration was an unusual one, centered on hanpen, a cloud-like version of fish cake that has  been pounded and spongified with grated mountain yam and beaten egg whites. The hanpen slices floated in a clear dashi made with konbu (kelp) and katsuobushi (grated dried bonito) and garnished with mitsuba (a parsley-like green). As if it weren't light enough, Fujita-sensei added beaten egg whites at the end to up the lightness ante.

Simmered yellowtail with ginger and pickled plums.
The san-sai, part of the meal, or "three dishes," usually consists of a main dish and two side dishes. The main more often than not involves fish. In our lunch, it was a beautiful dish of yellowtail simmered with ginger and umeboshi (pickled plums) with just a little added mirin, sugar and salt. The secrets here were to employ the traditional Japanese method of sprinkling a little salt on the fish to draw out impurities, and to add ginger skins to the broth. In addition to adding flavor, the ginger skins balance the broth and take away any overly strong fish flavors, Fujita-sensei told us. As in this dish, she often uses milder, Kyoto-style seasoning in her class, she says, "because lighter seasoning is more popular" among her students.

The two secondary dishes of ichiju san-sai usually include a vegetable dish and a legume or soybean-based dish, rounding out a balanced meal with plenty of fermented foods. Long before the start of the fermented food craze that is sweeping certain artisanal corners of America--touted for its probiotic-promoting goodness--the Japanese had build a nation on miso, soy sauce, sake, mirin and pickled and preserved products.

Fujita-sensei and her assistant Sugiyama san bidding us farewell.
For a savory dish of stewed taro dressed in a mix of sesame paste, white miso, sugar and mirin, the tips Fujita-sensei gave us were to boil the taro very quickly in water used to wash rice and a splash of mirin. This keeps its color light and also hastens cooking. The dish was called "Rikyu-style," after the famed sixteenth-century tea master Sen no Rikyu, who apparently loved sesame seeds.

Fujita-sensei says that as in other developed countries, fewer and fewer young Japanese are learning to cook from their mothers or grandmothers, adding that not many young people are interested in cooking traditional dishes. After Japanese-style washoku cooking was named a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, however, interest in their native cuisine has revived somewhat among young people, she says.

For more on washoku, and how the Japanese government is working to spread its techniques, flavors and spirit around the world, check out my Discover Nikkei article on the Washoku World Challenge 2015.

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