Making Japanese food’s like making love. Doesn’t have to take a long time if you know what you’re doing. The best way to acquire the necessary skill is probably working alongside a Japanese lady in the kitchen, although I hesitate to recommend anything that combines women, fire, and sharp objects in a confined space. Well, life’s all about managing risk, so it’s either that, a lifetime of TV dinners, or learn how to cook Japanese food yourself. Yeah, let’s look at that latter option.
But What is Japanese Food?
Right from the start, even defining Japanese food presents a challenge. As with everything in this damn nation, what’s blindingly obvious to Japanese folks is utterly baffling to outsiders.
You’ve got your noodles—soba, udon, ramen, somen; battered things—tonkatsu, kushikatsu, tempura, agedashi tofu; soups—miso, tonjiru, suimono; pickles—tsukemono, sunomono, nukazuke; rice dishes—donburi, sushi, ochazuke, hayashi; raw stuff—sashimi, oroshi daikon, yamaimo, hiyayako; big pot meals—niku jaga, curry, motsunabe, oden, chikuzenni; and a full-on Bubba Gump-Shrimp list of yaki fried stuff—yakitori, yakiniku, yakizakana, tamagoyaki, takoyaki, kushiyaki, monjayaki, okonomiyaki, sukiyaki, teppanyaki, sumibiyaki . . . we could do this all day.
The Sushi Chef Washes Rice for Ten Years
But above and beyond, there’s one dish made consistently in Japanese households from Hokkaido to Okinawa, that comes with none of the diminutive Orientalism foreigners ascribe to other Japanese foods. Like, should you eat sushi with chopsticks? Drink the broth of your ramen? Bow to the sushi chef after your meal? Jeezus, who cares? You’re not worried about that stuff at an Indian restaurant. But it’s Japaaan, land of Mister Miyagi and Pikachu. One must conduct oneself with honor and humility, like David Carradine. Walk that rice paper.
Whatever. You can forget the fiction that apprentice sushi chef Takashi has to wash rice for ten years before he gets a chance to touch the fish because Japan has some sort of rigid code of sushi honor. Yeah, Maria’s in the back of the taqueria making tortillas for ten years too. Takeshi and Maria aren’t there out of some ancient kitchen caste system but simply because few career opportunities exist for cooks who didn’t graduate from culinary school like every other chef.
Authentic Japanese Cuisine
But back to the dish—the actual food that Japanese working folks whip together to feed their families after a day of serving all that other nonsense to tourists. If there’s one thing that represents Japanese cuisine better than any other, it’s champuru, which sounds far more exotic than just simply calling it stir-fry.
How to Make Japanese food
First, the methodology for making champuru: Pour oil into a massive frying pan, then cut things up and cook them. One step, that’s it.
Stir-fry’s not too hard of a concept to grasp, but to get it to taste like Japanese food, you need the four essential Japanese seasonings: dark sesame oil, dashi, tsuyu, and soy sauce.
The Four Seasonings of Japan
Dark sesame oil should be self-explanatory, except that the U.S. also sells pale sesame oil, in an apparent attempt to baffle its 300-pound consumers into buying something “light.” Forget that. Your oil needs to be the color of maple syrup. Two tablespoons in a large non-stick pan will do you right.
Next, powdered dashi, which is dried broth, like a richer and less salty bullion. You’ve got some options here, but let’s make it easy and just use powdered katsuo (bonito) hon-dashi. After you start cooking, sprinkle that onto whatever’s in the pan like you would salt. And p.s., don’t use salt.
Then, tsuyu, which is liquid noodle broth. Like dashi, this comes in a range of options that all taste about the same, so just use whatever you can get your hands on. Tsuyu serves to season the dish while keeping it from dying out. After the vegetables get cooking, pour in a bit. I dunno, maybe like two tablespoons. If things start to look too dry, well, maybe add a bit more.
Finally, soy sauce. We’ll come back to this in a minute, but for now just buy regular soy sauce and not some weird low-salt abomination. Here’s an idea: how about instead of using 50%-sodium soy sauce, you just use 50 percent less? No? Sorry, just a thought.
Anyway, with the four magical Japanese seasonings in hand, you’re now ready to make Japanese food.
How to Make Japanese Food, in 7 Easy Steps
Step 1: Prep ingredients. Wash, peel, remove seeds, whatever. Here’s a list of
|Stuff I’d put in||Stuff I’d leave out*|
|Bell pepper, any color||Corn|
|Any kind of mushroom||Cucumber|
|Bitter melon (goya)||Hot peppers|
|Spinach (maybe)||Lotus root (renkon)|
|Broccoli (maybe)||Burdock (gobo)|
*not because I don’t like them, but simply because they don’t quite fit
You don’t have to put in everything, unless you’ve got an amazingly large frying pan. And it goes without saying—but I’ll say it anyway—that all ingredients are fresh, not frozen or canned. You could also add meat. I don’t personally cook with it, but most Japanese people do, incapable as they are of distinguishing animals from vegetables. To a Japanese person, a pig is just a legless pumpkin, so pork’s a good choice, if you’re into that sort of thing. Chicken, which is essentially a head of cabbage with wings, would work well too. You could also omit the tofu, or any other ingredient, for that matter. So long as you have the four magical seasonings, it’ll taste appropriately Japanese.
Step 2: Drain the tofu, cut vegetables into bite-sized pieces.
Ken Seeroi’s approach to cooking is grounded in one simple principle: Quit Fucking Around. Examples of fucking around include sharpening knives, consulting recipes, measuring ingredients, or listening to anything Gordon Ramsey has to say. QFA is all about transforming the contents of your fridge into the contents of your stomach in the shortest possible time. With a level of culinary skill limited only to not cutting off your own fingers, you should be able to make a week’s worth of food in about 30 minutes. Chop and keep chopping.
Step 3: Put oil in the pan and heat it over low heat. Add tofu and vegetables.
Don’t skimp on the oil out of some misguided notion of being “low fat.” You might want to reduce your Pop-tart and bacon intake first. And for the love of God, don’t use cooking spray. If you don’t know what cooking spray is, good; don’t look it up.
Apply the principle of QFA by quickly chopping vegetables and adding them to the pan while cooking. Cut up the onion first. So it’s: Heat pan, add oil, add onion. Then cut up the tofu, add it. Then carrot, then mushrooms, then whatever. Stiff stuff once in a while. Long chopsticks are your friends. Who says it’s hard to make friends in Japan?
Step 4: Add seasonings. After about step Carrot, sprinkle on some powdered dashi. Start with, say, an eighth of a teaspoon. Then add some more stuff and add a bit more dashi and keep stirring. After things start really cooking, add some tsuyu. Once everything’s in, cover the pan. If you don’t have lid, well, guess you should’ve thought of that beforehand. Bust out the tin foil.
Step 5: Taste and season.
How’s your food? If it’s too bland, add more dashi. If it’s too dry, add more tsuyu or some water. Sprinkle on some black pepper.
Step 6: Add the eggs.
Two or three should suffice. Just crack them into the pan and stir ‘em up. Don’t make a big deal about this.
Step 7: Turn off the heat. Add soy sauce.
Okay, I’m gonna try to put this as gently as possible, but if you’re an American, your taste buds are dead. You killed them through a lifetime of snarfing down mountains of Doritos and CostCo cupcakes, but don’t worry, they’ll come back.
The point being that soy sauce isn’t a beverage. Japanese folks laugh about gaijin practically drinking the stuff, while they handle it like a controlled substance, for good reason. A little’s fine, but one drop too much and suddenly everything just tastes like soy soup. It’s the one thing you should pour into a spoon first; not to measure, but to avoid accidentally dumping in too much directly from the bottle. I’d suggest drizzling in about a teaspoon.
And That’s How to Make Japanese Food
Then it’s just plate, eat, and enjoy. You can have champuru by itself as a one-plate meal, as a side dish, or on top of rice to double your food volume. Japanese folks usually eat rice for lunch rather than dinner, and you’ll find leftover champuru with rice makes a superb week’s worth of lunch boxes.
This is a traditional and flavorful Japanese dish, full of fresh vegetables and probably healthier than most things in your otherwise horrible diet. So the next time someone says “I like Japanese food,” just smile and nod and then take a bowl of champuru to their pot-luck party. Quietly place it on the table amidst the meatloaf, hot dogs, green bean casserole, Cheez Whiz-filled celery sticks, and jello salad. And if it’s not the absolute hit of the party, well, maybe time to find a new party.