"Stock" up for the Winter- Japanese soul food

Winter in Japan:

Japanese style kotatsu, a table with a heater under it
Electric blanket? Try an electric table.

 

Japan is known for its richly unique seasons radiating heat in the summer, bursting with life in the spring, relaxing with a cool and serene autumn, and then, although beautiful in its own
regard, pummeling people with bitingly cold winters.

Despite this, winter in Japan can be a deep and interesting experience, particularly if you ski or snowboard, and also, curling up under a Japanese style Kotatsu just puts you on a different planet of relaxation. A Kotatsu is basically a table with a heating unit on the underside of it, and it also has a blanket draped around it to keep the heat in. Japan (particularly in larger cities) has no central heating for the most part, so alternative methods to stay warm are common, and although they don’t heat your whole house, they focus the heat where it needs to be, creating a haven of comfort from the wicked cold all around you. Small portable heaters, electric blankets, and perhaps a heating unit designed to heat one room are the norm.
Getting up to go to the bathroom can be a journey…but it’s worth it for the high dosage of heat waiting for you when you return.

If one thing is for sure, eating good food on a cold winter evening in any country can be a deeply satisfying feeling. When it’s hot and muggy outside, just about the only things that sound appetizing are cold snacks or drinks. However, if there is any time to enjoy the vast cuisine of Japan, it’s during the winter.

Cold raw fish ? During the winter you ask? I’m sorry, but sushi and other stereotypical varieties of rice, pickled vegetables, and fish meals are only one very small and (in my opinion) unappealing aspect of Japanese cuisine. Here are a few common Japanese dishes just to give you a glimpse of some of the deep, heavy, and warm flavors of Japan:

Japanese style miso ramen, thick and flavorful with vegetables

 Ramen. 

You may or may not have had “Top Ramen”, or “Cup of Noodles” cheap ramen solutions which are available worldwide. However, ramen is a traditional Chinese noodle dish that has been taken to new extremities of refinement, fanaticism, and flavor in Japan; with some shops perfecting their methods over generations. This here is Miso ramen, more common to colder areas of Japan like Hokkaido, or Niigata. However, there are many varieties of ramen, and like snowflakes, no two are quite the same. The world of ramen is complex, as there are many many varieties, combinations, flavors, and preparation methods, but the 4 major categories are: Shio (salt), Shoyu (Soy sauce), Miso, and Tonkotsu (Pork stock). Forget about the starving college student, a good bowl is about 10 bucks in Tokyo.

Japanese style nabe, like a large stew with meat, vegetables, and tofu


Nabe. (na-be)

This is, in a word, Japanese stew.

Like ramen, the varieties in flavor and preparation are many, and it is often up to the cook to decide what the stew has in it. Most commonly is a variety of meat, tofu, green onions, and mushrooms. But cabbage, spinach, bean sprouts, meat balls, noodles and the like are not uncommon. In general, after most of the contents have been consumed, the remaining soup can be used as a base to add noodles in. People “top off” their stew in this way; a stew round 2 if you will.

Japanese style katsudon, fried pork topped with lightly cooked eggs and sauce


Donburi.

We may know of asian “rice bowls”. This is one of them, called “Katsudon“: “katsu” or “ton-katsu” referring to batter-fried pork slices. Once again, there are many rice bowl varieties, but many follow a similar formula with meat, eggs (scrambled, raw, or fried), and vegetables (usually just onions and a small amount of pickled veggies).
Some miso soup goes good with one of these, and the rice fills you up nicely.

 

Japanese style okonomiyaki, like a pancake filled with vegetables, eggs, and pork


  Okonomiyaki.

This one tends to be a little more well-known from what I have seen amongst my non-Japanese cohorts. It is sometimes called a Japanese pancake or a Japanese pizza. However, this is somewhat inaccurate, as pizza or pancake are only comparable in that they are round. Okonomiyaki is a concoction of batter and cabbage to hold it together, and then usually fried on a flat grill with bacon and possibly eggs, then garnished with a variety of toppings: seaweed flakes, fish shavings, mayonnaise, and of course Japanese “sauce” (kind of like less sugary barbecue sauce).

Japanese food is actually quite heavy, as you may gather from the above. The typical view of Japanese food held by many (myself at one time included) is largely stuck in the past when Japanese people were tiny. Portions have grown and Japanese people are eating more and more meat, and seeking greater bang for their buck for food. In fact, sometimes Japanese dishes will just go completely overboard and shoot for a new level of fullness and explosive flavor to make even the most overworked salaryman on the coldest winter night fall asleep, fattened with a smile on his face. Welcome to the deep, and occasionally fanatical world of Japanese food…We’ll try our best to coverall this month on Omotenashi TV,

Ramen jiro, a giant bowl of ramen topped with pork, vegetables, and garlic
Don’t mess around with “Ramen Jiro”kid. There’s about a kilo of noodles under there…

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