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Ethnic Cuisine: Japan

by Lucy Seligman

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The cuisine of Japan is shaped by its four distinct seasons and by regions. It is a cuisine that first and foremost delights the senses -- in Japan, the eyes, nose, and palate feast along with the stomach. The essence of Japanese cuisine is based on various elements of taste, cooking techniques, and the use of the freshest seasonal ingredients.

Japan (the land of the rising sun) is composed of four main islands, stretching north to south: Hokkaiko, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. It also includes the islands of Okinawa and around 4,000 smaller islands. The whole of Japan would fit inside the state of California. The capital is Tokyo.

One Famous Japanese Dish: Sukiyaki

Nobody really seems to know the origins of sukiyaki. One theory is that in the old days farmers slipped a little flesh into the vegetarian diet imposed by Buddhist strictures by grilling (yaki) meat on a plowshare (suki.) In 1873, Emperor Meiji declared that beef was acceptable for consumption, and from that time on it became part of the Japanese diet, although traditional dishes continue to use small quantities of meat.

Sukiyaki, called gyunabe during the Meiji era (1868-1912), is beef and vegetables lightly simmered in a sweetened sauce, served with a raw egg as dipping sauce. It is eaten year-round.

As with many traditional Japanese dishes, the method of making sukiyaki differs from area to area. Kanto (the Tokyo area) sukiyaki is made by simmering the beef and vegetables in a prepared sauce, while in Kansai (Kyoto-Osaka area), the sauce is made in the pot as you cook.

All you really need with sukiyaki, which is quite filling, is a bowl of freshly cooked Japanese rice, some Japanese pickles, and green tea and fresh fruit to finish the feast.

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