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Four expert "foodies" in London introduce the keys to enjoying Japanese food in the UK.

  • Christopher Dawson kaiseki cuisine
      Importer and distributor of organic foods
  • Fiona Beckett
      Food journalist
  • Sayaka Watanabe
      Sake sommelier
  • Annica Wainwright
      Restaurant critic

    Christopher Dawson Christopher Dawson

    Christopher Dawson is Chairman of
    Clearspring Ltd, an import and distribution company of organic and traditional foods. He spent 18 years living in Japan, and now aims to unite the best of East and West by bringing together culinary traditions of Japan, Europe and North America.

    What are the characteristics of traditional Japanese cuisine and its ingredients?

    In Japanese cuisine there is more emphasis on vegetable quality foods than animal foods. The huge variety of seasonal foods results in an appreciation of when the different foods are in season and their suitability for providing satisfaction at the time of year when their quality is at its best. Also, there is less emphasis on main courses and sweet desserts.


    What are the main differences between Japanese and Western foods and what do you think has led to these differences?

    Japanese food values subtle tastes and flavours. Appearance is almost as important as the actual taste and the quality of each dish is more important than the quantity. Care is taken to make the prepared foods very digestible.

    These differences could be explained by the relative scarcity of arable land in Japan, which has created the need to gain the maximum nutrition value from the available grains, vegetables, fresh fruits and limited animal products. Culturally, Buddhist traditions have emphasised vegetarianism. Japan's distinct four season climate has also had a profound influence on the cuisine.

    What kinds of seasonings are used to flavour and enrich Japanese cuisine?

    A naturally sweet seasoning, mirin (a sweet, golden cooking wine made from glutinous rice), is used in many Japanese dishes, creating a good balance of savoury and sweet tastes throughout the meal, which satisfies the palate. Soya sauces are used to enhance the flavour of the ingredients, rather than just salt. Also, the use of umami ('the fifth taste') flavour, naturally found in kombu (kelp) and shiitake mushroom stock, gives more substance and depth to many dishes.

    kombu (kelp)
    Fermentation using koji culture (the catalyst and most important ingredient in the traditional manufacture of Japanese fermented foods) increases the bioavailability of the nutrients in foods. Certain vegetable condiments and garnishes such as grated daikon radish, wasabi or ginger are used to aid digestion and also avoid parasite development. Pickles made from seasonal vegetables and sea salt are often eaten during and/or at the end of the meal, to promote digestion.

    Fiona Beckett Fiona Beckett

    Food journalist Fiona Beckett spoke about the appeal of Japanese cuisine for British people and how it could possibly be incorporated into our regular diet.

    What do you like best about Japanese food?

    If I had to pick out one element it would be its purity by which I mean the cleanness and intensity of its flavours. I love the visual impact of a Japanese meal - the arrangement of colour and shape on the plate, the conscious use of plates and bowls as part of the presentation of the food and how they relate to the seasons. I love its healthiness and the balance between different components of the meal. It's a cuisine that satisfies all the senses.


    What is the appeal of the Japanese cuisine for British people?

    I think Japanese is seen as one of the hipper cuisines. Also, people perceive it as healthy and the flavours are very addictive. Although people are only starting to be conscious of umami as a taste I think it appeals to them and they are beginning to associate it with Japanese food.

    Kaiseki cuisine

    What is umami?

    Umami is the so-called fifth taste. It is best described as the intense savouriness you find in ingredients such as dried mushrooms, shellfish, ripe tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. Umami features strongly In Japanese cuisine and is naturally found in ingredients like miso and kombu (kelp).


    What does Japanese cuisine mean for you and what makes it stand out from other foreign food?

    I was extremely impressed by the wonderful kaiseki (haute cuisine) meal I had when I visited Japan. The flavours and textures of Japanese food are quite distinctive and very pure. It's light but intense with the aim of achieving an overall balance and harmony. Also, quite simply, I think Japanese-style is one of the very best ways to eat fish!

    Kaiseki cuisine
    kaiseki cuisine
    Can you recommend any lesser-known Japanese foods which might appeal to the British palate?

    The British are quite into noodles so would be receptive to more authentic Japanese noodle dishes like soba (buckwheat) and udon (wholewheat) . Japanese ways of cooking steak would also appeal to them. Few people get to taste Japanese food at its best. Fridge-chilled supermarket sushi is not a patch on freshly made sushi. I think people need more information about Japanese food and cooking and access to good Japanese ingredients so that they can try cooking recipes at home.


    Sayaka Watanabe Sayaka Watanabe

    Sake (Japanese rice wine) is enjoying increasing popularity in the UK. Sayaka Watanabe, Zuma's sake sommelier, introduces the qualities of sake and explains how it is synonymous with Japanese culture.

    What are the main differences between sake and wine?

    Wine is made from grapes whereas sake is made from rice. The sake-brewing process is unique and more complex. Rice does not contain pure sugar like grapes, so the starch in the grains has to be converted into sugar. This is done by cultivating it with koji moulds, which break down rice starch into glucose. After yeast is added fermentation begins and alcohol is produced.

    koji culture
    Cultivating rice with Koji cutlure

    What tips would you give people who want to try sake?

    I think ginjo or junmai ginjo are the easiest varieties to start with as they are light, fruity and very smooth. Sake can be enjoyed hot (atsukan), chilled (reishu) or at room temperature (jouon). Generally daiginjo and ginjo (premium) grades are better drunk neat and chilled, which allows you to enjoy the full flavour and fragrance, while normal grade junmai-shu and honjozo-shu can be served warm since the taste will become sweeter when heated. In winter, good hot sake will warm you to the core of your bones! Simply place a small decanter of sake into a pan of hot water and warm gently, taking care not to boil as this spoils the flavour.


    Does sake complement western foods? What kinds of dishes go well with sake in particular?

    Sake is a very versatile drink. It makes a great aperitif, dinner accompaniment or dessert wine. Clean and smooth daiginjo works well with roast chicken and vegetables. Strong, pungent sake goes well with egg or dairy dishes like creamy pasta. Mild and less acidic fruity ginjo goes with white fish, while crisp, dry sake is good with smoked salmon or duck. Rich hojozo-shu is delicious with spicy curries.

    sake bottles lined up

    What do you think makes sake such a special drink?

    I personally think sake reflects much of Japanese culture. It represents and describes the beauty of Japan. Rice is a symbol of Japanese food culture and sake is the essence of this precious crop, carefully brewed by highly skilled people. We treasure and respect rice, water and human warmth. A sip of sake will be absorbed by your body slowly and will bring out a really happy smile. Please give it a try!



    Annica Wainwright Annica Wainwright

    Annica Wainwright is events editor and restaurant critic for the Square Meal Guide, Magazine and website. Based on ten years of experience from eating out in London, she describes the current trends in Japanese dining.

    What elements of Japanese food do you like best?

    I like the clean, fresh tastes and the fact that most dishes are based on just a few good-quality ingredients. The food is usually very beautifully presented but it doesn't just look good - it makes you feel good, too. Light flavours and a comparatively low fat content means you can eat a lot and still feel great afterwards. It's indulgent in a guilt-free kind of way.


    What do you think of the current boom in Japanese foods and restaurants in London? Why do you think Japanese cuisine is so popular?

    I find the increased accessibility of Japanese food in this country really exciting. Not only have Japanese restaurants themselves evolved but many British chefs are now also experimenting with Japanese techniques and ingredients. I think the recent rise in the popularity of the cuisine went hand in hand with the past few years' craze for diets and healthy eating.


    What kinds of Japanese restaurants can be found in the UK?

    These days, the options are almost endless, particularly in London, where you can find anything from tiny sushi bars to glitzy power diners. A nice recent development is that it is now possible to enjoy traditional Japanese food in a modern setting.

    Japanese haute cuisine

    What is the common trend of Japanese restaurants in the UK?

    I think the success of the modern Japanese restaurant concept has created a trend for evolved Japanese food and the fusion of its recipes with ingredients from many different cuisines. Most Japanese restaurants will now offer at least one or two dishes with a modern twist. I've also noticed Japanese ingredients popping up on non-Japanese menus, for example wasabi mayonnaise with steak and chips.


    Do you have any advice on how to fully enjoy the dining experience at a Japanese restaurant?

    I'd say always ask staff for recommendations and avoid going straight for 'safe bets' like salmon sushi or chicken teriyaki. There's always something new to discover. The fact that meals aren't usually your typical three-course affair means that there's plenty of scope to experiment and it's often possible to order several small dishes for the table to share.