When the craving for Asian food hits, don’t just stop at stereotypical sushi — give all traditional Japanese dishes a try.
Kazumi Tinant, of Rapid City, is a native of Japan.
“When I was young, my mother was the cook for the local public school system,” she said. “She made all the meals following a specific way of preparing up to 30 different ingredients in each meal. When she came home in the evenings, she was tired of cooking, so she taught me to do it.”
Tinant describes good Japanese food as “simple and healthy,” made with “lots of vegetables and a little protein.”
"Japanese food is made as natural and simple as possible," said Kaz Campillo, owner of Hana Japanese/Korean Grill & Sushi Bar in Rapid City. “There is a focus on seasonal ingredients in each meal every day,” she said.
The country of Japan is known for its temperate climate, ample rainfall, and careful cultivation of soil, so crops grow easily and fresh food is plentiful.
Campillo said that traditional Japanese fare is particularly structured to include the “fruit of the sea” — the fresh catch of the day, called umi no sachi — and the “fruit of the mountains” or yama no sachi, which refers to local, seasonally grown fruits and vegetables.
“I couldn’t find my favorite Japanese fish here, but I like and can find mackerel, Pacific ahi (yellowfin tuna), and niboshi dashi (small dried sardines),” Tinant said.
Campillo commented that in the U.S., proteins such as chicken, beef and pork, are acceptable anytime, as long as the meat is the “freshest and best” available. She suggests marinating the meat in fruit juices to “make meat sweeter” as part of the overall dish flavor. (At Hana, she marinates the teriyaki meat for 8 hours in her homemade concoction.)
Tofu is also a regular protein choice. Tinant recalls during her childhood in Japan, that the local “tofu maker” would drive his truck through neighborhoods and sell his freshly made tofu to individual households, reminiscent of an American ice cream truck experience.
“That was very fresh tofu, which is difficult to find now,” Tinant said, with a laugh. In today’s market, she recommends choosing an organic tofu with a fresh smell, and using the bean curd only up to the sell-by date, never after.
Campillo uses kelp to make soup stock, and vegetables easy to find in Japan for dishes, including Napa cabbage and bean sprouts, and also mushrooms.
Tinant also includes root vegetables, explaining that the “underground” daikon radish, burdock, carrots, and taro root are customary ingredients along with their leafy counterparts.
While fresh, local ingredients add substance to Japanese cuisine, the seasonings are key for the authentic experience.
“We use the word sashisuseso as a pun intended to remember the five seasonings which are the basis of seasoning of dishes and the order of using them,” Tinant said. “They are sugar (sato), salt (shio), vinegar (su), soy sauce (shoyu), and miso.”
Lime, ginger, or wasabi are often added for depth of flavor.
Regarding soy sauce, Tinant cautions that cooking with “too much is not good,” but that many options are available that can change the dish to accommodate dietary restrictions.
“We can now prepare dishes with low-sodium, gluten-free, or regular soy sauce, using a quality Japanese brand,” Campillo said.
Rice is an expected element of Japanese food, but not all types are the same.
“The super short and medium grain rice are harvested a different way,” Campillo said. “So they are used in a different way in food.” Where the rice is harvested makes a difference as well; for example, rice grown closer to the coast is optimal for pairing with seafood, while mountainous grains taste better eaten with vegetables grown at higher elevations.
Tinant’s favorite varieties are koshihikari or sasanishiki, but nishiki is most commonly available in the U.S.
Japanese natives may be more familiar with delicacies like umeboshi (salted plums, which Tinant said “are most significant in Japan”) or namasu (a pickled vegetable salad recommended by Campillo), but Tinant assures that the traditional Japanese menu is definitely worth the culinary adventure.
“The body feels more satisfied with Japanese food,” she said. “So, taste it. Try it.”