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Japanese cuisine, renowned for its emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients, has taken the world by storm. The key ingredient in most Japanese meals is its steamed white rice. Gohan, meaning "meal", is the Japanese word for rice.
Noodles are also a staple and sometimes used as a substitute to rice, although they often form a meal in their own right. Chinese style noodles served with a meat broth (a dish called ramen) are very popular.
Soybeans are a key source of protein and take many forms, notably the miso soup served with almost every meal, but also tofu bean curd and the ubiquitous soy sauce. Seafood is a prominent feature in Japanese cuisine, and includes many varieties of seaweed as well as creatures of the sea.
One of the benefits of leaving Tokyo and traveling throughout Japan is discovering the local specialties. Each region in the country has a number of there own unique dishes. In Hokkaido try the fresh sashimi and crab, and in Osaka you can't miss the okonomiyaki stuffed with green onions.
Most Japanese food is eaten with chopsticks, the exceptions being curry rice and fried rice, which are eaten with spoons. Using chopsticks is an easier skill to pick up than you might imagine, but mastering them might take a while. Here are some chopstick guidelines when using them in Japan:
- Never place or leave chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice, and never pass something from your chopsticks to another person's chopsticks because of their association with funerary rites.
- If you want to give a piece of food to someone, let him or her take it from your plate, or place it directly on their plate.
- When you are finished with the chopsticks, you can place them over the edge of your bowl or plate. Nicer restaurants may put a small chopstick rest (hashi-oki) at each place setting. If the restaurant does not offer this, you can simply fold the paper wrapper that the chopsticks came in and construct your own hashi-oki.
- It is considered rude to use your chopsticks to move plates or bowls.
- Pointing at people and things with your chopsticks is also rude.
- Stabbing your food with the chopsticks is generally considered rude and should only be used as a last resort.
Disposable chopsticks (wari-bashi) are provided in all restaurants as well as with bento and other take-out foods.
Many Japanese dishes are served with different sauces and garnishes. The Japanese people do not put soy sauce on their rice, but they do use it to dip their sushi in, and to pour on grilled fish. Tonkatsu (pork cutlet) comes with a thicker sauce, tempura comes with a lighter, thinner sauce made from soy sauce and dashi (fish and seaweed soup base), while gyoza are usually dipped in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar and chili oil.
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