By Vibha Jain
During my recent trip to Japan I had the opportunity to interact closely with NRIs and real gourmets, the Rakesh Bothra family, who have been living in Japan for the past 40 years. This family is of the firm opinion that Japanese cuisine is the healthiest and most nutritious one in the world. And unbelievably, there is enough variety for the vegetarians.
Compared to other nations, Japanese cooking uses almost no spices. Instead, the emphasis is on the pure, clean flavours of its indigenous ingredients: fish, seaweed, vegetables, rice and soya beans.
With very little land, agriculture is limited in Japan. Raw fish is masterfully prepared as Sushi and served with rice. In fact, rice is served in all meals, as is typical of many Asian cultures. But in Japan the word for rice and meals is the same, `gohan`.
A meal in Japan is not a meal unless it balances three facets: the aesthetic presentation of the food (including its garnishing and layout), the selection of the plate or the serving piece and the taste of the food itself. A diner is meant to appreciate the harmony of all the three.
Japanese meals are designed with beauty in mind but also simplicity and modesty. The diner should absorb and appreciate this Zen approach with each meal (racing through a meal is not advised). The main meal is in the evening, starting with an appetiser and small cups of sake, fermented rice wine usually served warm. The meal is served on a low table and you will be asked to remove your shoes. Guests sit on a futon (cushion) on a floor with tatami or straw mats.
The meal usually consists of a simmered dish, a salad, a fried, steamed or broiled dish, rice and soup. The dishes are simply prepared, but the combination of flavours, textures and foods creates the elegance and variety that so typifies the Japanese style. Because of Buddhism, the meals feature the five flavours of sweet, spicy, salty, sour and bitter, as well as colours of yellow, black, white, green and red.
Below are recipes for the more common dishes from the Japanese vegetarian cuisine, easy to prepare, tasty and so simple to make.
You need: Korean rice 1 cup, vinegar 30 gm, sugar 30 gm, salt to taste, (for the topping) avocado, tomato, dried mushroom.
o Cook the rice. Mix vinegar, sugar and salt and add into cooked rice. Mix well and make chunks in elliptical shapes.
o Cut avocado in thin slices. Remove the skin of tomato and cut it into 4 pieces and remove the seeds. Soak dried mushroom in warm water for 30 minutes and squeeze its water out. Cook it with water, soya sauce and sugar.
o Put toppings on shaped rice and serve them with soya sauce.
This dish falls between a pancake and a pizza.
You need: 300 gm flour, 210 ml water, 1 cabbage, green shredded onions, thinly sliced 2-4 white mushrooms, brown soya sauce, salt to taste.
o Cut cabbage leaves without the core in thin strings.
o Mix water, salt and flour with cabbage strings. Now add chopped green onions and white mushrooms. Mix well.
o Spread this mixture on a hot non-stick tawa. Roast both sides until crisp. Turn the Okonomiyaki.
o When fried well, serve Okonomiyaki with brown soya sauce.
Tempura is a crispy, deep-fried vegetable, which can be made using any vegetable of your choice. Here`s a mixed variety.
You need: 2 sliced raw carrots, 100 gm halved beans, 100 gm cubed cauliflower, 1 sliced brinjal, onion rings, 250 gm white flour, 1 egg white, 2 tbsp milk, water for the batter, salt, pepper, half teaspoon crushed mustard seeds and oil for frying.
o Make the batter by mixing in maida (white flour), beaten egg white, milk, salt, pepper and water into a semi-viscous paste.
o First dip all vegetables in chilled water. Take them out and toss them in the maida batter.
o Preheat oil. Fry the maida coated vegetables till crisp. Drain oil well. Serve with any vegetable salad or as it is.
HIYASHI CHUKA (Cold Noodles)
Hiyashi chuka is a perfect dish for all seasons. It is like noodle salad and is made with chuka soba (wheat) noodles available at any good supermarket. The noodles are dressed with special toppings, which you can make on your own and place colourfully on a plate. Choose between the soya sauce flavour dressing or the sesame flavoured one.
Tofu is soyabean curd rich in easily digestible protein.
You need: 8 cubes tofu, salt and pepper to taste, 1 tsp cooking oil, celery and shredded cabbage.
Shallow fry Tofu on low flame till crisp. Add salt and pepper and top with shredded cabbage and celery leaves.
Delicacy and an in-between dish.
You need: 2 large ginger roots, 1 cup brown vinegar, 5-7 tbsp sugar, 1 tsp salt.
o Peel the ginger root.
o Cut the ginger into medium sized pieces and salt it in a bowl.
o Leave ginger for 30 minutes.
o Put the ginger into a jar.
o Mix brown vinegar and sugar in a pan and bring to boil.
o Pour the hot mixture of vinegar and sugar on the ginger.
o Cool, then cover with a lid and place them in a refrigerator.
o In a week the ginger changes its colour to light pink.
o Slice thinly to serve.
o It lasts longer in refrigeration.
You need: Soya bite, capsicum, zucchini, bread crumbs.
o Soak soya bite in hot water for 30 minutes. Squeeze its water out. Mix it with soya sauce and sugar and keep for some time. Cut capsicum and zucchini and toss it with salt and pepper for taste.
o Pierce them with a stick-a longer type of toothpick. Put them into maida batter and spread bread crumbs.
o Deep-fry the sticks with vegetables till golden brown. Serve hot with tomato sauce.
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