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posted: 3/7/2014 5:45 AM

A taste of ramen (and other traditional Japanese cuisine)

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  • A bowl of awa-zenzai, an on top of steamed awa millet, is served at a restaurant in Tokyo.

      A bowl of awa-zenzai, an on top of steamed awa millet, is served at a restaurant in Tokyo.
    Yomiuri Shimbun photo by Hiroyuki Taira

  • A bowl of Kitakata-ramen is served at a ramen shop in Tokyo. Ramen is among the Japanese culinary traditions.

      A bowl of Kitakata-ramen is served at a ramen shop in Tokyo. Ramen is among the Japanese culinary traditions.
    Yomiuri Shimbun photo by Hiroyuki Taira

  • Patrons check bottles of sake at an izakaya in Tokyo, where Japanese specialties are served.

      Patrons check bottles of sake at an izakaya in Tokyo, where Japanese specialties are served.
    Yomiuri Shimbun photo by Hiroyuki Taira

 
The Yomiuri Shimbun

TOKYO -- Washoku, traditional Japanese cuisine, has been registered on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage List. The registration is believed to be in recognition that Japanese dishes, including sushi, tempura and sukiyaki, are being served at restaurants throughout the world. However, popular Japanese dishes in foreign countries are generally limited to dishes served at Japanese restaurants.

On the other hand, there is another world of Japanese food that is reasonably priced and enjoyed by ordinary Japanese every day. Below is a taste of such cuisine.

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Bento: Japanese gardens often epitomize the natural landscape -- mountains, rivers, lakes -- in a small space. Similarly, a bento is a Japanese meal served in a small package containing rice, grilled dishes and pickles, items usually served at home. People prepare bento at home or buy one made at a bento shop or caterer. Either way, a boxed meal will give you a taste of the diverse ingredients of Japanese food culture.

There are several places where tourists visiting Japan can buy delicious bento. We recommend you buy one at a traditional bento stall, found at major railway stations.

Bento available at railway stations are called ekiben. "Eki" means station and "ben" is an abbreviation for bento. Digging into a bento while enjoying the changing scenery through a train window is one of the joys of travel.

Ekibenya Matsuri ekiben shop opened 1 � years ago in JR Tokyo Station, a major starting point for people heading to Kyoto in the west or Sendai in the north. The shop deals in 150 different kinds of bento. Most have been delivered from regional bento makers. The shop also features a specially built kitchenette where regionally popular bento are freshly cooked.

Ekiben is also characterized by the use of regional specialties. For instance, Hokkaido bento feature seafood such as squid or crab, while gyutan (ox tongue) is common in Sendai bento and beef can often be found in bento from Yamagata Prefecture. Travelers can enjoy regional flavors by eating the specialties contained within a small bento box.

At urban shopping districts and along major roads, bento shops cater to customers' requests. As the rice and accompanying dishes are served hot, these bento are called hokaben (piping hot bento), and are favored by businesspeople and homemakers.

Almost every bento shop carries makunouchi bento (literally, intermission bento). There are various theories about the derivation of this name. One theory has it that in the past, theatergoers would eat boxed meals during intermission.

The standard style of the makunouchi bento has not changed much. Besides rice, it usually contains a variety of small food portions, sometimes 10 to 15 different items, such as Japanese-style omelette and boiled dishes, all set out in an orderly fashion.

Teishoku: The basic arrangement of a traditional Japanese meal, known as "ichiju-sansai," consists of miso soup, three dishes and rice, served on a single tray as a set meal known as "teishoku." Teishoku meals are prepared and served quickly at relatively low prices at specialized eateries. To many, teishoku are like a little taste of "mom's home cooking."

Founded in 1958 with its first shop in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, Ootoya Co. is one of the nation's largest teishoku chains, with more than 300 shops across the country and branches abroad.

According to Toru Nakamura, Ootoya's marketing manager, teishoku meals are a "substitute for home cooking like what a mother might lovingly prepare for her family."

Nakamura said teishoku "offers diners a variety of nutrients, balancing carbohydrates, protein and fat, while keeping calories relatively low."

A typical teishoku meal at Ootoya adopts the "ichiju-sansai" format, comprising a main dish, side dishes and Japanese-style pickled vegetables, accompanied by the ever-present bowl of rice and miso soup. Even the most expensive of the restaurant's teishoku meals are priced no more than 900 yen (about $9).

Customers can request a large portion of rice at no extra charge, and those with a yearning for healthier food can also have their white rice replaced with "gokokumai," a mixture of rice and other grains at no additional cost.

Tourists and locals alike can find time-honored teishoku eatery Kanda Shokudo in Akihabara. At first glance, the eatery is certainly unlikely to impress, but Kanda Shokudo, with a history of more than 50 years in a floor space of about 50 square meters is thronged almost every day with close to 300 customers.

Shoji Asanuma, second-generation proprietor of Kanda Shokudo, explained, "Since early in the Showa era (1926-1989) when the country's largest vegetable and fruit wholesale market used to be located nearby, we have been serving our tasty, voluminous meals to working men and women quickly and at reasonable prices."

The kitchen staff get cooking as soon as they receive an order for a ginger pork meal, one of the restaurant's signature teishoku meals and the most popular with customers. Just a few minutes later, a dish of ginger pork accompanied with plenty of shredded cabbage is delivered to the table, along with a tofu and seaweed miso soup, plus a bowl of steaming rice. Teishoku meal prices range from a little more than 500 yen to just under 800 yen.

Teishoku specialty restaurants aren't the only place to find teishoku meals. Japanese-style pubs and cookshops frequently incorporate them into lunch menus. A wide range of flavors from broiled fish to fried croquettes or deep-fried breaded pork can be had served alongside sauteed vegetables and meat. Many restaurants gladly ladle out second helpings of rice and miso soup free of charge.

If you get the chance, be sure to sample a variety of teishoku meals, the ambrosia of common people in Japan.

Kanmidokoro: In Japan, women who love sweets fill most of the seats at establishments called kanmidokoro (place to have something sweet), sanctuaries for women that men hesitate to enter.

Kanmidokoro are tea houses that offer desserts unique to Japan. The main ingredient in many of the desserts is "an," which are simmered and mashed adzuki beans kneaded with a large amount of sugar until they become pastelike.

Shiruko is a thin "an" soup with small pieces of toasted mochi, or chewy rice cakes. Anmitsu is small cubes of cooked kanten agar and sliced fruits with an on top.

In traditional Japanese cuisine, which did not use animal fat such as butter or fresh cream, an was the most popular ingredient for sweet desserts. In the Edo period (1603-1867), kanmidokoro became a staple of ordinary people's lives.

"When bread was introduced by the West, Japanese invented anpan, or an-filled bread," said Asako Kishi, 90, a cooking journalist. "An matches Japanese tastes perfectly." As she pointed out, the main items on the menu at kanmidokoro are soul food to Japanese.

Probably because kanmidokoro date back centuries, many famous establishments operate in old wooden houses. One is Takemura near Akihabara, Tokyo, which was established in 1930. It offers several kinds of shiruko with different methods of preparing the an, all priced at about 750 yen.

Among men, kanmidokoro tends to be thought the place frequented predominantly by women. Why? According to Kikuo Hotta, 74, the second-generation owner of Takemura, many kanmidokoro used to be located near bustling areas with beautifully dressed geisha. "Kanmidokoro may still conjure up an image of a place frequented by classy women," Hotta said.

Indeed, this tea house's atmosphere suits the kimono-clad madams stopping for sweets after going to the theater. Kanmidokoro, however, are too attractive for only women to visit them. Good and old Japan certainly await you if you slide open the lattice door of Kanmidokoro.

Ramen: Ramen noodle-in-soup in a bowl, one of Japan's most popular dishes, has its origin in China and flourished in Japan. Having a variety of tastes and flavors, ramen keeps evolving every day at bustling ramen shops.
Ramen shops are the place where your "spirit of inquiry" is tested.

In his travelblog "Sushi & beyond," British food journalist Michael Booth writes, "Essentially, ramen is a dish of yellow, chewy, curly Chinese wheat noodles served in a deep bowl of soup with toppings -- usually including a slice of roast pork." However, the description refers to the essential definition of ramen.

In soup, there are at least three kinds of flavors -- soy sauce, miso, and salt. In addition, there are various toppings for ramen, for example, a whole crab, fried chicken and a heap of vegetables.

Sapporo ramen, originating in Hokkaido, attracts many people with its miso-flavored soup seasoned with butter and other ingredients, while Hakata ramen from Fukuoka Prefecture is famous for its white pork bone broth and red ginger.

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