Writing daily-life stuff in Japan: Food
Considering how much fanfiction gets written set in Japan. I thought I might just share some daily life details that may or may not be useful.
This comes from my own experiences of living in a bicultural household and living in the country for about a month every year of my life. Admittedly, I’ve only lived in a deep rural area and visited cities, but some of the pointers will still be relevant.
The first thing that come to mind when you’re trying to describe another place is to get to grips with the food culture.You know the saying, ‘To know a people, know the food that they’d willingly consume’? So, for this post, I’m going to talk about food details.
1. Food that you might have in the fridge: Old rice if you made rice in bulk + various rice toppings. Think of rice as the bread, and the fridge being full of the spreads you could put on it.
Pickles: Might not be so popular with the younger generation, but if they live with their parents, there will bound to be at least one kind of pickle in the fridge, because there are speciality pickles for almost every prefecture and you cannot escape them. In the same way as spreads, they usually taste very strong and its rare to eat them as they are, unless they’re just that tasty and you like pickles that much (think of somebody eating peanut butter with a spoon straight out of the jar). You would eat pickles with white rice. Here are three examples: Umeboshi - pickled plum, and it is sour and very salty! You can suck on stone for minutes afterwards, just savouring the salt taste. Usually one plum is sufficient for one bowl of rice. Takuwan - a smelly, giant horseradish pickle, which might look a bit yellow with age. When you see giant horseradishes drying in the sun around the back of the house, this is probably what they’re going to be made into. Rakkyo - little pickled onions.
Other toppings: Shirasu - tiny little white fish, each fish is about two centimetres long, and you sprinkle (or heap them, if you really like them) over rice. Delicious. Again, may not be popular with the younger generations who have grown up accustomed to more Western flavours. Gohandesuyo - seaweed paste in a jar. It’s salty like Marmite and like Marmite the name of the food is the name of the brand. You put a tablespoon or so on one bowl of rice.
Spring onions. We are never out of spring onions. Ever. Chopped up fine.
Sauces: Soy sauce, mirin, su (rice wine vinegar), yakiniku sauce (sauce specifically for yakiniku), mayonnaise, yakisoba sauce, ketchup, mustard in a tube, wasabi in a tube.
A tub of miso: of which there are red and white variants, and there is constant family clash over which tastes better!
If the household eats bread, you’re more likely to get a vegetable oil spread than butter. I think a few years ago there was a butter shortage. It was just too expensive to buy or not on the shelves, but there were so many different brands of vegetable spread made from different flower seeds!
Egg is a fridge staple. If you’re in doubt and you need a quick breakfast or lunch, you could crack an egg raw over hot rice, spritz a dash of soy sauce on top, shovel it down and go.
Natto - fermented beans, its sticky and when you pull it apart it stretches with sticky web-like strands just like melted cheese. It’s famously an acquired taste but I love it on rice, in curry and in miso soup. Sold in wee cups, with sachets of sauce and mustard.
Also in the pantry: Katsuobushi - tuna flakes, often used to make tuna stock; Stick dashi - powdered stock, usually seaweed or tuna; wakame - seaweed; ginger; taka no tsume - dried hot chilli peppers, prettily named ‘hawk talons’; sesame seeds; sesame oil. Furikake - literally, ‘sprinkles’ for rice, when you have no other option. Maybe tofu. Panko for frying things. Golden curry roux blocks. Cream stew insta-kits.
Instant foods: Cup ramen, cup noodles, instant ramen, instant yakisoba, freeze-dried instant soups, instant corn soup.
The primary oil used for cooking is so-called ‘salad oil’: I don’t actually know what it’s made of, but it’s a vegetable oil of some kind.
2. Where I might buy food: Supermarkets for the fruit, veg, meat and fish, but for the best read-made fare, drinks and snack foods (kashi pan, onigiri, yoghurt, and depending on where you go there might be salads and bentos), you would head to a 24/7 open convenience store (e.g. Seven-Eleven, Lawsons’), where they also might do hot steamed pork buns and, lately, really good coffee to go. If you want to buy somebody a nice cake or box of tea-time sweets as an omiyage you might go to the basement floor of a department store.
Vending machines - there is a vending machine everywhere. I am not kidding. Even in the deep countryside, I found a couple of vending machines up a mountain which smelled as if they had been scent-marked by raccoon dogs and bears. And at these vending machines, you can not only buy cold juice, but several different kinds of hot and cold Japanese teas, a very sweet milk tea, several different brands of hot and cold coffees, corn soup, potato chowder, hot shiruko (a sweet azuki drink), hot chocolate, hot and cold lemon…You’d honestly never go thirsty.
For sushi, we’d call up a sushi restaurant. The same goes for ramen. Unless you’re using an instant ramen kit, making ramen broth is hard. The tonkotsu variant is pretty much impossible at home. Likewise, you just can’t make good sushi at home. It’s not really a family meal or something that can be casually made. Typically sushi is brought out for celebrations or special occasions as it can be quite pricey but conveyor belt sushi places are more accessible.
3. Bread: You will find white bread (fluffy, gorgeous, pillowy white bread, that’s basically like cake) but it’s really difficult to find brown bread. In the rural supermarket, it was non-existent and for bread with a crust, you’d have to go to the little street-corner artisan bakeries.
On the topic of bread and kashipan, I’ve often seen references in fanfiction of characters baking kashipan for each other, or kashipan just like their grandmother made it (e.g. anpan, melonpan, creampan). As much I like the sentiment behind these scenes, I’m not saying they’re impossible, but in most cases they are a little jarring.
Our grandmother’s generation were not bakers. Most of the houses that our grandmothers grew up in did not have ovens, since Japan doesn’t have a tradition of domestic baking, and even now, a lot of houses still don’t have ovens aside from a nifty little oven toaster, Cakes and kashipan were seen as Western and trendy luxuries to be eaten at cafes (a Western import in itself) or bought from specialist shops which had the equipment to make them. They weren’t ‘casual home-cooking’ so to speak, even if the history of the anpan and the castella date pretty far back into the past now.
Even now, unless you are a massive kashipan fanatic and dessert-making enthusiast, you probably wouldn’t bake a tray of kashipan at home when you could buy them perfectly made from a nearby convenience store.
Having said that, I have tried making anpan in an oven toaster. I made six, since that was all that could fit on the little toaster tray. They were each about 6cm in diameters, and my grandmother complained that it was a waste of perfectly good azuki.
You can, if you’re really into dessert making, make lots of things in an oven toaster, but if you’re looking to make something sentimental just like your grandmother made them, mochi might be a better option (e.g. warabimochi or ohagi), or maybe since sweet things historically tended to be more often bought from a specialist than made at home, quote a favourite wagashi that grandmother might have enjoyed from a particular shop e.g. the anko dama and imo youkan from Funawa; the chestnut manju from the shop by the station.
4. Omiyage: If you go away on a trip and you’re inconveniencing work colleagues with your absence (which you are), this is the souvenir that you buy to take back and share at your work place, often a food item, so boxes of sweets are often packaged in such a way that the sweets inside are individually wrapped for ease of splitting distribution.
This is also the word used for the gifts you bring back for family, either when you’re visiting relatives and you know that you will be encroaching upon their hospitality, potentially inconveniencing them, or if you’re coming back to the family and, in a way, again, it’s to make up for any inconveniences that might have been caused by absence -although largely for family, it’s also about the joy of giving to those you care about!
Likewise, students who go away on holiday on a trip might bring back omiyage for fellow members of their club, if they’re involved in club activities. If you think of club activities as training children up for work place social structure and customs, it makes some sense.
Not omiyage but an example of gift-giving, but if you move into a new neighbourhood, it’s usually expected that you visit your neighbours and take round gifts, as a gesture of courtesy and goodwill. There is, again, an element of asking forgiveness for inconvenience, because moving into the new home would have made a lot of noise and possibly caused a disturbance.
With omiyage in mind, each prefecture tends to advertise certain foods/sweets that are ‘unique’ to it that would make suitable omiyage. A famous example would be ‘Tokyo Banana’ and anything matcha from the Uji area in Kyoto.
5. Food is seasonal: Japan is hyperconscious of its seasons, so the fridge will likely contain seasonal fruits and veg. In a lot of Japanese poems, it was traditional to include a ‘kigo’, a word that encodes a season to set the poem in without explicitly saying ‘It is winter’, and some fruits are kigo. The persimmon is a kigo for autumn, peaches and cherries and plums for spring, and more recently the watermelon is a definite kigo for summer! Seasonal fruits also make good gifts for visiting friends’ houses, especially if you’re bringing them back from the countryside after visiting relatives.
Autumn’s a great time for food. Now is the time when all of the mushrooms are coming out - shiitake, matsutake, enoki, shimeji - and they’re dried and preserved for the year. People who cook might have dried shiitake in the pantry for rehydrating and eating or using in stock.
Foreign brands, aware of the seasonal sensitivity of their Japanese, often produce Japan only seasonal limited products. My favourite example of this is the Haagen-Daaz flavours. One autumn there was a pumpkin and cinnamon, and I’m pretty sure I saw a cherry blossom latte at Starbucks.
6. Food you might see at festival stalls: Taiyaki - fish-shaped pastries made with a pancake-like batter and filled with custard or azuki. Yakisoba - fried noodles. Yakitori - chicken skewers. Takoyaki - octopus batter balls. Hot dogs…With a shout-out to very rare diversity my local festival had a Turkish kebab stall last year. Kakikoori for the summer festivals - sweet ice, with typical syrups being red, green and yellow (strawberry, melon and lemon flavours respectively).
…..and that’s enough for now I think. (21/9/2016)