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Japan; food in

What we think of as traditional food in Japan stretches back in time for a far shorter period than might be imagined.

Buddhism became the countries main religion in the 6th century - thus decreeing that in the animal kingdom only fish and two legged creatures could be eaten - this was only reversed as recently as 1873, when the Meiji emperor declared the rule to be irrational.

In general, dishes contain few ingredients - seldom more than four or five, but there are great efforts to bring the best out of each; and even in this age of the deep-freeze, food follows the seasons. Dishes are often decorated with a fresh flower, even for an everyday family meal.

Food is eaten with chop-sticks, these being shorter than their Chinese counterparts. Four raw ingredients form a constant backdrop; they are rice, soybeans, dashi (a form of stock, and the base of all soups) and fish. They are island people, like the British, and new foods have been accepted very slowly. The first two came centuries ago from their contacts with the Chinese mainland (soy being used in sauce and to make tofu), dashi showing the ingenuity of the race making something delicious from a dried fish and seaweed base; and fish became important under the Buddhists when the consumption of meat was forbidden.

Many traditional dishes are in fact fairly recent in terms of history. "sukiyaki" (one pot cookery) appeared at the turn of this century - possibly introduced by a Mongolian chef; "sushu" (properly called nigirizushi) was invented 1818; and the "tempura" method of deep-frying was brought by the Portuguese in the 16th century.

The Japanese version of haute cuisine is "kaiseki ryori". To produce this style of cooking the chef has to work under a series of demanding constraints; one being his insistence on producing foods only at their seasonal peak - thus eliminating three-quarters of the possibilities at any one time.

A meal of this type would be served in a formal manner, and consist of between seven and nine courses served on antique ceramics and lacquerware - as mentioned, each dish would include a seasonal ingredient at the peak of its freshness and flavour. It would probably start with traditional appetisers, such as caramelised baby fish, thinly-sliced raw fish (sashimi), pickled vegetables and miso soup. This could be followed by course after course of delicacies unavailable outside their native country. Clear soup might be one for example, this traditionally has four single but separate solid ingredients - one season might bring a shrimp wrapped in yuba (a thick bean-curd skin), a perfect fresh pea, a tree-ear mushroom and a lily root!

Sake or tea (itself introduced from China in the 9th century) are served to accompany a meal. See also "Bento (box)", "Dashi", "Mirin", "Sake/Saké", "Sushi","Wasabi (Wasabia Japonica)"

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