It’s fair to say that Japan takes its food seriously. Hot on France’s tail for the most Michelin starred restaurants in the world (Tokyo now has even more than Paris) it has become a mecca for foodies thanks to the unique flavours and attention to detail given to every dish.
So, you’ve been drawn in by painstakingly beautiful plates of sushi on Instagram and can’t wait to dive in - but where should you start? And, crucially, what should you be drinking alongside your Japanese culinary journey? Today we’re walking through everything you need to know about Japanese food, and sharing a few of our favourite food pairings to accompany our brand new collection box, Postcards from Japan. Kanpai!
1) What makes Japanese food unique?
Japanese cuisine is widely recognised as being unique thanks to a couple of key features. It is best known to the foodie crowds for first identifying the fifth taste element “umami” - a deep, savoury note found in cooked meat and seaweed that roughly translates as “essence of deliciousness”. You could be forgiven for thinking as a result Japanese food would be heavily seasoned; on the contrary, Japanese food is seasoned sparingly to allow the subtle flavours in fish, seafood, and vegetables to shine through. Instead, they prefer to use flavours like pickled ginger, wasabi, or soy sauce to highlight these natural ingredients, rather than mask them.
2) What role does it play in the local culture?
Japanese cuisine is one of only three national styles of cuisine in the world which have been recognised by UNESCO for their cultural significance; this is because it plays a crucial role in preserving traditional customs and the local culture. The meticulous way Japanese meals are prepared and served (even the dishes they are served in are thoughtfully chosen) echoes their core beliefs around simplicity, seasonality, and respect. Smaller courses over a longer period of time encourage a mindful attitude towards eating, as well as a greater appreciation of individual flavours.
Japanese pork ramen
3) What should I try?
The short answer? Everything. More specifically though, the Japanese are known to cook and enjoy all parts of the fish - yes, that means the eyes too - so come prepared with an open mind and an adventurous palate! If, however, you’re looking to gently ease your way into traditional Japanese flavours, look to a rich bowl of ramen with all the trimmings before reaching for grilled eels. Alternatively, Japanese cuisine relies heavily on seafood and is widely regarded for having some of the best in the world, so you can’t go wrong with a plate of tuna sashimi either.
4) What should I pair with it?
The breadth and versatility of Japanese cuisine means it can be enjoyed alongside all manner of spirits beyond the typical sake, and a wide variety of cocktails. Whisky, gin, vodka and even rum can all pair beautifully with traditional Japanese dishes. In a tribute to his lifelong love of Japanese culture, our Master Mixologist Patrick Pistolesi created a collection of four cocktails exclusive to NIO Cocktails called “Postcards from Japan'' made with each of these four classic spirits. All of them are designed to capture the spirit of a different region in Japan and evoke their unique local flavours - a love letter in cocktail form.
If you’re looking for something equally delicious to pair with some classic Japanese dishes out there, take a look at our top picks below.
Tuna Nigiri - paired with a Hokkaido Pleasure gin cocktail
Nigiri - which translates as “two fingers” - is the perfect example of “less is more” in Japanese cuisine. Thin, melt in the mouth slices of fatty tuna are draped over a small bed of sticky vinegared rice, creating a simple and delicious mouthful. The acidity of the rice and the high fat content of the fish makes this an excellent pairing with the crisp botanical flavours in gin, and a great match with the Hokkaido Pleasure cocktail. This contains a superb balance of tart green apple and zesty citrus flavours alongside the botanical notes in Etsu Gin.
Shabu Shabu - paired with a Kurayoshi Heritage whisky cocktail
Shabu Shabu - Japanese Hot Pot
Shabu shabu is a kind of nabemono, or Japanese hot pot, where paper thin slices of meat and vegetables are served raw and cooked at the table in the hot broth. The name is the Japanese onomatopoeia for “swish swish” as the meat (or vegetables) only takes a few seconds to cook in the hot broth. Delicate slices of wagyu beef are delicious in shabu shabu and create a deep umami flavour that pairs wonderfully with a full bodied whisky. The Kurayoshi Heritage cocktail, a ginger whisky sour bursting with earthy, spicy flavours, is the ideal accompaniment to something as rich and delicious as shabu shabu.
Katsu Sando - paired with a Hokkaido Glory vodka cocktail
Katsu Sando Sandwiches
You may have seen the Katsu Sando pasted all over your Instagram home page at every buzzy new restaurant: melt in the mouth cutlets of panko fried pork (or sometimes even wagyu beef) are slathered in a tangy tonkatsu sauce and served in Japanese milk bread, with a little fresh shredded cabbage for a bit of extra freshness. It is - quite rightly - the headlining brunch dish at most modern Japanese inspired restaurants, which makes it the ultimate pairing for our own take on the Bloody Mary Sour, the Hokkaido Glory cocktail. A cleaner, fresher take on your usual brunch staple, the Hokkaido Glory balances the rich spice of Ancho Reyes and mild balsamic flavour of La Tomato liqueur with the smooth clean profile of Eiko vodka.
Unagi - paired with an Okinawa Pure Beauty rum cocktail
If you’re inclined towards more adventurous dishes, or already consider yourself more of a connoisseur of Japanese food, unagi may well be an ideal choice to expand your palate. Unagi is freshwater eel that’s smoked, or grilled, on charcoal giving it a rich and bold flavour. It has a mildly sweetness and a fatty texture that transforms when it's grilled or sauteed, making it a perfect tropical dish to accompany a Japanese-inspired Daiquiri. The Okinawa Pure Beauty cocktail provides an aromatic twist on the beloved traditional daiquiri with the addition of Yuzu liqueur, which is slightly more bitter than the typical lime juice. The result is a zesty cocktail that’s incredibly refreshing, and an ideal balance to the sweet smokiness of unagi.
Discover more about our exclusive Postcards from Japan cocktail collection and order your box today.