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The Japanese Table / Ready-made sauces oust seasoning staples

Yomiuri Shimbun photo, in cooperation with Tokyo Gas Co.

Broiled chicken, back, is served with shichimi togarashi spice mixture, front left, yuzu citrus pepper, center, and wasabi.

By Fumiko Endo / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterThis series discusses the present and future of washoku traditional Japanese cuisine. In this installment, we investigate the present situation at the dining table.

Basic seasonings in washoku are referred to as “sa-shi-su-se-so,” echoing the “s” row of the Japanese phonetic alphabet. These syllables more or less correspond to the seasonings sugar (sato), salt (shio), vinegar (su), soy sauce (shoyu) and miso (the second syllable of which is “so”). However, they are now being replaced by mentsuyu broths for soba and udon noodles, tare sauces and other prepared seasonings.

A 47-year-old female company employee in Shizuoka Prefecture favors ready-made sukiyaki sauce because it gives a strong flavor to dishes. She uses the sauce for egg dishes such as oyakodon (a bowl of rice topped with chicken and eggs).

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    A variety of ready-made and traditional seasoning staples are seen in a refrigerator.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

“I never fail to season with prepared products, so they give me a sense of security,” she said.

Mentsuyu products are now among regular seasonings used by households. They save the labor of preparing dashi stocks. On cooking recipe websites, washoku recipes using mentsuyu products are available, such as nikujaga simmered meat and potatoes, aemono marinated food and asazuke pickles.

The consumption of tsuyu and tare products has grown significantly. According to surveys on family incomes and expenditures conducted by the Statistics Bureau of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, annual spending per household on tsuyu and tare products surpassed spending on soy sauce in 1994. In 2017, annual spending per household on tsuyu and tare was 2.6 times the amount spent on soy sauce.

Awasezu, a mixture of vinegar and other seasonings, is also popular. Kantan-su, or “easy vinegar,” sold by Mizkan Holdings Co., has a good balance of salty, sweet and umami flavors. In fiscal 2017, sales of the product surpassed those of the basic grain vinegar in the 500-milliliter-bottle category, making Kantan-su the top-selling product of the company’s vinegar series.

“This result was greeted with surprise within the company,” a Mizkan official said. “As the number of dual income households increases and for other reasons, there is a growing need for cutting time spent on household chores. Amid such a situation, the product helps season dishes easily, and this is why it has been highly appreciated by consumers.”

At supermarkets, various flavors of nabe-tsuyu broths for hot pot dishes are available, such as soy sauce-based flavor, kimchi flavor, and sesame and soy milk flavor.

In recent years, moreover, many recipes use symbols such as “A” and “B.” They refer to different sets of seasonings such as sugar and soy sauce. For example, “A” might refer to “3 tablespoons of soy sauce, 2 tablespoons of sake, 2 tablespoons of sugar.”

In washoku, it is said that the five basic seasonings should be added in the sa-shi-su-se-so order when making simmered food, but many recent recipes do not refer to such an order.  

Prof. Toru Fushiki of Ryukoku University, head of the Washoku Association of Japan, said using prepared seasonings in cooking is a good way to get familiar with washoku in everyday dishes at home. Recently, many families use stock powder and miso containing dashi.

“From the perspective of handing down the culture and tradition of washoku to future generations, there is no need to raise the hurdle of home cooking,” Fushiki said.

However, is it really so difficult to cook washoku without prepared seasonings?

Maho Sumida, a cooking expert who authored a recipe book for everyday dishes that can be prepared using only basic seasonings, proposes simple methods. For example, only salt, miso and sake are needed for her recipe for nabe with chicken dumplings, as umami flavor can be extracted from minced meat and shimeji mushrooms.

“Dashi broth can be made just by simmering ingredients,” Sumida said. “I would like to teach younger generations that washoku can be cooked only with the sa-shi-su-se-so basic seasonings.”

Recipe for broiled chicken

Washoku is rich in condiments, and a dish can offer various kinds of flavors.

Ingredients (serves 2):

2 chicken thighs

Moderate amount of salt

Condiments (moderate amount each of shichimi togarashi, a spice mixture of seven ingredients, yuzu citrus pepper and wasabi)

Directions:

1. Make cuts on thick parts of the chicken thighs and sprinkle salt over both sides.

2. Place the chicken thighs skin side up in a grill with upper and lower burners, and roast them over high heat for about 10 minutes. When using a grill with only one burner, place the chicken thighs skin side down on a grill and roast for about 5 minutes. Turn them over and roast for another 6 minutes.

3. Cut the chicken into bite-size pieces and serve with condiments. Powdered sansho pepper also goes well with the dish.

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