Japanese sugar applications in traditional foods
For the next stage in our ‘around the world’ sugar application series, we land in the enchanted country of Japan. Overflowing with culture, history and beauty, Japan is famous for its blossom trees, karaoke and advanced tech. But it’s the Japanese cuisine and the way sugar is used to enhance flavours, textures and appearance that offers an abundance of gastronomical delights with a boundless variety of regional and seasonal dishes.
Restaurants in Japan range from mobile food stands to atmospheric drinking places, seasonally erected terraces over rivers, inexpensive chain shops and unique themed restaurants. Many restaurants specialise in a single type of dish, such as sushi, while others offer a variety of dishes.
Japanese sugar and its history
In Japan, sugarcane is grown only in the South-western Islands, at the southernmost end of the Japanese Archipelago. Most of these islands are in the subtropics, so weather conditions can be severe to sugarcane cultivation. Frequent typhoons, droughts in summer, low temperatures in winter and poor soil fertility. In recent years, sugarcane production has been sluggish due to the lack of labour caused by the aging of farmers, a delay of mechanization in cultivation and unfavourable weather conditions. Today, Japan imports sugar mainly from Australia, the third largest exporting country in the world after Brazil and China.
Traditional cuisine in Japan is based on rice, soups or Ramen, pickled vegetables, and seafood, which is often grilled, but also served raw as sashimi or in sushi. The sugars applied by Japan’s cooks and chefs are an essential seasoning, rather than salt, in most savoury dishes. This technique enriches flavours, and results in more balanced diets.
Sushi in contemporary cuisine
Sushi is one of the most well-known dishes across Eastern and Western cultures. With over £104million of sushi sold in the UK alone in 2019, and an industry worth over $22billion in the United States, this fresh, filling, sweet yet savoury dish is a firm favourite.
Traditional sushi includes added sugar to achieve an authentic finish. For example, to make 20 sushi rolls, around 10 tablespoons of white crystallized sugar are required for the rice to contain its sweet and sticky taste and texture. Historically, when preparing sushi rice, sugar was added in smaller quantities to balance out the sourness of the vinegar. Depending on which rice is used today, the difference could change its firmness, chewiness, and stickiness when cooked.
Add sweetness to your soy
Soy sauce isn’t only used in Japan for enhancing the flavour of foods such as rice and sauces. It’s a staple commonly found in kitchen cupboards around the world.
Kikkoman is a brand, made in Japan which is a sweetened aromatic version of the traditional soy sauce. It is darker in colour, and has a thicker, more syrupy consistency due to the added molasses. Using molasses sweetens soy sauce’s conventional salty taste and it can enrich diets as it includes vitamin B6, iron and magnesium. Molasses is highly viscous, with a strong and robust flavour.
Teriyaki sauces and glazes
Teriyaki is a cooking technique used in Japanese cuisine where boiled or grilled foods such as salmon, squid and pork are glazed with a sauce similar to soy. This sweet glossy glaze includes all of the ingredients of soy sauce, but with added ginger, garlic and soft brown light sugar. The soft brown light sugar has a mellow aroma and sweet flavour, which easily dissolves, perfect for sauces such as Teriyaki.
Typically, teriyaki sauce contains anywhere from a pinch to a tablespoon of sugar, depending on the quantity made. This is because, typically, lovers of Japanese foods like their food sweet. Chefs preparing Japanese food know that sugar is one of the most powerful seasonings in the pantry, helping to make foods better tasting, more filling and harmoniously balanced.
Japanese cookies can be made at home
Japan does not have quite the international reputation for desserts as other cultures have, but there is an array of sweet delights, including both desserts and confectionaries. Many are simple and straightforward to make at home.
Matcha, or green tea powder, has been used in Japan for thousands of years, and since then has evolved, with the creation of the Matcha Green Tea cookie. The matcha-infused cookies are loaded with white chocolate chips, giving a harmonious balance between sweet and bitter.
The earthy, slightly bitter taste with a sweet hint of vanilla-like aroma of matcha is subtle, yet distinctive. Crispy, yet buttery with its distinct matcha flavour, these green tea cookies are a light delight.
Demerara sugar, because it is mellow in flavour and course in texture, is typically used in contemporary recipes to bake Matcha cookies. This sugar is a perfect ingredient as it removes the bitter edge of the green tea.
It is traditionally applied in shortcrust, and crumbles as well as cookies, creating the crumbly, yet crunchy texture with a light flavour that is the texture and taste of this popular Japanese cookie.
If you are curious to replicate these Japanese favourites, apply the required pure sugar where necessary to retain their flavour, balance and texture.
Japanese culture has skilfully learned how to season savoury, and sweet dishes with sugar, not only to make them more delicious, but also as a way to cook with less salt, fats, and oils, resulting in meals that appease the appetite, so that one eats less.
Next month, in our ‘around the world’ series, we return a little closer to home and delve into the sugar applications of traditional Scottish food and beverages.
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