Long gone are the days when “going for sushi” was synonymous with feasting on oversized rolls stuffed with imitation crab, spicy mayo and a medley of nondescript deep-fried ingredients. Don’t get us wrong — we enjoy shrimp tempura rolls just as much as the next person, and it’s impossible to not have at least a small soft spot for California rolls. But our country’s collective palates have expanded considerably over the past several years. This general trend is, perhaps, most noticeable via the progression of offerings in Japanese cuisine.
Put it this way: Just over a decade ago, not too many would know the meaning of — let alone express an affinity for — uni (sea urchin). Soon after, diners slowly elevated its status from novelty all the way to mainstream, and uni began popping up on more and more menus. In the past couple of years, consumers have begun to pride themselves on being able to declare preferences and detect differences — in both appearance and taste — between various types. My, what a journey from Godzilla rolls! With all that in mind, here are 10 buzzy words (along with definitions) you might encounter in the modern world of Japanese dining.
Sushi and Sashimi
This phrase translates to “I’ll leave it up to you.” As such, diners leave the selection of the contents of their meal to the head chef. While it’s most commonly associated with sushi, omakase can encompass other Japanese cooking techniques.
A traditional multi-course Japanese dinner. Kaiseki is somewhat comparable to the Western “fine dining,” in that it balances taste, texture, appearance and colors of food. The full meal is most commonly prepared with the freshest seasonal and most local ingredients possible, and utilizes beautiful, handmade servingware. While kaiseki can — and often does — include sushi and/or sashimi, there is an emphasis on grilled and steamed dishes, in addition to vegetables and soup.
The term translates to “in front of Tokyo Bay” and originated in the early 1800s, when what we commonly refer to as “sushi” was first invented. During this time — when refrigeration was non-existent and the seafood came from the bay — simplicity was paramount. This focus on a single ingredient’s simplicity remains today, and edomae-style chefs pride themselves on carrying over preparation subtleties from this era, such as “aging” the fish.
Translating to “in front of the [cutting] board,” an itamae is a restaurant’s chef. There is a rigorous and time-consuming process involved with ascension to the highly respected role, especially in regards to sushi (think of Jiro Dreams of Sushi). Apprentices can spend multiple years perfecting their handling, preparation, techniques and demeanor before being promoted to the position.
A subset of nigirizushi (the typical preparation of a topping over an oval-shaped ball of rice), aburi style refers to the topping — most often a type of fish — being partially grilled on the topside, while remaining raw on the bottom. This practice has been used increasingly at sushi bars with the aid of a blowtorch.
It’s difficult to argue about freshness when a fish is prepared live. That’s the idea behind ikizukuri, which typically involves the chef cutting into live fish, shrimp, octopus and/or lobster — often taken straight from tanks on premises — to serve immediately as sashimi. It’s relatively rare to find a sushi bar that employs such techniques in the United States, though it is legal (despite mounting controversy and being outlawed in other countries.)
Shoyu is Japanese for “soy sauce.” Diners frequently come across the term in reference to a ramen that uses plenty of the namesake ingredient in its clear, brown broth (most commonly made with chicken or vegetable stock). It’s the oldest — and often recognized as most established — version of ramen.
Shio is Japanese for “salt.” Another major category of ramen, shio varieties are typically lightest and clearest (as opposed to the relative darkness of shoyu and cloudiness of tonkotsu.) Similar to shoyu, the broth is most typically made with a chicken or vegetable base.
Originating in Japan in the mid-20th Century, tsukemen is a ramen dish that separates noodles and broth. Diners dip cold ramen (or soba/udon) noodles in a hot soup, which usually features a stronger taste to typical ramen broths and can involve other creative ingredients. The dish has seen a rapid rise in popularity in Japan, where several restaurants specialize exclusively in its preparation. In the United States, Los Angeles is largely considered to have the most flourishing tsukemen scene.
This ramen dish is defined by its cloudy, almost milky appearance resulting from a pork bone-broth base. The broth is prepared by boiling pork bones in water for several hours. Tonkotsu is generally considered the heartiest tasting of all ramen preparations.