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Yakumi: adding spice to dining in Japan

August 8, 2016

Compared to most other Asian cuisines, Japanese food (washoku) generally boasts a much subtler taste profile. Especially in high-end Kyoto-style cooking, the aim is to draw out and accentuate the flavors of the ingredients, rather than to overlay them with more powerful seasonings.

And yet herbs, spices and other condiments have long played an important role in perking up Japanese meals, from the simplest bowl of noodles to the most elaborate kaiseki banquet. Among the most distinctive and best known outside of Japan are pungent green wasabi root, green shiso (perilla) leaves, prickly ash “pepper” (sansho), and yuzu (citrus) peel.

In Japanese, these seasonings are known collectively as yakumi. Besides adding their own distinctive flavors, yakumi are also used as garnishes, to add color and a seasonal accent. In addition, many are thought to have medicinal properties.

Adding color and spice

Yakumi garnishes are an essential part of every meal in Japan. When a plate of sashimi is served, it is invariably accompanied by a small mound of grated wasabi root, to lend a pungent counterpoint to the natural oils in the fish. Sometimes grated ginger is used in place of wasabi, especially when serving blue-backed fish, such as mackerel or skipjack tuna.

Shiso leaves are frequently used to add a splash of fresh green color to sashimi platters. Often you may find tiny purple flowers and small purple sprouts on the side. These too are from the shiso plant. But their purpose is not just to make the plate look pretty: shiso is eaten for its herbal-minty flavor that refreshes the palate.

Another common yakumi with sashimi and sushi is sliced myoga, a crunchy rhizome similar to ginger but with a taste that is floral rather than pungent.

Finely chopped green onions is the preferred yakumi on miso soup, whether as part of the traditional breakfast or with the rice that rounds off a full-scale multi-course dinner.

With clear soups, more delicate garnishes are used, such as trefoil (mitsuba) herb or water dropwort (seri). And often a few slivers of freshly cut yuzu peel are placed strategically on the surface, so their fragrance wafts up along with the aroma of the dashi soup stock.

Whether at home or in restaurants, noodles are never eaten without a simple yakumi garnish. Most commonly it will be chopped negi, either sprinkled onto bowls of hot soba or udon, or served on the side if the noodles come with a dip.

In summer, shreds of myoga and slivers of green shiso leaf are a common accompaniment to chilled noodles such as hiyamugi and somen.

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