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The Zen of Japanese dining
By Ruby Gao

The spirit of Zen - living simply, naturally and in the moment - is reflected in Japanese cuisine and its style of fresh, seasonal food, delicately prepared and elegantly presented. And savored slowly.

A formal and authentic Japanese meal contains seven to 11 courses consumed over a couple of hours. The duration calls for patience and can induce diners to relax in a state of inner peace, says Eric Zhang, the sous chef at J-Mix, Jumeirah Himalayas Hotel Shanghai.

Small portions, detail and aesthetically pleasing presentation are important.

A typical authentic meal begins with an appetizer, often pickled food, then comes a starter, soup, sashimi, grilled food, a stewed or steamed dish, a deep-fried dish such as tempura, salad topping with vinegar, then a staple food, mostly rice and noodle. Finally, there's dessert.

The serving order is well-considered. Soup is served at the beginning to warm the stomach, while salad is served after fried food and before staple food to cleanse the palate and appease the appetite.

Since many Japanese are Buddhists, vegetables and seafood predominate. Fish, shrimp, crabs and clams are popular in the seafood-rich island nation.

Japanese cuisine is one of the few schools that categorizes vegetables as being "more premier" than meat.

"Long, drawn-out serving process and the focusing are both due to the origins of Japanese fine dining, the temple, where meat is not allowed," chef Zhang explains.

It was not until the Meji Restoration beginning in 1868 that meat dishes started to become part of Japanese food, he says.

"Natural, simple and seasonal - that's my definition of Japanese culinary style," he says.

Japanese food is generally mild because chef focuses on the natural flavor of the ingredients, avoiding too much cooking, preparation and seasoning that could overwhelm the original flavor. For example, sashimi, or raw seafood, presents the natural texture and flavor of seafood that is carefully sliced, sometimes paper-thin by highly skilled sushi chefs. The flavor and fattiness of tuna and salmon, the sweetness of crab and taste of shrimp are highlighted when served raw.

When seafood and meat are grilled, they are seasoned lightly and simply, often with drops of lemon juice or inches of salt.

There is a long Japanese tradition of serving seasonal food and respecting nature's rhythms and cyclical gifts.

"In different seasons, a Japanese chef sources different vegetables, seafood and fruit," Zhang says.

Spring is the season for tender shoots of wild greens and vegetables. Snapper fish and clams are in season then.

In summer, winter melon and eel are popular. In the autumn, matsutake or pine mushroom and saury fish (mackerel pike) are must-orders in Japanese restaurants.

Winter is the season for eggplant, radish and hotpot featuring monkfish and puffer fish. Desserts feature chestnuts and sweet red bean paste.

Chef Zhang has worked in Japan for years and says Japanese cuisine is becoming more multi-cultural. For example, Japanese hotpot is not limited to its traditional, mild style, but also features more flavors and ingredients, such as Sichuan chilies and peppers. It can be rich and spicy.

Desserts are traditionally simple and mildly sweet, but French techniques are sometimes used, such as Japanese light cheese cake, creating more variety.

Shanghai offers a wide array of Japanese restaurants and restaurant chains, usually with very friendly and efficient staff.

Shanghai Daily picks four restaurants known for their excellent, authentic cuisine and recommended by Japanese residents in the city.

Ippudo Ramen

Ambience: Decor is pleasing but pretty standard: Japanese wall decorations, plenty of natural wood, shiny red and black lacquered surfaces, long tables for group dining, as well as small tables for more intimate meals. However, what it lacks in creative furnishings, it makes up for in energy. It's almost always crowded, especially on Friday night and Saturday; there's a queue outside the door.

Pros: The staff is very friendly and efficient. During happy hour (4pm-7pm), guests can buy-one-get-one-free draft beer with any appetizer order. There's a wide range of appetizers and side dishes, including cucumber with sesame sauce to Japanese style pan-fried dumplings with pork filling. The homemade ramen dishes are justly famous.

Cons: It's crowded. The only Shanghai outpost is in the IFC Mall in Pudong, which is a bit out of the way for most people, but definitely worth the trip. Also, by most Chinese standards, Ippudo is relatively pricey, but no means unaffordable.

Recommended: Shiromaru Motoaji, the signature ramen dish in which ultra-thin noodles are served in pork soup and topped with pork slices, black fungus and soybean sprouts. The Ippudo shrimp buns are hand-sized white buns stuffed with a thick slice of pork, lettuce, barbecue sauce and mayonnaise.

Don't order: While the side dishes are good and quite varied, none we tasted was overwhelmingly delicious.

Drinks: Beer, sake, soft drinks, shochu (a distilled liquor, stronger than wine and sake but weaker than whisky and vodka)

Price: 100 yuan per person

Address: LG1/F, IFC Mall, 8 Century Ave

Tel: 2028-0328

Takumi Robata and Sake Bar

Ambience: Guests are welcomed in Japanese by a rather loud chorus of staff, who also say good-bye in chorus. Public space and private dining room are both available. Restaurant is designed in modern Japanese style, featuring warm wooden decor. Diners can watch continual preparation of various skewered food turned on the robata grill in the center of the restaurant.

Pros: Fresh ingredients are superb and the restaurant is known for both hearty food and its Japanese-style welcome. In addition to grilled food, there's plenty of sushi and sashimi.

Cons: The regular welcoming and farewells by staff can be a bit distracting for those who want a quiet environment for chatting with friends.

Recommended: Grilled rockfish melts in the mouth and has a nice, fatty aroma. Firm grilled prawns and grilled mackerel sushi are excellent.

Don't order: Some premium seafood is very expensive.

Drinks: Beer, sake, soft drinks, non-alcoholic cocktail, such as Calamanci punch, lemon and tonic

Cost: 200-300 yuan per person

Address: 4/F, IFC Mall, 8 Century Ave

Tel: 5011-1677

Shou Mi

Ambience: This is the place to explore classic Japanese gastronomy in an elegant and traditional setting. Reservations are recommended. The decor is earthy/rustic, with wood flooring and furnishings. Fresh fish is displayed in the sushi bar and diners can watch chefs prepare various dishes. Several elegant, private rooms with traditional lanterns are available.

Pros: The menu offers a wide range of sushi and sashimi, as well as robata-grilled dishes. Sukiyaki, or Japanese hotpot, is available. Dessert is free.

Cons: It is quite tricky to spot the restaurant. Compared with other Japanese restaurants, service is not too efficient. Wait staff does not speak much English.

Recommended: Sushi and sashimi are premium. Raw tuna belly and shrimp are gems. The sea urchin is exceptionally large and served with fresh basil, which brings out the flavor. The medium/medium-rare beef sashimi tastes splendid, served with a sauce flavored with onion and seaweed on top.

Don't order: Soba is good but too expensive.

Drinks: Beer, high-quality sakeand soft drink

Cost: 350 yuan per person

Address: 1/F, Bldg A, 28 Jinhui Rd

Tel: 6191-8789

Sasano Sushi House

Ambience: The small, cozy, warmly lighted restaurant is designed in traditional Japanese style. It has separate rooms with sliding doors, tatami mats and cushions. Guests can sit at the sushi bar and order, watching chefs prepare sushi and sashimi. Guests remove their shoes before entering the dining area.

Pros: All ingredients are very fresh, notably the seafood. The wasabi is freshly ground. The sashimi is served on ice.

Cons: Only seasonal food is served, so the menu is limited. The location is not convenient, far from the city center and difficult to locate. Service is not particularly efficient.

Recommended: Sea urchin is a must-try. Toro tuna is tender, fatty and naturally sweet. Soba have a nice, firm texture. The Avocado sushi roll is recommended.

Don't order: Beef sashimi may be too raw for some Chinese locals. Vegetable salad is comparatively too flat.

Drinks: Saki features good variety and high quality. Soft drink and beer are both available.

Price: 300 yuan per person

Address: 85 Xianfeng Rd

Tel: 3431-7779

(Qu Zhi and Angela Bao contribute to this article.)

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