Sometimes my friends ask me how Japanese food is different from American cuisine. I often answer by stating what there isn't in Japan; like turkey, cold cuts, and chili. Most people understand that every country has different ingredients. But there was more to it than that and it took me a while to figure it out. So, I came up with the Sauce vs. Salad approach.
Japanese cooking uses the Salad approach. In salads, many items are brought together but retain their individual flavors. When you get a forkful of lettuce and tomatoes, you are going to taste the lettuce and tomatoes in equal measure. They are together, but not combined. They are their own flavors. Japanese cooking is like that. Dishes are made to enhance the natural flavor of the main dish. Tempura is great example. Although it is a fried coating, like fried chicken, the coating itself is flavorless and light. It is used to compliment the shrimp or pumpkin or whatever it is covering. The main taste isn't the tempura coating, it's the food itself. Dipping sauces and coatings are used to compliment the main ingredients. Thus, it is like a salad: many ingredients together maintaining their own flavor.
Which means, at least for me, many dishes taste the same in Japanese cooking. If you have five dishes that have shrimp as the main ingredient, and the goal is to enhance, not coverup or change the flavor, then you will get five dishes that taste like shrimp. Every food has a strong presence of the main ingredient. Since I am not a big seafood and vegetable fan, that limits a lot of Japanese food I like.
Most of the foreigners I've met in Japan fall into two groups: they love Japanese food or hate it. I'm in the middle. I'll eat it, but I prefer American food.
I hope my readers have found this post informative. Leave comments if you have them. As always, thanks for reading.