“Ganko”—Remaining Faithful to Tradition

In Japan, those who stand firmly by tradition are called “ganko.” In the United States it is common for Japanese restaurants to buy their “sake” in bulk and heat it for general sake service in “hot sake machines.” Although this can be profitable for the restaurant, much of the quality and flavor of the sake is lost if heated in either large quantities or for long periods of time. At Domo, each sake is heated to order individually, warmed in a traditional aluminum cup submersed in a hot water bath. The heated sake is served in official sake tasting cups called “jo no me” used in breweries. The two blue circle lines inside the bottom of the cup are used to check viscosity and color. Domo is the only restaurant in Denver that uses these traditional tasting cups. The image that sake is always served hot is a popular one, but our recommendation is to also try it served chilled in a lacquer box or “masu.” Once a bottle of sake has been opened, it loses freshness quickly. It is difficult for a restaurant to ensure both freshness and offer a wide variety of sakes at one time. To ensure freshness, Domo has instituted a special policy of showcasing two bottles of sake at a time from our extensive premier sake selection. As one bottle is finished during an evening, a fresh bottle is selected and opened. In this way, Domo’s sakes are always fresh and delicious whether served hot or chilled. Both the porcelain cups used to serve heated sake and the lacquer boxes used to serve chilled sake will hold a liquid measure called a “go” in Japan. Ten of these equal one “sho,” which is the amount of sake contained in the large bottles we have on display. In many Japanese restaurants, sake is served in a small ceramic bottle. Although they look large, they actually contain only about 70% of one “go.” Domo, on the other hand, still faithfully practices the Japanese tradition of over-pouring as a symbol of hospitality and welcome. This ensures that each serving is generously over one “go.” Domo follows another tradition: never serve sake by itself. Rather, sake should accompany and compliment a fine meal. We hold that tradition comes before profit. We also believe that taste should come before convenience. This is the “ganko” story of Domo Restaurant and its owner, Gaku Homma. You can find sake in any Japanese restaurant in Denver, but if you want fine premier sakes served with tradition, you know to come to Domo.

A Story of Soy Sauce.

By Gaku Homma

Nippon Kan Founder
Domo Restaurant Owner and Head Chef
Author of The Folk Art of Japanese Country Cooking; A Traditional Diet for Today’s World.
March 30th, 2005

When I was in elementary school, if I didn’t want to go to school I would drink half of a small sake cup of soy sauce. The soy sauce would raise my temperature so fast, it would convince my mother that I was too ill to go to school. Actually, I learned this trick from one of my friends, who was not necessarily the best influence on me during my growing years. Why did the soy sauce raise my temperature? It was because of its extremely high sodium content.

In Japanese cooking, soy sauce is a necessity. In fact, for the Japanese, not having soy sauce is a major dilemma. Most tables in family homes and restaurants in Japan have a bottle of soy sauce. In Japan these bottles of soy sauce however are used more for decoration than anything else.

This item, so highly valued in Japan, has been conspicuously missing from the tables at Domo Japanese Country Foods Restaurant since its opening nine years ago, along with the salt and pepper.

While most Domo customers accept this, once in a while, we have customers that fancy themselves as Japanese gourmets and are annoyed about the absence of soy sauce on the tables. I have even been lectured on the importance of making soy sauce available to customers, but still there are no bottles of soy sauce on the tables at Domo.

The reason Domo Restaurant does not have soy sauce on its tables is because I’ve learned that Americans often don’t know how to use it as a seasoning. As a chef, it breaks my heart to see customers ruin the taste of carefully prepared foods by adding too much soy sauce. It’s like putting ketchup on a fine meal. I have seen customers in other Japanese restaurants pour soy sauce on rice, in miso soup and on vegetables and entrees without even tasting them first. I promised myself before I opened Domo that if I ever had my own restaurant, I would not put soy sauce on the tables. I wanted to do this for the restaurant’s sake and also for the sake of the customers dining pleasure and health.

Discouraging the overuse of soy sauce has always been one of the fundamental policies at Domo, and I think this policy is one of the reasons Domo Restaurant has been named Westword’s Best Japanese Restaurant in Denver for the last nine years. Customers can actually taste the food at Domo and not simply the salty flavor of soy sauce. This is a top secret.

In the last few years, sushi has gained great popularity in the United States. I call it a “sushi boom,” and I am a frequent patron of some of Denver’s sushi restaurants.

The sushi bar is a popular “scene of the crime” for customers who do not know how to use soy sauce correctly when eating sushi. People pay hefty sums to dine on sushi, and it’s a shame to watch someone soak sushi in brimming dishes of soy sauce and wasabi. This makes the sushi so salty that it has to be washed down quickly with beer. More than once I have had to turn my head away because it was too painful to watch a diner ruin sushi with soy sauce. I once watched someone soak his sushi in so much soy sauce that all of the rice floated away, leaving the customer to resort to eating the remaining fish and soy sauce with a spoon! This is not how sushi is supposed to be eaten, and it is also not good for you. Soy sauce has too much salt for this kind of consumption, unless of course you are trying to get out of going to school.

Here are some tips on eating sushi that will make you look like a pro while bellied up to the sushi bar.

When you eat at a sushi bar, a small dish used for soy sauce is usually set before you along with your sushi. In the U.S., sushi is usually accompanied by a dollop of wasabi, or Japanese green horseradish about the size of your thumb and gari or pickled ginger. (Interestingly, wasabi is not usually included on sushi plates in Japan. Only if you order sashimi are you given a small amount of wasabi —a dollop about the size of a Hershey kiss). To prepare to eat sushi, it is not necessary to add wasabi to the soy sauce you will be placing in the small dish. Wasabi has already been added by the chef between the neta or sliced raw fish and the pad of rice underneath. Sabi nuki means without wasabi. If you want more wasabi with your next order say “Sabi o kikasete kudasai.” Sabi is “sushi slang” for wasabi, and Japanese sushi chefs will understand this request.

In the small dish, add only a very small amount of soy sauce. Gently swipe the sushi, fish side down in the soy sauce to apply the soy sauce to the sushi. If you place the sushi rice side down into the soy sauce, too much soy sauce will be absorbed by the rice, and this will ruin the taste. The amount of soy sauce in the dish should be only enough to slightly moisten about two pieces of sushi; no more. By adding small amounts of soy sauce at a time to the dish, the soy sauce remains fresh and the different tastes of different pieces of sushi do not get mixed together.

In many sushi bars these days, even young sushi chefs do not know the name of these small soy sauce dishes. The dishes are called nozoki in Japanese. The original purpose of the nozoki dishes was to check the freshness of the sushi by examining how the oils from the fish mixed with small amounts of soy sauce. Obviously, if you fill the nozoki to the brim with soy sauce and throw in a large dollop of wasabi, you would not be able to examine the freshness of the fish by its “trails” of oil. This is the basis of this tradition and its style is truly gourmet.

If you eat sashimi, (raw fish without the rice), ask the chef for once. Remember to save the nozoki without wasabi added for your sushi.

You do not have to use chopsticks when eating sushi. Even if you’re comfortable using chopsticks, fingers are okay. The small, rolled towel that you receive before your meal is for cleaning your hands. If the towel is not hot, fresh white and clean-smelling, it speaks volumes about the quality of the restaurant in which you are dining. In keeping with “sushi slang” tradition, there is a word for eating sushi with your fingers. It’s tsumamu, which means “to pick up gently with your fingers.” It is perfectly acceptable to eat sushi with your fingers, just reserve one hand for eating sushi and the other hand for picking up glasses or cups. You can eat gari or ginger, with your fingers, as well. The ginger serves to cleanse the palate, and it also keeps the rice from sticking to your fingers.

I have seen people in sushi bars order wasabi and gari like bar peanuts with beer. This would be the equivalent of ordering au jus and horseradish as a main course. Au jus and horseradish are used to compliment the taste of good prime rib. The same should apply to sushi.

At Domo, sushi is not served as rolls or as otherwise served in sushi bars. Domo uses hand-sized plates where small portions of specially prepared sushi rice topped with fresh sashimi are served (for the most part the fish is served uncooked). Domo’s sushi is called Wanko sushi ™, named for the small plates, or wanko in which it is served. Wanko sushi originated in Northern Honshu, where I grew up as a boy, but was originally served on one huge plate covered with many different sashimi toppings. Everyone scooped off a portion of the sushi into his own wanko bowl. At Domo, each fish selection can be prepared for you with seven different tastes, making for sixty-four choices. Wanko sushi, however, is not served with soy sauce and wasabi on the side. Domo chefs use only very small amounts of soy sauce when preparing Wanko sushi. Chiles and other spices are used instead of excessive amounts of soy sauce to create unique tastes without the extra sodium. If you use a great deal of wasabi and soy sauce in a sushi bar, it may not taste salty to you because of the wasabi. The wasabi serves to “cut” the salty taste, but the actual amount of sodium is not actually decreased. At Domo we do not have any regular menu items that require the addition of soy sauce, and we hope our customers will try the entrees the way they are meant to be eaten.

I know you might wonder why you have not heard any of this advice or any of these concerns from other Japanese chefs. I think the answer lies in the concept of customer service. Customer service is, of course, extremely important, and service should be efficient and friendly. Sometimes, however, customers mistakenly think they’re following traditional customs for eating Japanese food, and restaurant owners and employees alike become intimidated. Not wanting to displease their clientele, staff members refrain from saying anything about improper requests or eating manners and instead try to accommodate every request. This is commonly thought to be good service, but in the long run, this approach does not serve customers well.

Domo Restaurant is part of Nippon Kan Culture Center, a 501 © 3 federal non-profit organization. Through Nippon Kan, many aspects of Japanese culture have been introduced to the Denver community for more than twenty-seven years. Domo is one facet of the culture center that offers authentic Japanese foods served in a tradition setting. It is a goal of Nippon Kan to present all aspects of Japanese culture authentically and correctly. (More information is available about Nippon Kan at ).

We feel it would be less than honorable if we did not do our best to offer the most authentic experience possible to all of our customers. We consider every visitor to Domo and Nippon Kan to be our special guest. Therefore, Domo will continue in its traditions. If this makes sense to you, we invite you to join us for a memorable cultural experience.