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Okazu is the collective name for one or more dishes served in a traditional Japanese meal. These dishes complement the basic starch food, traditionally rice, served at the same time. A dish may be protein based or may be some type of vegetable or mixture of vegetables. Outside of Japan the word is often used to refer to a meat and mixed vegetables dish served with rice.
Go-han, the word for cooked rice, is also used in Japanese to mean "meal." Okazu adds seasoning, texture and nutrition to that of the rice; a meal will usually include two or more types of these dishes, and most diners add bits of each to bites of rice. Soup, usually made with miso, a fermented soybean paste, is the third part of a traditional Japanese meal.
The primary okazu in a meal is most traditionally some type of protein based dish. Fish dishes are very common. This may be any one of a number of fish, and be cooked in many different ways, from stewed to fried, or even pickled. A dish made from surimi, a formed fish paste, is another possible protein based dish, while chicken and pork are other possible traditional choices that can be prepared in a variety of ways such as grilled or deep-fried.
Many of the dishes are made with vegetables; osai, a synonym of okazu, literally means "vegetables." Some are made from starchy vegetables such as potatoes or yams. Others are based on green vegetables, possibly green beans, spinach or cabbage. Dishes based on cooked beans, typically soybeans, are another possible choice. Hashi yasume is a particular type of okazu meant to offer a strong contrast to the bland flavor of rice. Various pickled vegetables are often served in this role.
In contemporary Japan okazu many be a western style meat dish such curry, meat patties or stew. Eggs or sausage are sometimes served while various kinds of salads provide alternatives for vegetable based dishes. Noodles can be served instead of rice, or both may be offered.
Japanese restaurants in other countries often classify these dishes as appetizers even though a traditional meal is not complete without them. Another type of restaurant specializes in offering many kinds of the dishes. In home cooking influenced by Japanese cuisine okazu is often used as the name of a one dish meal of meat and vegetables typically seasoned with soy sauce and sweetener and served with rice on the side.