Japanese Food Culture – A Culinary Adventure
One of the most effective ways to discover a culture is to start with its cuisine. Through dining features, people’s dignities, etiquettes and customs will be revealed. In this blog, join us on the journey to explore Japanese food culture. Being awarded the status of intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO, Japan promises you plenty of diverse, delicious and healthy gastronomies.
An insider’s guide to Japanese food culture
What is Japanese food culture?
Japanese cuisine is the name of general cooking methods and eating habits of all people in Japan. Although there are more or less differences between regions and ethnic groups, Japanese food culture still implies the most general meaning to refer to all popular dishes in the Japanese community.
For thousands of year, Japanese cooking style and eating habits have been strongly affected by Asian countries like Chinese, Korea and Western influences like Portugess, Dutch. But more than anything, the Japanese have managed to refine those customs to create their own culinary characteristics and richness.
The first cooking feature was imported from China around 300 B.C., when rice started to be grown and served as one of the Japanese staple foods. The use of chopsticks, along with the consumption of soy sauce, tofu and tea are also believed to have roots from China. In the A.D. 700s, the rise of Buddhism gradually led to an elimination of animals and fowl. The vegetarian style of cooking (shojin ryori) and ingredients (fish, soybean products) came about as a result of this ban.
The beginning of the 13th century marked the first substantial exposure of European missionaries. The West arrival brought new cooking ingredients like corn, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. During the Meiji Period (1868–1912), meat made a return after more than one thousand years. A popular native dish developed in the early 20th century is Japanese curry rice, which was adopted from Indian cuisine. Time saving cooking methods and some types of Western food such as bread, coffee, and ice cream, also became popular during the late twentieth century. All in all, though trade routes allowed Japan to access a huge range of new ingredients, the cuisine is still true to its roots largely.
Features of food culture in Japan
Earliest Japanese settlers came from the northern steppes of Asia. The climate and terraced mountains allowed farmers to cultivate grain and other crops. Besides, Japan is an island nation, in which islands make up 97% of the country’s land. Japanese people harvest various fresh seafood and consume large amounts of marine products everyday. Due to geographic setting, the Japanese have learnt to live in harmony with mountains and seas, respect and respond to nature by having a balanced diet.
Rules of five
The Japanese have a theory of cooking called “rules of five”, which emphasizes variety and balance. Following this concept, a meal should come with the presentation of five colors (white, black, red, green and yellow), five aromas (salty, sweet, sour, bitter, savory) and five cooking methods (raw, simmered, fried, steamed and roasted or grilled). This combination boosts the nutritional value, as well as the visual enjoyment of the meal.
Part of what makes Japanese food so notoriously delicious is the heavy emphasis on freshness. The unstinting freshness, “peak season” and “tastiest time” are absolutely crucial to Japanese cuisine. It’s normal that what grows well in southern islands may not be found in northern latitudes.
Seasonal food is also spiritually significant as season marks the beginning of more delicious offerings and diet is based on time of the year. That’s why you see Japanese supermarkets, hotels and restaurants change their menu frequently to reflect available food in each season. It’s also evident that some certain elements of a meal are inedible and only used for decoration. Kaiseki cuisine is the epitome of a food culture that prizes seasonal flavor. There are up to 12 beautifully presented courses of steamed, simmered or grilled dishes, sliced raw fish sashimi, tempura, soup, rice, pickles and a small dessert.
The meticulous preparation is clearly central of Japanese food culture. Portions are delicate, colors, shapes and textures are as carefully balanced and simplicity is emphasized.
The cultivation of rice evolved following the introduction of Asian wet rice more than 2,000 years ago and up to now, rice has always played a central role in Japanese food culture. The type of cultivated rice in Japan is short-grained, relatively sweet and sticky, making it easy to eat with chopsticks.
In the past, people ate rice with seasonal vegetables and marine products. This type of meal reached a highly sophisticated form in the Edo period (1600-1868) and reflected the vibrant core of native Japanese cuisine. In the period of time when Japan reopened to the West, rice not only remained rich and various in native-Japanese cuisine but also developed an incredible adaptation for many foreign dishes. Now, it is the staple of the Japanese diet and is consumed daily.
Being an archipelago (chain of islands), the country takes great pride in its seafood. Unlike European countries, where most marine products are preserved in some way, Japanese seafood are fresh as can be found. A wide variety of fish, squid, octopus, eel, and shellfish appear in all kinds of dishes from sushi to tempura. Another reason that makes the Japanese so relied on fish is the influence of Chinese Buddhism in the early time. People didn’t eat meat at that time, as a result, seafood was an integral part of the Japanese diet and eaten in just about any form you can imagine.
Soybeans are also significant. They come in dozens of types, some of them very expensive, some only made in one locality. They could be eaten boiled or cold, or made into tofu, yellow miso and red miso paste.
As a soybeans product, tofu was first introduced from China in the 11th century. It helps to avoid extra cholesterol and serves as an awesome alternative source to meats, milks, and other “unhealthy” things. These days, even tofu donuts and tofu ice cream are available. Being made from soybeans as well, red and yellow miso paste are a fermented, storable seasoning and used as a universal flavoring in Japanese food culture.
Japanese people are proud of their well-balanced diet and a large part of what makes Japanese cuisine so healthy is the wide variety of kinoko (fungi) used in cooking. With the distinctively rich and savory flavor, fungus is an essential ingredient in many Japanese dishes. In addition to being delicious, Japanese mushrooms have high nutritional value, a number of health benefits and a long history of use in traditional Asian medicine.
Another crucial element of Japanese ingredients is sansai, a catch-all term for edible vegetation growing naturally in Japanese highland forests. Sensai including (but not limited to) field horsetail, asparagus, bamboo shoot, bracken fern, butterbur, are supposed to have a characteristic bitter taste and certain health benefits.
Typical Japanese meal
A typical Japanese meal includes:
- Staple food: steamed rice. For light meals, rice could be replaced by several kinds of noodles like udon, soba and ramen.
- Soup: miso soup – made with seaweed, shellfish, or tofu and vegetables in a fermented soybean stock.
- Main dish: protein sources can be raw fish in the form of sushi/ sashimi/ Kobe beef or simmered dishes such as oden, or sukiyaki and nikujaga. If you are a vegan, tofu or fermented beans would be excellent alternatives.
- Side dishes: pickles, light vegetables, condiments (soy sauce, sesame dipping sauce, fish sauce and Japanese mayonnaise).
- Drink: green tea or cold barley tea are often served at the end of a meal, while alcohols like beer and sake are typically reserved for dinner or special occasions.
- Pickling is popular in traditional Japanese cooking. Pickled vegetables bring to meals the blend of sweet, sour, and salty flavors and help in aiding digestion. Daikon radish is probably the one most familiar to foreigners.
- Traditional condiments play an important role in Japanese diet. Dashi is a type of broth made from kelp and bonito (bonito is dried, fermented, and smoked). Soy sauce, which had roots from China, is also favoured. It comes in three different types: dark, light, and tamari, in which dark soy sauce is the most popular.
Japanese regional cuisine
The differences in geographic setting and environment have led to distinct delicacies and various culinary features of each region in the country. Each local has its trademark specialties that reflect regional traditions and create the identity of ethnic groups. Just like that, Japanese cuisine has become more and more rich, incredibly diverse and extremely unique.
Hokkaido is Japan’s northernmost island and the cold waters surrounding this island are perfect for seafood and marine vegetation. Most of the famous regional dishes are made from fresh seafood that have been harvested in the crisp northern seas. The Japanese also enjoy fishing in a frozen lake in the winter time.
- Ishikari nabe – salmon pieces stewed with vegetables and konnyaku in miso-based broth
- Sanpei-jiru – a winter miso soup made with salmon and vegetables such as daikon, carrot, potato, and onions
- Genghis Khan – barbecue lamb dish
- Chanchan-yaki – Miso-grilled salmon with beansprouts and other vegetables
- Hokkaido ramen – a distinctive versions of ramen which you can only try in Sapporo, topped with butte
From way back, Tohoku has not only been known as a wide beautiful vista but also the center of production supporting Japanese kitchens. Tohoku foods are indeed outstanding. Ishinomaki oysters, Aomori Syamorock chicken and organically grown winter vegetables from Iwaki are the cream of the crop.
- Sasa Kamaboko – a steamed fish paste
- Ichigo-ni – sea urchin roe and abalone soup
- Zappa jiru – fish gut and vegetable soup
- Senbei-jiru – a soy-based soup including baked rice cake and vegetables
- Wanko soba – soba noodles served in mouthful-sized bowls which are re-filled repeatedly
- Harako-meshi – rice cooked in a salmon and soy stock, topped with salmon caviar
- Kiritanpo – pounded rice cakes wrapped around a skewer and grilled
3. Chubu and Kanto
Originated in the Edo period as the country’s political centre, this area has become a quaint seafood paradise perfect for every visiting foodie and standard fare throughout the country.
- Hōtō – udon noodles stewed in a miso-based soup with vegetables such as pumpkin or potatoes, mushrooms
- Monja-yaki – a savoury pancake, eaten directly off the grill
- Yanagawa nabe and dojō nabe – a nabemono dish of loach
- Sushi – originates from 1820s in Edo Bay (Tokyo today)
- Masuzushi – trout is set atop a circular bed of rice and steamed in wrapped bamboo leaves
- Miso-katsu – breaded pork cutlet with miso based sauce
4. Kansai and Chugoku
The Kansai region surrounds historical Kyoto and cosmopolitan Osaka. Together with Kobe, the three cities form a legendary regional cuisine. Kyoto – the old capital, is said to preserve the Japanese traditional cuisine for hundreds of years. Osaka style has now spread nationwide, in which ingredients are mixed into the batter before cooking. Kobe region is exceptionally fabled for its high-quality beef and oysters.
- Dote-nabe – a nabemono dish of oysters, tofu and vegetables stewed in miso-based broth
- Fugu chiri – traditional soup of Osaka
- Yudofu – tofu simmered in hot water with kombu and eaten with various dipping sauces
- Okonomiyaki – pancakes made from cabbage, meat or seafood, flavored with Japanese sauce or mayonnaise
- Izumo soba – type of soba famous in the Izumo area
Local made Udon is the most popular speciality of this region. Normally udon are made from wheat noodles and served in a dashi broth with scallions for garnish. It could be topped with prawn tempura or deep-fried tofu. Besides udon paradise, this area is also renowned for its citrus fruits. The yuzu, in particular, enjoys great popularity, with everything from juice to sweets being so flavoured. Bonito, a medium-sized fish, is used to prepare a number of iconic dishes on the island.
- Katsuo no tataki – finely chopped tuna seasoned with rice vinegar
- Sanuki udon – most popular udon in Kawaga, characterized by its square shape and flat edges with chewy texture
- Sawachi ryori – traditionally sashimi, presented on a huge plate called “sawachi”
- Shoyumame – parched broad beans marinaded overnight in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, mirin and sake.
- Sudachi – a tiny lime-like citrus, which is mixed/ added to fish dishes
As Kyushu borders on the tropical, this island is home to diverse cuisines which carry distinctive characteristics of Asian mainland.
- Mizutaki – a nabemono dish of chicken, served with a ponzu dipping sauce
- Hakata ramen – noodles served in a tonkotsu soup with pickled ginger or sesame seeds
- Motsunabe – a nabemono dish of beef or pork offal
- Mentaiko – spicy fish eggs
- Castella – a sweet, rectangular sponge cake, introduced to Japan by the Portuguese
- Tonkotsu ramen – pork belly and ribs, stewed with daikon, brown sugar and shōchū
- Sake-zushi – type of sushi which uses sake instead of the usual rice vinegar
Okinawa people are known to have the greatest longevity in the world and are among the least likely to suffer from chronic diseases of ageing. It is said that their secret to health and longevity is linked to their diet. Seaweed and raw goat’s meat (which could be used as an alternative for seafood) are the two typical ingredients in their meals.
- Goya Champuru – a bitter melon, stir-fried with egg, tofu, vegetables and pork or canned tuna
- Tōfu chanpurū – firm Okinawan tofu stir-fried with vegetables and spam, bacon or canned tuna
- Naaberaa chanpurū – chanpurū made with luffa
- Okinawa soba – noodle soup topped with soki
- Taco rice – Taco meat served with rice, lettuce, tomato and cheese
Japanese traditional dishes
Sushi is definitely one of the best known foods not only in Japan but also in all over the world. It is said to be first introduced in Edo Bay (Tokyo today) and became popular at the end of the 19th century. In the ancient time, sushi was actually born as a process of preserving fish in fermented rice. The sushi that most people are familiar with today is vinegared rice topped with raw fish and it varies a great deal between regions.
Originated with Portuguese traders in the 16th century, tempura features as a symbolic dish of Japanese food culture. The batter-coated seafood and vegetables are traditionally deep fried in sesame oil, creating the signature crispiness and lightness that tempura is so well-known for. Tempura’s attraction is not only found in the eye-catching appearance but also the taste buds.
Today, tempura can be enjoyed in various styles, from seafood and meat to vegetables, flowers, fruits, and even desserts like tempura ice cream. You can easily find it in casual chain restaurants, supermarkets, noodle shops, or even in Japan’s traditional haute cuisine – kaiseki dining. Dipping sauce varies from region to region. While in the Kanto area, tempura is eaten with tentsuyu, Kansai people prefer to dip it in flavored salt.
Unagi is a type of food in which freshwater eel are grilled over charcoal and basted in a savory sweet sauce. It is considered as a natural remedy, helping increase stamina and heat tolerance. Most restaurants that specialise in eel have a wonderfully traditional approach. Unagi is served year round, however, the most fresh unagi can be caught from May to October.
Kaiseki is the combination of small, seasonally themed dishes, meticulously arranged on exquisite crockery. It’s touted as the ultimate in Japanese fine dining, usually prepared with traditional tea ceremony in Kyoto (and Kyoto remains the home of kaiseki). Over time, these offerings evolved into a multi-course haute cuisine meal.
Made from wheat flour, Udon is a unique dish known for its dense and chewy noodles. It’s one of the most popular foods in Japan due to its delicious taste, reasonable price point, and versatility. Udon could be enjoyed either hot or cold, in seafood broth soup or by pouring soup and toppings on top of it. The three Udon varieties are known as sanuki udon (a speciality of Kagawa region), kishimen (the flattened) udon), and inaniwa udon (hand-stretched, dried udon from Akita).
Centuries before sushi was born, the Japanese first enjoyed raw fish without rice. This eating style is called “sashimi”. Raw food is sliced into easy-to-eat pieces and typically eaten with soy sauce for flavoring. Just like sushi, diners can enjoy dozens of varieties of sashimi. Some of the most common ingredients are maguro and other tuna varieties, salmon, mackerel, sea bream, sea urchin and salmon roe. You can easily try it in all regions of Japan, no matter if you are visiting Tokyo, Kyoto, or anywhere else.
Soba is another type of noodle dish that has been eaten in Japan for centuries. Made from buckwheat flour, soba has a long thin shape and firm texture. The soba broth (tsuyu) is typically made from kombu or dried bonito, seasoned with soy sauce and mirin. Like udon noodles, soba can be served in a hot broth or chilled with a dipping sauce, making it an ideal dish year-round.
Sukiyaki is a type of dish that is cooked in a shallow iron pan, including several different ingredients, like thin slices of beef, vegetables, mushrooms, and tofu. It was highly popular in the Meiji period and traditionally enjoyed in the cold season. Ingredients are grilled with a sweet soy sauce broth. You dip the meat or vegetable into a bowl of beaten egg before eating.
A bento is a single-portion boxed meal that can be taken away or home-packed in Japan as well as some other Asia countries. A traditional bento box is the combination of rice or noodle as the main staple food, meat or fish, and an assortment of pickled or cooked vegetables.
There are several different types of bento to enjoy, in which the most common one is Makunouchi bento. It is a two-section box with one side containing rice and the other holding an assortment of colorful side dishes. Bento could be decorated to look like people, animals, buildings and cute items such as flowers and plants. You can easily make bento at home or purchase them at bento shops, convenience stores or even railway stations.
Miso soup is made simply but it’s an essential Japanese food that generally appears in traditional Japanese diet. Dashi stock is combined with fermented miso base to bring a savory umami element to the meal. Tofu, seaweed and other toppings can be added and may vary by the season. At most Japanese restaurants, miso is usually accompanied by other side and main dishes, and served in all price ranges.
Dining out in Japan comes with a few manners that you should keep in mind to avoid embarrassment:
- It is recognized as bad manners to place chopsticks on your bowl when not being used. Instead, you put them on the chopstick holder, which usually is a small ceramic or wooden stand. Also, don’t stick your chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice, wave the chopsticks around or use it to pass food for others.
- Only order the amount that you need and/or take-out the extra. It is considered disrespectful and wasteful to have leftovers.
- Don’t tip: It’s weird but tipping is considered an insult to the servers.
- Leave a tidy plate when you finish your meal. Don’t toss your napkin on a plate that has food or condiments on it. Neatly fold your napkin and place it to the side of your dish.
- In Japanese restaurants, different elements are separated into small dishes. It is considered improper to have all the food in one bowl or on one plate.
Frequently asked questions
1. Why is food important to Japanese culture?
In Japanese society, a meal goes beyond the taste and eating. The importance of food in Japanese culture has always been emphasised. First, it is a way for people to socialize, build stronger bonds and develop society. Moreover, through traditional meals, Japanese also aim to encourage children to respect nature and to transmit rules and etiquettes to future generations. Last but not least, people also use food in rituals to thank gods or to wish for good things.
2. What is Japan’s favorite food?
Besides traditional dishes, the following are boasted as Japan’s favorite foods:
- Shabu shabu
3. What is a traditional Japanese diet?
The traditional Japanese diet is high in grains and plant-based foods, with moderate amounts of animal products, soy and very little refined sugar and fat. Daily menus feature a relatively large number of small dishes and minimal cooking methods. Soy beans, seaweed are green tea very favourable ingredients. This eating pattern is said to be rich in nutrients and at the same time, provides numerous health benefits, including improved weight loss, digestion, longevity, and overall health.
With the aesthetic of beautifully presented food and the use of fresh, high-quality seasonal ingredients, it’s no wonder that Japanese food culture is so delicious and so highly prized by people around the world. Hope you found this blog helpful!
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