Japanese Food Culture
There is something so unique about Japanese food culture. Every process is like a work of art in itself — from preparation and cooking to the actual eating. There are various things that come into play when dining at an eatery in Japan. And it’s never the same for all types of restaurants. Depending on what they serve, there’s a set of etiquette attached to it.
That just goes to show how significant the Japanese food culture is in Japan. Why is that? Here’s everything you need to know about this extravagantly rich culture of Japanese food!
The Art of “Washoku” in Japanese Food Culture
There’s a special term to describe the collective of all Japanese food, and that’s called “washoku” (和食). The characters in Japanese translate to “Food of Japan” — isn’t that beautiful? The art of washoku is blending every ingredient seamlessly with one another to create a magnificent cuisine each time. There’s a sense of harmony between every dish served together. And every course or meal is prepared with the idea of this beautiful tradition in mind. Each bite and sip is another insight to the Japanese way of life.
This term came about to differentiate the Japanese cuisine from the other foreign ones that were introduced to Japan. They are known as “yoshoku” (洋食), which are Japanese ingredients prepared using Western and other Asian culinary techniques.
Washoku is so influential and important to the Japanese culture that it’s recognised as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013.
History of Japanese Food Culture
It’s no secret that Japan is rich in culture. That also includes Japanese food culture. The culinary techniques of the Japanese food culture started centuries ago. They have been preserved over the years through generations and generations. To this day, the same culinary techniques are actively used and practiced.
Such techniques came about from the practice of religion in Japan and access to supplies. When Buddhism was first introduced to Japan in the Kofun period, any consumption of meat and fish was prohibited. Spices like pepper and garlic were also sparse in the country, hence the Japanese used it minimally in their cuisine.
Over time, the types of regulated meat increased. Fish were the first type to get the green light to be consumed due to Japan being an island nation. It was then prepared in various forms, from raw to grilled. The Japanese became experimental with their servings of fish in their dishes. Anyone who could afford fish would have them in their meals to make up for the lack of animal protein.
It wasn’t until the Meiji Restoration that the people of Japan were allowed to consume meat when the emperor of the time embraced the cuisines of Western countries. That included a variety of meat dishes.
Characteristics in Japanese Food Culture
While rich in tradition, Japanese food culture can also be quite flexible. Traditional techniques can be evolved ever so slightly to suit the modern-day taste palates. However, there are certain factors that still come into play to fit the concept of washoku.
Focus on Seasonality
The Japanese put an emphasis on “shun” (旬), the seasonality of food. The dishes prepared at a certain time of the year is based on the season it’s in. The flavours introduced fits perfectly for the weather at the point of time.
In Shintoism, the current native religion of Japan, it’s important to have respect for nature. The people of Japan take advantage of what is in season, like bamboo shoots in spring and chestnuts in autumn. Everything from “umi no sachi” (海の幸, referring to the fruits of the sea) to “yama no sachi” (山の幸, referring to the fruits of the mountains) is prioritised in to be included in the menu.
On top of the seasonal ingredients, other traditional ingredients are also important factors in Japanese food culture. Fish, tofu and seaweed are seen as traditional ingredients. Meat consumption is as well, but there isn’t a specific type. It is more of a general guideline.
Another traditional ingredient is oil. But more of lack of. Other than for tempura (天ぷら), oil is being used only lightly in Japanese food culture.
In Japanese food culture, how the meal is being served is as important as how it tastes. The people of Japan view the presentation as high importance in any meal they serve and also being served. Everything from bowls to cutlery is carefully placed. Not to mention the actual dish itself. Each ingredient decorates the plate harmoniously, just like their flavours.
Types of Food
There are so many different types of food in the Japanese food culture, but they all can be categorised into four main categories: rice, noodles, meat and seafood, and soy products. These categories are extremely significant in Japanese food culture. Let’s take a look at each one!
Rice is a staple food in Japan. The cultivation of rice is known to be the main pushing factor to the evolution of Japanese culture, especially the food culture. Rice in Japan has several varieties including Koshihikari (越光).
Some Japanese foods that use rice are onigiri (オニギリ), which are rice balls; mochi (餅), which are rice cakes; and sake (酒), which is a type of rice wine.
Did you know that there are a few ways to say rice in Japanese? “Meshi” (飯) refers to cooked rice while “kome” (米) refers to uncooked rice.
In Japanese food culture, there are three types of noodles: udon (うどん), soba (そば) and ramen (ラーメン).
Udon noodles are made from wheat flour. They are served either hot or cold, depending on the season. Toppings like raw egg and tofu can be added to an udon dish.
Soba noodles are made from buckwheat. They’re thinner in size and darker in colour than udon noodles. They can also be served cold or hot with similar toppings as udon.
Ramen noodles are thin egg noodles. They’re generally served hot with a choice of either soy sauce broth or miso broth. Toppings are usually slices of pork with bean sprouts. There are different variations of ramen throughout the country and some prefectures have a specialty that can’t be found anywhere else. For example, you can only get corn-butter ramen in Sapporo.
Meat & Seafood
Meat and seafood are also essential foods in Japanese food culture. The consumption of fish is especially high in Japan due to the country being an island nation. Fish and also other types of seafood are eaten in a variety of forms. Everything from raw to grilled — the Japanese will eat them! Sashimi (刺身) and sushi (寿司) are the main suspects of seafood dishes!
Despite the ban on meat in the earlier years of Japan, the Japanese still consume quite a lot of it today. They have become a part of the Japanese diet, with yakitori (焼き鳥), gyudon (牛丼) and yakiniku (焼肉) as standard meat dishes nowadays.
Last but definitely not least on the list of food categories in Japanese food culture is the soy products. The Japanese use soy in a number of their essential dishes in their cuisine. Mix soybean with rice and you’ll get the basic paste of many Japanese dishes, miso (みそ). Other soy products that are commonly found in Japanese food culture are natto (納豆), which is fermented soybeans, as well as tofu (豆腐), which is soybean curd.
Japanese Food Culture Etiquette
Now that we have the basics of Japanese food and its different types solid in our heads, it’s time to learn the ins and outs of the Japanese food culture. There is a certain etiquette to follow when dining in Japan. Even though certain types of restaurants have other or more rules, these are the basics that apply to all:
Do Not Tip
Some countries practice tipping. In Japan, they don’t. In fact, it’s considered rude to tip the staff. Tipping can lead to the chefs feeling degraded as the staff of Japanese restaurants are considered to be highly paid already. Compliment with words rather than coins.
The Japanese are particular about table manners. Chopsticks are somewhat sacred in Japan, so do not place them in inappropriate places. For example, sticking it straight up in a bowl of rice and laying them across the bowl of noodles are definitely not recommended.
Don’t Be Messy
It should be an unspoken rule, but when dining out or at someone else’s place, try to leave a tidy meal area. Don’t put your napkins on the plate — instead, fold them and place them at the side.
Try to Finish Your Food
It might be hard for some of us, but do try to finish your food. In Japanese food culture, it’s considered impolite to leave unfinished dishes after a meal.
Useful Phrases To Know
Whether you are dining out or having a meal at someone’s house, there are two common phrases that are extremely useful to know:
“Itadakimasu!” (頂きます！) — This is an extremely useful phrase that has a few translations into English. It is said before beginning to eat. While it literally translates to “I humbly take”, it doesn’t quite explain the actual meaning. It’s basically a salutation to begin eating, like “let’s eat!”
“Gochisousama deshita!” (ごちそうさまでした！) — This phrase is used at the end of the meal and translates to “it has been a feast.” This is a respectful acknowledgment to the host or chef for their hard work in preparing the meal.
I bet by the end of this article you’re an expert at Japanese food culture. Everything from the rules of dining and the right things to say to the different cuisine types, you’ve got it covered! So put on your bib and start digging into all these delicious Japanese foods!
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