Four distinct seasons, and blessings from the forest and sea are part of nature of Japan. We introduce you to the well-balanced Japanese menu and meal style.
Japanese cooking, which is both healthy and beautiful, originally developed from the meal style called ichijûsansai (one soup, three vegetables, plus the rice, which is the main dish). This tradition was carried over from samuri society.
The distinctive and delicious flavors of Japanese cuisine comes from the use of various fermented foods, which form the basis of Japanese cooking. Common fermeted foods include soy sauce, miso (soybean paste), mirin, and sake.
Soy sauce is made from just four ingredients: soybeans, wheat, sea salt and tane kouji (a mold that jump-starts the fermentation process). The fermentation process in making soy sauce typically takes up to one year, which each brewery's soy sauce having its own unique flavor, or umami.
Japanese cuisine refers to traditional-style Japanese food, similar to that already existing in Japan before the end of national seclusion in 1868. In a broader sense of the word, it could also include foods whose ingredients or cooking methods were subsequently introduced from abroad, but which have been developed by Japanese people who have made these methods their own.
Japanese cuisine is known for its emphasis on seasonality of food (shun), quality of ingredients and presentation. The Michelin Guide has awarded Japanese cities by far the most Michelin stars of any country in the world (for example, Tokyo alone has more Michelin stars than Paris, Hong Kong, New York, LA and London combined).
Japanese cuisine is based on combining staple foods, typically rice or noodles, with a soup and okazu—dishes made from fish, meat, vegetable, tofu and the like—to add flavor to the staple food. These are typically flavored with dashi, miso, and soy sauce and are usually low in fat and high in salt. A standard Japanese meal generally consists of several different okazu accompanying a bowl of cooked white Japanese rice (gohan), a bowl of soup and some tsukemono (pickles).
The most standard meal comprises three okazu and is termed ichijū-sansai ("one soup, three sides"). Different cooking techniques are applied to each of the three okazu; they may be raw (sashimi), grilled, simmered (sometimes called boiled), steamed, deep-fried, vinegared, or dressed.
As Japan is an island nation, its people eat much seafood. Meat-eating has been rare until fairly recently due to restrictions of Buddhism. However, strictly vegetarian food is rare since even vegetable dishes are flavored with the ubiquitous dashi stock, usually made with katsuobushi (dried skipjack tuna flakes). An exception is shōjin ryōri, vegetarian dishes developed by Buddhist monks. However, the advertised shōjin ryōri at public eating places includes some non-vegetarian elements.
Although there are many staple foods that are considered part of Japan's national cuisine today, rice, noodles and bread are the three most common.
Its fundamental importance to the country and its culture is reflected by the facts that rice was once used as a currency. Japanese rice (gohan) is short grain and becomes sticky when cooked. Most rice is sold as hakumai ("white rice"), with the outer portion of the grains (nuka) polished away. Unpolished rice (genmai) is considered less delicious by most people, but its popularity has been increasing recently because gemmai is more nutritious and healthier than hakumai. A second major rice variety used in Japan is mochi rice. Cooked mochi rice is more sticky than conventional Japanese rice.
Noodles are an essential part of Japanese cuisine, usually as an alternative to a rice-based meal. Soba (thin, grayish-brown noodles containing buckwheat flour) and udon (thick wheat noodles) are the main traditional noodles and are served hot or cold with soy-dashi flavorings. It is traditionally considered acceptable to slurp the noodles noisily. This is especially common with hot noodles, as drawing up the noodles quickly into the mouth helps cool them down. Chinese-style wheat noodles served in a meat stock broth known as ramen have become extremely popular over the last century.
Bread (pan) is not native to Japan and is not considered traditional Japanese food, but since its introduction in the 19th century it has become common. Vegetable consumptions has dwindled, but processed foods has become more prominent in Japanese households due to the rising costs of general foodstuffs.
Japanese regional cuisine offers a vast array of regional specialties known as kyōdo ryōri, many of them originating from dishes prepared using traditional recipes with local ingredients. Mainly, there are Kanto region food and Kansai region food. Kanto region foods taste very strong. For example the dashi-based broth for serving udon noodles is heavy on dark soy sauce, similar to soba broth. On the other hand, Kansai region foods are lightly seasoned, with clear udon noodles made with light soy sauce.
There are many dishes that are considered part of Japan's national cuisine today. Below are listed some of the most common.
Common Japanese savory main and side dishes (okazu) found on a national level:
Grilled and pan-fried dishes (yakimono), stewed/simmered dishes (nimono), stir-fried dishes (itamemono), steamed dishes (mushimono), deep-fried dishes (agemono), sashimi, soups (suimono) and shirumono, pickled, salted, and dressed foods (tsukemono, aemono, sunomono), chinmi
Common Japanese sweets and snacks (okashi, oyatsu) found on a national level:
Japanese-style sweets (wagashi), old-fashioned Japanese-style sweets (dagashi), Western-style sweets (yōgashi), sweets bread (kashi pan)
Sake is a rice wine that typically contains 12%~20% alcohol and is made by multiple fermentation of rice. At traditional meals, sake is considered an equivalent to rice and is not simultaneously taken with other rice-based dishes. Side dishes for sake are particularly called sakana or otsumami. Shōchū is a spirit most commonly distilled from barley, sweet potato, or rice.
Traditional Table Setting:
Traditional Japanese table setting is to place a bowl of rice on your left and to place a bowl of miso soup on your right side at the table. Behind these, each okazu is served on its own individual plate.
Based on the standard three okazu formula, behind the rice and soup are three flat plates to hold the three okazu; one to far back left, one at far back right, and one in the center. Pickled vegetables are often served on the side but are not counted as part of the three okazu.
Chopsticks are generally placed at the very front of the tray near the diner with pointed ends facing left and supported by a chopstick rest, or hashioki.
Japanese Dining Etiquette:
In Japanese dining etiquette, it is customary to say itadakimasu, (literally "I humbly receive") before starting to eat a meal, and gochisōsama deshita, (literally "It was a feast") to the host after the meal and the restaurant staff when leaving.
Hot towel: Before eating, most dining places will provide either a hot towel or a plastic-wrapped wet napkin (an oshibori). This is for cleaning hands before eating (and not after). It is rude to use them to wash the face or any part of the body other than the hands.
Bowls: The rice or the soup is eaten by picking up the bowl with the left hand and using chopsticks with the right, or vice versa if you are left-handed. Traditionally, chopsticks were held in the right hand and the bowl in the left. Bowls may be lifted to the mouth, but should not be touched by the mouth except when drinking soup.
Soy sauce: Soy sauce is not usually poured over most foods at the table; a dipping dish is usually provided. Soy sauce is, however, meant to be poured directly onto tofu and grated daikon dishes, and in the raw egg when preparing tamago kake gohan ("egg on rice"). In particular, soy sauce should never be poured onto rice or soup. It's considered rude to waste soy sauce so moderation should be used when pouring into dishes.
Chopsticks: Chopsticks are never left sticking vertically into rice, as this resembles incense sticks (which are usually placed vertically in sand) during offerings to the dead. Using chopsticks to spear food or to point is frowned upon. It is very bad manners to bite chopsticks.
Communal dish: When taking food from a communal dish, unless they are family or very close friends, one should turn the chopsticks around to grab the food; it is considered more sanitary. Alternatively, one could have a separate set of chopsticks for communal dishes.
Sharing: If sharing food with someone else, move it directly from one plate to another. Never pass food from one pair of chopsticks to another, as this recalls passing bones during a funeral.
Eat what is given: It is customary to eat rice to the last grain. Being a picky eater is frowned on, and it is not customary to ask for special requests or substitutions at restaurants. It is considered ungrateful to make these requests especially in circumstances where you are being hosted, as in a business dinner environment. Good manners dictate that you respect the selections of the host.
Drinking: Even in informal situations, drinking alcohol starts with a toast (kanpai) when everyone is ready. It is not customary to pour oneself a drink; rather, people are expected to keep each other's drinks topped up. When someone moves to pour your drink you should hold your glass with both hands and thank them.