10 Cultural Facts About Japanese Food

10 Cultural Facts About Japanese Food

Who doesn’t like Japanese food? Known as washoku (和食) in Japanese, it’s one of the most popular traditional cuisines in the world! There’s no doubt you’ll see a Japanese restaurant in a city near you, if not in your city. Isn’t that proof enough that Japanese cuisine is the bomb?

But what is it that makes Japanese food so delicious and popular? There are actually a few cultural facts about Japanese cuisine that might have something to do with it. In this article, we list out 10 cultural facts about Japanese food. One or two of them might be the main reason why washoku is so delicious! The only way you can find out is if you keep reading!

1. Japanese cuisine prioritises simplicity

The best thing, in my opinion, about Japanese food is that the cuisine is often simple because of the cultural fact of prioritising simplicity. This factor applies to all parts of Japanese life, and that includes its cuisine. 

A lot of their high-end courses include small items of fresh ingredients, made with simple flavours. That’s one of the top priorities of chefs: finding the best quality ingredients so that they can do as little work to the food itself as possible. This, in their perspective, brings out the flavours and umami (うまみ) of the ingredients the best. Umami is an extremely important factor when it comes to Japanese cuisine: it’s the rich flavour profile characteristics of Japanese cuisine.

Because of this perspective, the way food is cooked includes searing, boiling, minimal seasoning and even eating the ingredients raw. That’s why they have sushi! Oftentimes you find that the umami is enhanced with bonito flakes, soy sauce, miso, seaweed and bonito broth. Seasonings include pickles, citrus and wasabi.

2. Seasonality is also key

One of the most important cultural facts about Japanese cuisine is that they take seasonality very seriously, and it’s incorporated in the dishes. The four seasons bring out a ton of opportunities for Japanese chefs to select ingredients and curate the perfect seasonal dish. 

For example, strawberry is often associated with spring because of the sakura (桜) season; eel is popular in summer because it’s in-season for it; sweet potatoes and chestnuts are for fall; apples and radishes are big in winter. These are just a few ingredients in a long list of them for each season.

But the ingredients aren’t the only thing important in seasonality. Seasonal dishes created are made to suit the occasion of the season. As we mentioned before, strawberries are popular because people celebrate cherry blossoms during this time. Because locals are enthusiastic about seasonal changes, the foods have to suit these celebrations too. 

3. Japanese cuisine is one of the three national food traditions that is recognised by the UN

Some of us may not know this, but traditional Japanese cuisine is one of the three national food traditions that’s recognised by the United Nation. UNESCO added washoku into its Intangible Cultural Heritage list, to bring significance that the preservation of the way of eating is crucial to the survival of the traditional culture. 

4. Matching dishware to food

Some may not put much thought into the kind of dishware when eating at a restaurant. Heck, sometimes we don’t put in much thought when we cook at home either. But the Japanese are extremely particular about their dishware. They would match the dishes based on colours, patterns and shapes. Seasonality is also an important factor.

If you go to a more formal restaurant, they often use antique ceramics and lacquerware. Don’t be surprised if the server tells you about the food as well as the dishware. You never know if the bowl you’re eating your ramen from is a handmade, hand-painted ceramic from centuries ago!

5. Japanese food has a lot of vegetables, but is not fully vegetarian

One Japanese cultural fact about food that most people often get confused with is that washoku is not fully vegetation. Sure, there are a lot of vegetables in Japanese cuisine. In fact, Japanese cuisine has a much higher ratio of plant-based foods than in the US, but that’s not the point.

A lot of the time, Japanese food is cooked in fish broth or served with bonito flakes sprinkled on them. I once tried to ask a Mexican restaurant in Japan if their shrimp tacos were okay for pescatarians, but they said that the oil they used was not suitable as it contains meat fat. So those with strict diets, this is quite important to take note of.

6. There are a lot of rules and etiquette to Japanese cuisine

A super important cultural fact of Japan that is closely related to their food is etiquette. There are a lot of rules and etiquette when it comes to eating Japanese cuisine. To list out all of them would require a whole other article, but we actually touched base on them in our Season 1 Episode 11 episode “Picture of Politeness”: click here to listen! Alternatively, you can read our recap article on the episode. 

To name a few important ones, chopsticks have certain rules – you can’t play around with them or stick them up in your rice bowl; slurping is considered polite instead of rude; you can’t walk while eating on the streets in Japan.

7. Local ingredients are massively featured in Japan’s various cities 

On top of seasonal ingredients, Japanese people pride themselves on local, regional ingredients to create their dishes. Depending on the city or prefecture you’re in, you’re going to get a lot of the same ingredients that they provide. For example, Miyagi prefecture is proud of edamame (枝豆), which are immature soybeans, and you’ll get them in everything from appetisers to desserts.

8. Tea is a form of art in Japan

If you don’t know what a Japanese tea ceremony is, read our article on it first! This practice is one of the highest forms of art in Japan. Yes, tea is considered a form of art in the country! There are even schools that teach you the right ways of preparing tea, and everything that comes with it. Our article has a more in-depth explanation and insight into this art form.

9. There’s a way to pour sake

This is a cultural fact that I didn’t know until I experienced it myself: there’s a way to pour sake! It’s said that restaurants will pour sake until it overflows into the saucer as a way to welcome their guests. This symbolises gratitude and abundance. To prepare you for this cultural act, here’s a video that you can watch that does exactly that:

10. Raw foods is common

This last one isn’t an uncommon Japanese food cultural fact: raw foods are so common in Japan. As we mentioned before, this has to do with the simplistic nature of Japanese culture, as well as the umami concept. So brace yourselves for a whole lot of sushi and the like!

What’s the best Japanese food fact? 

So, which one out of the ten Japanese food cultural facts is the best, in your opinion? Which one are you surprised by the most? Japanese food, just like the culture it’s from, has abundant to give, and both of them are things you have to experience yourself to grasp the uniqueness fully!

The Art of Washoku

The Art of Washoku

Introduction

Who doesn’t love food? We all love food — whether it’s a specific type of cuisine or you just love to eat. The Japanese cuisine has boomed internationally and is now one of the most popular types in the world! Ramen and sushi, anyone?

Washoku (Japanese cuisine) is not just the noodles and seaweed rolls that we all know — there are principles that make them what they are. And if you don’t already know, there are various traditional Japanese cuisine that uphold these principles strongly to this very day.

So what are these principles and traditional washoku types? Read on to find out!

What is “washoku”?

So, what exactly is washoku (和食)? Well, let’s break down the kanji, shall we? The “wa” () has the meaning of “harmony” and also “Japan” — you would already know this if you have read our article “The Various Names of Japan”. The “shoku” () refers to “food”. So, both kanjis combined literally means “Japanese food”.

A brief background on how the word came about: Japanese cuisine wasn’t always called “washoku”, as the term only came about in the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Before the time, there wasn’t any other types of cuisine, so Japanese cuisine was the norm. The Meiji Period was the time the Westernisation happened, so the introduction to Western cuisines (洋食, youshoku) required the people to identify their own local cuisine — and thus washoku was born.

Principles of Washoku 

Washoku isn’t just a classification for any food that is created in Japan — although, most of them are. There are a few fundamentals that a washoku meal has to abide by. These principles are constant throughout them all, just like how rice is basically the heart of any washoku (or Japanese) meal — it’s a staple piece.

The four main principles of washoku are seasonality, regionality, balance and aesthetics. Let’s take a look at each of them individually.

Seasonality 

The Japanese are very particular about seasons. They pay attention to the changing weather and nature — I mean, they even have holidays based on the mountain and sea (read our Japanese Holidays write-up about them!).

With four very distinct seasons in Japan, they are clearly reflected in the washoku dishes that are served during the time. You’ll generally get root veggies in winter and wild plants in spring. Summer sees the pickled veggies and autumn calls for chestnuts. 

Special washoku dishes like osechi ryori (おせち料理) greets a coming new year and is the special New Year’s meal, complete with various symbolised ingredients. 

 

Regionality

Japan is huge. There are a few islands that make up the mainland, and a few thousands of other islands surrounding it! If you’re curious about all the various types of islands, give our Nihongo Master Podcast a listen — one of the episodes cover the Island Life of Japan!

Anyway, with so many various parts, they each have their own unique way of making a specific dish or using specific ingredients that you can only get from there. So, on top of a general washoku of the nation’s cuisine, regionality plays quite a role. 

You’ll get wonderful crab dishes up north in Hokkaido, because the seafood there is nothing but the best or go down south to the subtropical Okinawa to get your fair share of umibudo (海ぶど), seagrapes that the Okinawa prefecture is known for. And because of that, the ingredient is included in quite a number of other dishes to make their own regional washoku.

Balance 

Another important principle of washoku is balance. Some cuisines rely on enhancing flavours using tons and tons of ingredients. For washoku, it’s all about not overdoing it, but not under-doing it either. It focuses quite a bit on natural flavours and how every dish complements the others.

It’s also not just about flavour, it’s also about the nutrition. There’s a saying of “ichi ju san sai” (一汁三菜), referring to “one soup and three side dishes” — they not only accompany a bowl of rice, but also provide a well-balanced meal with the nutrition we need.

Aesthetics 

Last but not least is the aesthetics. Have you ever noticed how every Japanese meal is served so presentably? If you’ve ever spent some time in Japan, you’ll realise that whenever a waiter serves you your food, every ingredient is displayed in a way that not only grabs your attention but also complements the rest of the stuff on the plate.

Not only that, the Japanese especially pay attention to the tableware they use — and for washoku, more often than not, lacquerware is often the go-to choice. If you want to know more about lacquerware, a traditional Japanese craft with quite a history, give our Nihongo Master Podcast a listen — specifically the episode “The Art Culture of Japan”. 

Traditional Japanese Cuisine

Ramen and sushi aside, does everyone know the traditional kinds of washoku — the ones that date back centuries and with a purpose? If you have, that’s wonderful. If not, this section will be extremely informative and educational to you!

Even though this traditional washoku originated in the early days of Japan, they are still alive to this very day — there are more kaiseki (解析) restaurants than one can count. And let’s not get started on shojin ryori (精進料理) — with such a strong religious hold, there’s no way it’ll go anywhere.

To talk about them is a whole new article on its own — which is exactly what is going to happen. Keep a look out in the next few weeks for an article all about the traditional Japanese cuisine, including the two mentioned earlier!

Conclusion

Who would have thought that a whole nation’s cuisine has a couple of rules that they abide by? I guess every country has some sort of guideline, but most of them are more about what ingredients used rather than what they symbolise. Japan is all about symbolism, aren’t they? Even the food they create means one thing or the other!

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