Have you ever wondered what true traditional Japanese cuisine is like?
You may have heard of sushi, tempura, and ramen, but did you know that they are relatively recent creations in Japan’s long culinary history?
In this blog post, we will explore the world of washoku, or Japanese cuisine, and its place in the Japanese culture, history and geography.
What is washoku?
Washoku (和食) literally means “Japanese food” or “harmony food” in kanji.
It refers to the traditional dishes that have been prepared and enjoyed in Japan for centuries, using local ingredients and cooking methods.
Washoku is not just a way of eating, but also a way of living in harmony with nature and respecting the seasons.
Washoku was designated as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2013, in recognition of its social and cultural significance.
It reflects the Japanese values of aesthetics, balance, and hospitality, as well as the diversity of regional cuisines across the archipelago.
What are the characteristics of washoku?
Washoku is based on a few principles that make it unique and healthy.
Here are some of them:
This means “one soup and three dishes”, and it is the basic structure of a washoku meal.
It consists of a bowl of rice, a bowl of soup (usually miso soup), and three side dishes: one main dish (usually fish or meat) and two vegetable dishes.
This combination ensures a balanced intake of carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
This means “seasonal”, and it refers to the practice of using ingredients that are in season and at their peak of freshness and flavor.
By following the natural cycle of the seasons, washoku celebrates the bounty of nature and reduces food waste and environmental impact.
This means “stone in the bosom”, and it refers to a multi-course meal that originated from the tea ceremony.
It is considered the highest form of washoku, as it showcases the chef’s skills and creativity in preparing exquisite dishes that are pleasing to the eye and the palate.
Kaiseki meals are usually served on special occasions, such as weddings, anniversaries, or holidays.
This means “savory taste”, and it is one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.
Umami is derived from amino acids, such as glutamate, that are naturally present in many foods, such as seaweed, soy sauce, mushrooms, cheese, and meat.
Umami enhances the flavor and depth of dishes, making them more satisfying and delicious.
What are some examples of washoku dishes?
There are countless washoku dishes that vary depending on the region, season, occasion, and preference of the cook.
Here are some examples of popular washoku dishes that you may have heard of or tried before:
- Sashimi (刺身): This is raw fish or seafood that is sliced thinly and served with soy sauce and wasabi. Sashimi is often eaten as an appetizer or a main dish, depending on the quantity and quality of the fish. Sashimi showcases the freshness and flavor of the seafood, as well as the skill of the chef in cutting it.
- Nabe (鍋): This is a hot pot dish that consists of various ingredients cooked in a broth in a large pot over a portable stove. Nabe is usually eaten in winter, as it warms up the body and soul. There are many types of nabe, such as sukiyaki (beef and vegetables cooked in a sweet soy sauce broth), shabu-shabu (thinly sliced meat and vegetables cooked in a clear broth), or oden (fish cakes, eggs, tofu, and vegetables cooked in a dashi broth).
- Tempura (天ぷら): This is deep-fried seafood or vegetables coated with a light batter made from flour, water, and egg. Tempura is crispy on the outside and tender on the inside,
and it is served with a dipping sauce made from dashi, soy sauce, mirin, and grated daikon radish. Tempura was originally introduced by Portuguese traders in the 16th century,
but it has become one of the most popular washoku dishes today.
- Onigiri (おにぎり): This is a rice ball that is shaped by hand and filled with various ingredients,
such as salted salmon, pickled plum, tuna mayo, or seaweed. Onigiri is a convenient snack or lunch that can be eaten on the go, as it is wrapped in a sheet of nori (dried seaweed) that keeps the rice from drying out. Onigiri is a staple of Japanese home cooking and convenience stores.
- Mochi (餅): This is a sticky rice cake that is made from pounding glutinous rice with a wooden mallet. Mochi can be eaten plain or with various toppings, such as red bean paste, soybean flour, or sesame seeds. Mochi is also used to make sweets, such as daifuku (mochi stuffed with red bean paste), dango (mochi balls on a skewer), or mochi ice cream. Mochi is especially eaten during New Year’s, as it symbolizes longevity and prosperity.
Why you should try washoku
Washoku is not only delicious, but also nutritious and beneficial for your health and well-being.
Here are some reasons why you should try washoku:
- It is rich in antioxidants, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower your cholesterol, blood pressure, and risk of heart disease and stroke.
- Washoku is low in calories, fat, and sugar, which can help you maintain a healthy weight and prevent diabetes and obesity.
- It is diverse and colorful, which can stimulate your appetite and senses, as well as provide you with a variety of nutrients and flavors.
- Washoku is simple and elegant, which can calm your mind and spirit, as well as foster a sense of gratitude and appreciation for the food and the people who prepared it.
How to enjoy washoku?
If you are interested in trying washoku, you have many options to choose from.
You can visit a Japanese restaurant that specializes in it, such as a sushi bar, a tempura shop, or a kaiseki restaurant.
You can also order washoku dishes from a delivery service or a convenience store.
Or you can make your own washoku at home, using fresh and seasonal ingredients and following some simple recipes.
Whatever you choose, here are some tips on how to enjoy washoku:
- Use chopsticks to eat washoku, as they allow you to savor each bite and control the amount of food you eat.
- Eat slowly and mindfully, paying attention to the texture, aroma, and flavor of each dish.
- Drink green tea or water with washoku, as they complement the food and help you digest it.
- Say “itadakimasu” before you eat and “gochisousama” after you eat, as they express your gratitude for the food and the people who provided it.
Washoku is more than just food.
It is a way of life that reflects the Japanese culture and values.
By trying washoku, you can experience the beauty and harmony of Japan, as well as nourish your body and soul.