Contrary to recent claims that multiculturalism is passé, perhaps more so than any other country’s, Japanese food is influenced by other cultures’ preferences.
A perfect instance of such is the much-beloved tonkatsu, a deep-fried, panko-breaded pork cutlet that is usually served with rice and cabbage salad.
This dish epitomises what the Japanese call yoshoku – western-influenced cuisine.
Essentially, yoshoku represents European dishes with a Japanese spin; indeed, the aforementioned pork cutlet dish is reminiscent of the Germanic schnitzel... and for good reason!
It was the Dutch who introduced the dish during the Meiji Restoration period, when the emperor concluded that Europeans were physically bigger than Japanese because of the food they ate.
Now that that fact has been disclosed, we have no choice but to delve into the history of Japanese cuisine.
Let’s find out which dishes are native to the Japanese culture, which ‘outsiders’ are so popular they’ve been adopted as an integral part of the cuisine, and which foods are still considered outsiders.
Pour yourself a cup of Japanese tea – or sake if that’s your preference, and find out where all these yummy concoctions really came from.
Japanese Cuisine: Going Way Back in Time
The earliest archaeological finds indicate that rice and fish have been staples of Japanese cuisine since Neolithic times – about 12,000 years ago.
To this day, that has not changed. Neither have some of the rituals of consuming food, although those rules are much more recent than the basic meal composition.
Much of early Japanese food culture originated in China. In fact, Japan transitioned from hunter-gatherers to agriculturists through the introduction of rice planting; a Chinese ‘import’.
Spiritualism played a part in shaping the food culture of those early days, too.
During the Yamato Period, from 300 to 538 CE Buddhism was introduced; another Chinese influence, albeit routed through Korea.
So great was Chinese influence in every aspect of Japanese life at that time that the tail started wagging the dog – meaning that the Japanese started knowingly and actively imitating Chinese food and culture.
Mapu tofu – a popular dish in Japan today originated in China’s Sichuan Province, giving ample evidence of the Japanese mirroring of China.
China’s and Buddhism’s influence had lasting and, some say dire consequences on the diet of the Japanese.
In 675 CE, that belief system led to meat eating banned; especially consuming the flesh of domesticated mammals, for five months out of the year. Prior to Emperor Tenmu’s declaration, it was not unusual to eat meat, even horses, dogs and chickens, year-round.
After that decree, wild game remained in the stewpots as it was considered essential to the Japanese diet in remote regions. Chickens became pets and monkeys were only eaten as a part of ceremonies.
Further restrictions on meat consumption: Empress Koken declared a ban on fishing in 752 CE but, to compensate the fishermen for their loss of livelihood, she promised them extra rice.
The Heian Period (794-1195) saw further banning of meat from dinner bowls.
Perhaps the oddest decree of that period – perhaps of all time was: should any government official, imperial household member or person of nobility eat meat, they would be considered unclean for three days and barred from participation in any religious ritual.
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From this brief history, we see that the Chinese had a massive influence on early Japanese culture, especially their food: what it contained and how it was prepared, served and eaten.
The end of the Chinese Tang dynasty signalled the end of that culture’s influence over Japan, but they did make one more remarkable contribution to the Japanese food culture: chopsticks.
Granted, they too came to Japan via Korea and it is true that only nobility used them at first; ‘commoners’ still ate with their hands.
Nevertheless, from the 9th century on, Japan set out to find its individuality, both in cuisine and in culture.
What happened next could be considered a complete denouncing of lavish Chinese foods and eating habits.
No longer would there be elaborate preparations; offerings were simplistic but substantial – peasant fare by another name.
Fish and seafood made its way back into their diet but meat was still vilified: anyone who slaughtered an animal and consumed its flesh was considered ‘burakamin’, worthy of discrimination and ostracisation.
In the meantime, said peasants did get their bit of nobility: the chopstick made its way into the countryside. Soon, eating with one’s hands was considered crass, even in the poorest households.
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Honzen-ryori: Ancient Japanese Foods Served in Style
This cuisine is what emerged from the Shogun influence of the 14th century. That is when eating became highly ritualised and stylised.
Prior to that time, all of the food had been placed on the table at once, as it is still done in China today.
In this updated eating etiquette, food would be served on legged trays to individual diners, arranged in a prescribed manner and following a strict list of permissible dishes.
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Those dishes included:
- Sakizuke: an appetizer, generally served with sake
- Nimono: a simmered dish involving dashi and fish, tofu and/or seasonal vegetables
- Mukozuke: a sashimi dish
- Hassun: basically, whatever is in season – be it fruit, veg or meat ( meat is also seasonal!)
- Yakimono: a grilled dish of fish or meat
- Sokuji – a rice dish.
This feast would be preceded by an aperitif and rounded out with a sweet, perhaps mochi cakes. Invariably, a tea ceremony would follow.
Unfortunately, it is no longer common to find such an extravaganza.
Some elements of such a meal feature in traditional Japanese weddings and some Japanese restaurants might serve such a feast... but the entire experience will likely run into the thousands of yen!
If that’s more than the cash outlay you were anticipating, you may find elements of this style of cuisine in kaiseki-ryori, a much more common presentation.
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Kaiseki-ryori: Authentic Japanese Cuisine
This dining experience centres on harmony between appearance, taste, texture and colour of the foods.
Originally, this meal started with a bowl of miso soup complemented by three other dishes; today, that is what the Japanese people consider a ‘set meal’.
In other words, it is a standard dinner in the average Japanese home or restaurant.
Today, in the finer Japanese restaurants, you are more likely to be treated to much the same outlay of dishes as with the traditional Honzen meal, but with a slightly more reasonable price tag.
Typically, chefs will start your dining experience with an appetizer and follow it with seasonal fare; generally a type of sushi and several side dishes.
You would then linger over sashimi, ahead of a simmered dish that may consist of vegetables, meat, fish or tofu, each stewed separately so that they will keep their own flavour. You would then cleanse your palate with a soup.
Now you’re on for some grilled fare, typically fish, followed by an acidic palate cleanser such as pickled cabbage or radish.
And then, you get into some serious eating: a hot pot. The reigning favourite is Sukiyaki:a pot of broth with assorted raw ingredients that you scald in the broth prior to eating.
Finally, you encounter the Japanese staple dish, rice, mixed with ingredients fresh in season. You may end the meal with a dessert: seasonal fruit, some confection or cake.
This meal sounds substantial until you consider that each serving is only a few mouthfuls... but rest assured you won’t leave the restaurant hungry!
What is on your top ten list of Japanese foods?
Washoku versus Yoshoku
The two styles of cuisine covered so far are considered Washoku: traditional Japanese cuisine.
The more modern style of cooking is called Yoshoku and it incorporates elements of European cooking arts, as we mentioned in this article’s introduction.
At one time in Japan’s history, outsider influence was deemed harmful and the country entered a period of isolationism: nobody was allowed in or out for about 220 years.
Besides limited commerce with China, the lone exception was trading with the Dutch, through which trickled medical, scientific and technical advances.
Naturally, early assays into meat-based cooking were replications of Dutch foods but soon, others followed, each getting their own ‘spin’ and being served in Japanese style.
What most westerners and many Japanese consider an authentic Japanese food feature, tempura, actually made its way to the islands from Portugal in the 1500s.
So ingrained is tempura in the food culture there that it is considered ‘washoku’.
The easiest way to tell whether you are eating traditional or ‘updated’ Japanese dishes is by how they are served.
Traditional dishes will be served in individual bowls; it is considered poor taste to mix flavours together. Also, these meals will invariably be eaten with chopsticks, save for the soup.
By contrast, ‘updated’ fare may be mixed; you might be served a plate of teriyaki chicken on a bed of rice, for example. For this type of dining, western-type spoons are acceptable utensils.
Another dead giveaway that you’re in for some ‘real’ Japanese food: the Japanese restaurant menu will list those dishes in katakana, a syllabic means of writing foreign-sounding words... but that line is getting blurred.
Some yoshoku dishes are so popular in Japan that they are now served as part of the washoku lineup, like that cutlet dish we mentioned at the start of the article.
These days, it may be served with Japanese sauces like daikon or ponzu and, more tellingly, it features on menus as a native Japanese word rather than its syllable-spelling.
There is no doubt what traditional Japanese food is: elegant, tasteful, appealing to the senses – including that mysterious fifth taste, umami.
Were we to designate foods that are traditional... that would be a bit harder, seeing as that notion is in flux.
But then, Japanese cuisine has long been about so much more than food for sustenance.
Now learn how Japanese food is adapted to suit tastes around the world...