The people of Japan enjoy an amazing statistic: they lead the world in life expectancy.
It is not uncommon for Japanese men and women to live past the century mark; in fact, Japan holds the record for the highest number of centenarians.
Is it because they enjoy a high quality of life? Because they exercise regularly? Because they live by a firm moral code and hold deep spiritual beliefs?
Surely those elements play a part in prolonging life but another factor most likely weighs heavier on how the Japanese manage to live for so long and maintain relatively good health: their diet.
Traditional Japanese food is low in complex carbohydrates and saturated fats – low in any kind of fat, for that matter.
The emphasis on freshness defines Japanese cuisine.
From shrimp that flail as you eat them to just-sliced sashimi and succulent sushi, there is virtually no processing involved in preparing a standard Japanese meal.
As if that weren't healthy enough, there is the array of fermented components: miso, natto and tsukemono; even soy sauce is fermented.
These ingredients are said to help boost immunity and improve digestion; there is even an indication that such foods can boost cognitive function.
For these reasons alone, a close examination of the Japanese diet is warranted. Your Superprof obliges by uncovering facet of Japanese food that might as yet be unknown to you.
Grab your chopsticks and get ready to drool! We’re off to explore the wonders of Japanese cuisine.
What is Traditional Japanese Food?
Most other cultures tend to identify the dishes they prefer by the regions they hail from – Mexican food, Italian food and so on.
And, to our knowledge, no other culture identifies their food as harmonious.
By contrast, the Japanese have a single, comprehensive word to identify what defines traditional Japanese cuisine, with all that it entails.
Washoku literally means ‘harmonious food to eat’.
As it happens, the first ideogram of its name represents 'harmony' as well as 'Japanese'... but it defies logic that they would call their own food Japanese.
After all, we don’t label our food as English and, while we might identify French bread by that appellate, it would be highly likely that French people would simple call it bread, wouldn't it?
Besides, if you take into consideration the overall culture; the spiritual beliefs that call for harmony and balance, identifying a washoku meal in the manner above makes perfect sense.
So, what exactly is washoku, besides the designation of traditional Japanese food culture?
This philosophy places emphasis on freshness and balance of tastes and textures; the essential formula is ‘a soup and three sides’; what is called ichiju-sansai.
The soup would most likely be miso, although other dashi broth soups may feature. Another standard component would be the bowl of rice and the pickled vegetable, used as a palate cleanser between bites.
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The three sides may be served either as a set menu in a restaurant or, if dining with friends at home, could be:
- grilled meat or fish
- sushi and sashimi (or one without the other)
- tempura – battered and fried vegetables or meat
- tofu – can be fried tofu or a different bean curd preparation
- seasonal vegetables
Should you venture into a high-end restaurant in Japan with a bit of extra money in your pocket, you may elect to experience kaiseki – the art of washoku dining at its most formal.
Did you know there is an entire article about the rituals of formal dining in Japan as well as more about Japanese cuisine in general?
The Diversity of Cuisine Throughout Japan
In spite of the fact that, a long time ago, the Chinese revolutionised Japan, since then, Japanese culture has set out to define herself: in dress, art, language... and especially in her cuisine and food etiquette.
One major factor that has impacted what people eat across the archipelago known as Japan is the Buddhist philosophy that no living animal shall be harmed.
The Chinese, moving through the Korean peninsula, ‘imported’ the teachings of the Buddha to Japan around 550 CE. This belief system started a gradual turning away from eating meat until even fish became taboo.
The Japanese people had effectively become vegan and remained so for hundreds of years.
Around the mid-19th century, what is known as the Meiji Restoration period, that emperor had many ideas that ran counter to the shogun leadership that had isolated the country for so long.
He contended that outside ideas are good for Japan; they would help advance society. One of the good ideas he embraced was eating meat.
He reasoned that the Dutch traders who visited the islands were so much bigger and stronger than his subjects because of their diet.
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Soon, Japanese chefs were incorporating Dutch fare into their repertoire; tonkatsu, a breaded, fried pork cutlet soon earned its place as a staple of the Japanese food line-up, as well as tempura dishes.
And so, yoshoku cuisine was born, eventually – and still, to this day coexisting alongside the more traditional washoku art of food in Japan.
Did you know that tempura is not authentically Japanese?
To learn more of its true origins, along with what defines washoku versus yoshoku cuisine and how to tell you where in Japan you are by the food on your plate, please direct yourself to our companion article.
How is Japanese Food Adapted Around the World?
As great as it would be to do so, we’ve not eaten at every single Japanese restaurant outside of Japan.
For that matter, we’ve not eaten at every single restaurant inside of Japan, either.
But we did get a decent sampling; enough to be able to distinguish between authentic Japanese food eaten in Japan and food billed as Japanese elsewhere in the world.
The first standout is in the presentation: it is common in Japanese restaurants (and households) to keep foods separate.
Let’s say you ordered a standard meal: miso soup with three sides.
Naturally, the soup ingredients would be combined, but then, you would have one small bowl for pickled vegetables, one small bowl for fresh vegetables and a small plate for the protein offering – tofu or fish. And a rice bowl, of course.
Again, as assert: that 'segregation' is not true in every instance.
Noodle dishes such as donburi and ramen combine ingredients. Stir fry would obviously entail combining ingredients; even sushi is a combination of fish and rice, sometimes wrapped in nori (seaweed).
Still, if you’re in Japanese metro station or convenience store, you may find your eye straying to strikingly arranged, prepared meals for sale. Don’t disregard the fact that each bit of food sits in its own well!
In fact, the bento box - a lunch box divided into small compartments, is so constructed for the purpose to keeping elements of a meal separate.
To discover more amazing facts about Japanese food and authentic Japanese cuisine, feel free to indulge in our longer article.
The Top Ten Japanese Recipes You Can Try at Home
Are you a fan of chicken teriyaki? Do you crave your weekly California roll?
Would you like to learn how to cook that beef sukiyaki or shrimp tempura you order every time you go to your favourite Japanese restaurant?
If so, you will be delighted to know that most Japanese foods require little in the way of ingredients – certainly no salt, spices or garlic.
On the other hand, the ingredients used in traditional Japanese food preparation are not generally sold in mainstream grocery outlets, so you might have to make a trip to your local Asian food store.
While there, plan on stocking up on bean paste, fish flakes, rice wine and sesame oil.
You might even pick up some wasabi while you’re there; there is a good chance that the stuff you bought at Tesco has more ingredients than it should...
Also, don’t forget to pick up some Japanese rice and load up on fresh vegetables – especially green onion and, while you’re at it, a few jars of pickled daikon.
You may also need a few kitchen tools before you start your Japanese culinary adventure: chopsticks, rice bowls and a sushi mat if you’re planning to try your hand at rolling sushi.
Speaking of sushi...
Did you know that those rice-wrapped treats are not authentically Japanese?
Authentic sushi is essentially a strip of fish overlaying a small rice ball. Some might have a nori wrap on the outside.
To learn how to make authentic sushi as well as other tasty Japanese creations, you can follow this ‘top-ten’ list of Japanese food recipes.
Japanese food is healthy, balanced and emphasises harmony between the dishes as well as the consumer with his food.
The colours, tastes, textures and flavours of real Japanese food underscore humans’ relationship with their environment.
Instead of looking to mass production to feed the nation, local, seasonal and fresh - eating what is available is the focus of the Japanese food industry.
Delicately handled to let natural flavours shine rather than layering everything in spices and sauces...
The Japanese attitude toward food and nourishment allows for little waste yet supports the need for more than mere sustenance... all while showing reverence to ancient practices and beliefs.
Sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it?