Traditional Japanese Cuisine
Traditional Japanese Cuisine
The Japanese eat three meals a day, and afternoon and late-night snacking is normal. This popular expectation of three meals a day dates to the middle of the Edo period (1600–1868) (Tsuji and Ishige, 1983, p. 306). One traditional definition of a meal in Japan is that it includes rice, soup, pickles, and at least one side dish. In normal home cooking these components are usually served together rather than as separate courses. In specialty restaurants, the main course is sometimes served first accompanied by sake (rice wine), followed by rice, soup, and pickles to mark the end of the meal.
Rice has been cultivated in Japan in wet paddies for about two thousand years. Introduced from southern China, the preference in Japan has always been for a glutinous, short-grained variety. Traditionally rice is boiled or steamed, and in modern kitchens it is usually prepared in automatic rice cookers.
The words for cooked rice in modern Japanese, meshi and gohan, are also used to mean a "meal." The degree to which rice has been the central staple of Japanese food is debated (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1993, pp. 30–43), and historically rice has been supplemented by other carbohydrates, such as millet and sweet potatoes. Nonetheless rice is idealized as the core of any Japanese meal. If noodles constitute the main starch of a meal, rice is not served, but such a meal is also considered more of a snack than a proper meal. Gretchen Mittwer points out that the midday noodle snack became popular in early historic periods, when only two meals per day were eaten (Mittwer, 1989, p. 23).
Rice, sake, and the pounded-rice paste called mochi are powerful symbols in Japan. Rice and its products symbolize the relation of Japanese people to their deities, the nature of community in Japan, and Japan's history and aesthetics, and in the end rice is a symbol of the Japanese self (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1993, pp. 8–11, 127–131).
Three major ingredients, which may be used together or separately, create the basic stock of a Japanese soup (dashi). The first is katsuo-bushi, or dried bonito. The bonito is dried and processed to create hard, woodlike pieces that are easily stored. A planelike tool is used to take shavings from it that are dropped into hot water, then strained out. Instant powders are often substituted. The second major ingredient is kelp (konbu ), which is also available as an instant powder. Konbu and katsuo-bushi often are used together to create a stock. The third ingredient, shiitake mushrooms, are boiled with or without kelp to create a vegetarian soup stock used, for example, in shoojin-ryoori, the vegetarian cuisine of Buddhist temples (Ishige, 2000, p. 1178).
Two main types of soups are based on these stocks. Clear soups (suimono) are considered light and elegant and are served in lacquered bowls with lids. A bit of salt and soy sauce is added to the broth along with two or three small bits of solid food, perhaps a piece of fish, a sliver of vegetable, and an aromatic garnish. When the lid is lifted, the delicate fragrance escapes, and the aesthetic arrangement of the solid foods within the bowl is an added enjoyment (Tsuji, 1980, p. 151).
Miso soups comprise the second major class of soups. Miso is a paste made from soybeans and barley inoculated with a fungal culture and allowed to cure for a year or more. A great variety of misos exist, some smooth, others chunky. They range in color from light beige (called "white") to medium red or brown to nearly black. Some are sweet, while others are quite salty. Because this is a bean-based ingredient, miso soups are a rich source of protein.
To make a miso soup, a variety of miso is selected and dissolved in hot stock. The cook adds seasonal vegetables, such as parboiled fiddlehead ferns or eggplant, and perhaps a few cubes of tofu (white, mild-tasting curds made from soy milk). Miso soup is more common than the clear soups, and more filling as well.
Japanese pickles (tsukemono ) are primarily pickled vegetables. They exist in great variety and add texture and diversity to even a simple menu. Originally pickling preserved vegetables for use through the winter, but pickles have come to occupy a place in the menu year-round.
Daikon radishes, Chinese cabbages, cucumbers, eggplants, and turnips are often pickled. Rubbing the vegetable in salt, then placing a weight on top to force out liquids is a common method, as is packing the vegetables in miso, sake, sake lees, or rice bran. The use of vinegar is a relatively less-important pickling method in Japan (Yoneda, 1982, pp. 89–92).
Green, unripened Japanese plums (ume) are the only fruit regularly pickled, and they are prepared with salt and red perilla leaves (shiso). The resulting pickle, called umeboshi, is salty, sour, and red. It is considered an appetite stimulant, consequently it is often served with breakfast (Richie, 1985, p. 85). Umeboshi is commonly used to flavor onigiri, a favorite picnic food, which is a ball of rice with something inside.
Traditionally pickles were made at home, and many regional specialties developed. However, most consumers buy pickles in supermarkets or department stores. There open vats of decoratively arranged pickles are displayed, and the attractively pungent smells are obvious immediately upon entering the store. Pickles are also frequently sold as regional souvenirs.
Side dishes, okazu, add savor to the rice that is traditionally understood as the central portion of the meal. Non-Japanese people are tempted to call some of these the entrée of the meal, as the side dishes might include grilled fish or deep-fried pork (tonkatsu), but this is at odds with the traditional understanding. Side dishes could also include sweet vinegared cucumbers, steamed enoki mushrooms, or hijiki seaweed stewed with carrots. A simple meal might have only one side dish, but elaborate meals would have many. Some major okazu include salads, tofu, seafood, and meat.
Salads. Traditional salads are served cold and can be divided into two basic categories, vinegared salads (sunomono) and salads with heavier dressings (aemono). The vinegar-based dressings usually include a basic soup stock (dashi) and soy sauce and might also include some fruit juice, ginger, or grated daikon radish as well. Heavier dressings are often made with pureed tofu, ground sesame seeds, or miso.
Like the soups, which call for seasonally available fillings, salads highlight seasonal materials, including fruits, vegetables, and fish or shellfish. Depending on the materials, some might be steamed, parboiled, or grilled in preparation, but they are always cooled and dried before the salad is assembled. Typical salads might include crab with thinly sliced cucumbers in a vinegar and ginger dressing or parboiled spinach dressed with ground sesame seeds, soy sauce, dashi, and a bit of sugar (Tsuji, 1980, pp. 241–242, 247, 253).
Tofu. Mentioned above as a common ingredient for miso soup and as a base for thick dressings, tofu has attained worldwide recognition. It was originally brought to Japan from China, perhaps in the 900s by the delegations of Buddhist priests who studied there. As priests were allowed to eat neither meat nor fish, this high protein food was doubtless appreciated. By the 1100s tofu was widely used in Japan.
To make tofu, soybeans are cooked, then strained. The resulting liquid is soy milk. A coagulating agent is added to the soy milk, and the resulting curds are shaped into blocks. Tofu is an inexpensive ingredient that lends itself to many styles of preparation. In the 1780s two bestselling books each promised one hundred tofu recipes (Richie, 1985, pp. 34–41).
Two simple ways of serving tofu are popular. Hiyayakko is chilled tofu cut into bite-sized pieces and served with a dipping sauce of soy sauce and grated ginger or chopped scallions. Yudoofu is tofu cut into cubes and heated in hot water seasoned with kelp. Once warm, the cubes are lifted out and dipped in a heated sauce flavored with grated daikon radish.
Iridoofu is made by stirring tofu over heat with bits of carrots, shiitake mushrooms, and snow peas. Dengaku is tofu roasted on bamboo skewers, then spread with flavored miso and roasted again.
Tofu can be deep-fried. Cut into thick slices and dredged in potato starch, it is fried to make agedashi-doofu and is served with a sweetened soy sauce dip. Cut into thin slices and double-fried, usuage is often sliced in thin strips and used in boiled dishes because it holds together well, or it is used as a small edible pouch for sweet vinegared rice to make inari-zushi.
In addition to the raw and fried versions, tofu is freeze-dried. This product is easily stored, and when reconstituted with water, it has a distinctive spongelike texture. It is often simmered with vegetables or put into soups. Known commonly as koori-doofu and shimi-doofu, this tofu is also called kooya-doofu or Kooya tofu. It is said that monks on cold Mount Kooya discovered their tofu was frozen. When in their thriftiness they used it anyway, they were pleasantly surprised.
Seafood. Japan is surrounded by the sea. Both cold and warm currents lap the islands, creating a variety of ecological niches. This in turn supplies Japan with a variety of fish, shellfish, and marine vegetables. The general attitude in Japan is that the freshest fish are best enjoyed raw. Fish that are not as fresh should be grilled with salt, and fish of even lesser freshness should be stewed with soy sauce or miso (Ishige, 2000, p. 1177).
Since the Edo period raw fish has been served as sashimi, sliced into bite-sized pieces and garnished. Grated daikon radish or wasabi, a Japanese root product related to horseradish that adds pungent flavor, is provided along with a small side bowl of dipping sauce. The radish or wasabi condiment is added to the dipping sauce to taste, then the fish slices are dipped and eaten. In casual home cooking this dipping sauce might simply be soy sauce, but in restaurants it is often soy sauce reduced with sake (Tsuji, 1980, pp. 159–160). Before the Edo period raw fish was usually served as namasu, in which it is sliced and marinated in flavored rice vinegar, but with the advent of commercial-scale soy sauce production, the shift was to sashimi (Ishige, 2000, p. 1177).
Also in the Edo period sushi arose, originally a means of preserving fish. The fish was salted, then packed in cooked rice. With lactic acid fermentation, the rice developed a vinegarlike taste and preserved the fish, but the rice was discarded when the fish was served. By the 1400s people began to eat the rice as well, and in the Edo period slices of fresh fish were served atop small mounds of vinegared rice, often with a dab of wasabi added to the top of the rice (Ishige, 2000, p. 1177). This came to be known internationally as sushi, but more properly this style that developed in Edo (now Tokyo) in the early 1800s is nigiri-zushi. The older tradition of western Japan, particularly of Osaka, was to pack vinegared rice into a mold, cover the rice with marinated fish, remove the contents from the mold, then slice the resulting loaf into bite-sized pieces (Richie, 1985, p. 15; Tsuji, 1980, p. 288).
A great many vegetables are harvested from the seas. Kelp was mentioned above for its importance in making soup stock. Wakame is often used as a solid ingredient in soup and might be mixed with a variety of seaweeds in vinegared salads. Agar-agar (kanten) is important in traditional confections. Nori is well known as the nearly black paperlike sheets that wrap certain types of sushi (Tsuji, 1980, pp. 54–55, 72–73, 79–80, 97).
Meat. Eating meat was long a taboo in Japan. An imperial decree against eating several kinds of meats was issued in 675 c.e. In the Heian period (ninth to twelfth centuries), with the increased importance of Buddhism, meat eating largely disappeared in cities, though professional hunters were still active in remote areas. Nevertheless animals were not raised for slaughter. Cattle existed only for pulling carts and plows, and even their milk was not used. Buddhist priests were further enjoined from eating fish also, but the general populace ignored this stricture (Ishige, 2000, p. 1176).
Following Ishige's assertion that "traditional cuisine" is that of the Edo period, beef, popularized in the Meiji period (1868–1912), might be outside the focus of this article (Ishige, 2000, p. 1181). The innovations of the Meiji period succeeded, however, because they adapted to the norms of traditional cuisine (Cwiertka, 1999, p. 54), and the smooth shift eventually came to be seen as continuity.
With the opening of Japan to the West in the 1850s, the country quickly began to incorporate aspects of Western life, often with a catch-up mentality. In the 1860s the first slaughterhouse for cattle was built, and by the early 1870s beef eating was a fad. In 1873 the emperor endorsed the new custom. This gave rise to the dish called sukiyaki, in which beef is simmered in a traditional broth of sweetened soy sauce and sake along with other traditional items, such as grilled tofu, shiitake mushrooms, and chrysanthemum greens (shungiku) (Richie, 1985, pp. 21–25). The popularization of pork seems to have followed in the 1930s in the form of tonkatsu, a deep-fried, breaded pork cutlet (Richie, 1985, pp. 49–51).
This popular acceptance of distinctly foreign foods is paralleled in Japanese history by tempura, the crisply coated, deep-fried fish and vegetables known around the world. The Portuguese were a presence in Japan in the second half of the sixteenth century, and they apparently batter-fried their fish. The method spread, and by the mid-1700s tempura was popular, sold mainly from street carts (Ishige, 2000, p. 1177).
The two most representative beverages of Japan are tea and sake. Tea was first imported into Japan in the 800s from China. The tea was formed into bricks, then allowed to cure by fermentation. These blocks of tea were powdered and boiled. After some popularity among the aristocracy, tea drinking in Japan died out. It was reintroduced in the 1200s, this time as powdered green tea. This is the tea of the famed tea ceremony of Japan, but its popularity was limited, perhaps due to the complex rituals associated with the drink. Sometime in the 1600s tea was reintroduced to Japan, this time as an infusion made with the green leaf. This style of tea has become dominant in Japan and is served in homes, offices, and restaurants. In the Meiji period black, Western-style tea was introduced, and by the 1920s it was widely popular (Ishige, 2000, pp. 1180, 1182; Kumakura, 1999, p. 40).
Sake, like rice and mochi, carries symbolic importance. It is offered to Shinto deities both at home altars and at large public shrines, and it is the drink that seals the marriage in any Shinto wedding ceremony. Although sake has a long history, modern sake is clear and has a higher alcohol content (15 to 17 percent) than before the twentieth century. Steamed white rice is inoculated with a mold called kofi (Aspergillum oryzae ), which starts the fermentation. About two days later, sake yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae ) is added. Including refining, sake is produced in forty-five to sixty days. Sake does not improve with age; it should be consumed soon after production. Special cups and serving bottles are used for sake, and a fairly elaborate serving etiquette accompanies pouring drinks. While beer and whiskey are more popular than sake, the serving etiquette of these two drinks is based on that of sake (Tsuji, 1980, pp. 336–340).
The Japanese often pride themselves on the seasonality of their traditional food. In the mass market many foods are available without regard to season, but most traditional Japanese meals include seasonal aspects. As noted above, the solid ingredients in soups and the selection of materials for salads both announce the season in everyday meals.
Certain foods are only harvested and sold seasonally. The puffer or blowfish (fugu), which can quickly kill the eater if the poisonous liver is not properly removed, is available only in cold months, when the poison is said to be less potent (Richie, 1985, pp. 47–48). A fragrant and expensive mushroom, matsutake, is only found in the fall. The ayu, a fresh-water fish rather like a trout, is a food for early summer.
Some special days are marked by serving particular dishes. On 7 January it is traditional to eat a rice porridge made with seven springtime herbs (nanakusa-gayu). In August, on the day of the ox as calculated by a traditional ephemeris, people eat grilled eel (or more innovatively some form of beef) to strengthen themselves to withstand the remaining days of summer. On the first day of winter many homes serve tooji kabocha, pumpkin cooked with sweet azuki beans.
Other foods are served differently in different seasons. Some prefer soba noodles served cold with a small cup of cold dipping sauce on the side, but the same noodles are more often served in a bowl of hot broth in the winter. Early in the Edo period sake was warmed only in fall and winter (Ishige, 2000, p. 1180). Since then it has often been served warm throughout the year, but after the 1990s cold sake experienced a resurgence, especially in the summer. Miso soup as served in the cuisine of the tea ceremony is a blend of red miso with white. In the depths of winter the mixture is almost completely red miso, which is considered hearty and warming. Into spring more white miso is blended in, and by summer it is almost completely white miso, which is considered a much lighter dish.
The dishes and plates on which food is served are also seasonally appropriate. The deep, warm-looking bowls of winter gradually give way to the flatter, more airy and open-looking bowls of summer. Glass, because it reminds one of ice, is used to give a cool look to a set of summer dishes. Dishes might also have painted decorations appropriate to the seasons, such as cherry blossoms for spring or colored leaves for fall.
Seasonal sweets. Seasonality is also marked in Japan by serving sweets associated with particular seasons or holidays. The doll festival is a minor holiday on 3 March. Families with girls display elaborate sets of decorative dolls that represent the imperial court of the Heian period. Girls might have parties at their homes and serve two traditional foods, hishi-mochi, diamond-shaped multicolored sweets made with puffed rice, and amazake, an unclarified, milky-white sake sweetened and flavored with ginger. Arare and amazake are sold in department stores and local convenience stores ahead of the festival date and are often shared as snacks (o-sanji or o-yatsu ) for afternoon breaks in offices and other workplaces. While people with daughters to celebrate on this day have an obvious reason to buy and serve these sweets, many others do so as well. These two dishes are recognized as seasonal foods and are available once a year.
Other minor holidays are associated with particular sweets, such as the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, boys' day (5 May), and the celebration of the full moon of fall. The cherry blossom season also has its own associated sweets.
The New Year. Of all the holidays in Japan, New Year's is by far the most elaborate. It is celebrated on 1 January of the Western calendar, and most stores and offices are closed until 3 January. Special trains run all night shuttling people to major Shinto shrines, where they pray for a good year. Children receive envelopes containing money from their parents, relatives, and family friends, and large bundles of postcards with New Year's greetings are delivered on New Year's Day.
Through December many workplaces and university clubs hold year-end parties. These are often elaborate feasts of traditional Japanese food washed down with copious amounts of beer, whiskey, and sake. These parties are called boonen-kai, literally a gathering for "forgetting the year," specifically burying grudges of the past. Some groups host more abstemious Christmas parties instead, at which the food is usually Western and the drinks include sparkling wine.
In the last few days of the year, a New Year's delicacy called mochi was made traditionally. Glutinous rice was steamed, then put in a large mortar standing about two and a half feet tall and two to three feet in diameter. One person would swing a large mallet, pounding the mass of rice, while a second person reached in and turned the rice between each stroke. The resulting dough was cut into small balls or rolled into a large sheet and later cut into squares. Today, most people buy processed mochi.
It is traditional that no (substantial) cooking takes place for the first three days of the new year, so elaborate side dishes are prepared at the end of the year and beautifully arranged in decorative lacquered boxes for the New Year feast. While many housewives preserve this tradition, others order these traditional dishes ahead of time from caterers.
On the last night of the year, it is traditional to eat buckwheat noodles, soba, called toshi-koshi soba (crossingthe-years soba ). The noodles are served in a hot broth, typically garnished with scallions, fish sausage (kamaboko), or perhaps a piece of batter-fried shrimp (tempura). These long and thin noodles are eaten in the hope that life may be long and thin (virtuously upright).
On the morning of 1 January the family eats the most ritually elaborate meal of the year together. The foods prepared for this meal are called o-sechi ryoori. Many are good luck foods because of some pun or metaphorical connection with desired traits. The meal typically begins with a drink of otoso, a sweet, spiced sake. A sweet life is further ensured by eating such foods as small candied fish or chestnuts in a sweet potato comfit. Red snapper (tai) is eaten because its name recalls the word omedetai (auspicious). Sweetened black beans (mame) are eaten to become hard working (mame) in the new year. A kind of seaweed, kombu, is eaten because it sounds like the word for being happy (yorokobu). Special chopsticks made of willow are often used at this meal so in the new year the family members will be as flexible in body and mind as a willow tree.
The single most important dish of this meal, however, is the soup, called ozooni. Many regional variations of this soup exist. In eastern and northern Japan (including Tokyo) it is typically a clear soup with a few vegetables, while in the west (including Kyoto and Osaka) the soup is made with white miso. Regardless, if it is soup for New Year's morning that has mochi in it, it is called ozooni. This pounded rice paste, mochi, is considered the very essence of rice (Ishige, 2000, p. 1176). Since for centuries rice was a food for the elite and a traditional offering to the Shinto deities, to eat rice essence helps begin the new year right. Traditionally mochi is eaten instead of rice for the first three days of the year. Besides being eaten in soup, it is also boiled and dipped in a mixture of sugar and powdered soybeans (kinako) or grilled, wrapped in small strips of nori seaweed, and dipped in sweetened soy sauce.
Ashkenazi, Michael, and Jeanne Jacob. The Essence of Japanese Cuisine: An Essay on Food and Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. Outstanding and accessible contextualization of Japanese food from a social science perspective.
Brennan, Jennifer. "Japan." In The Oxford Companion to Food, edited by Alan Davidson, pp. 413–415. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Cwiertka, Katarzyna. "How Cooking Became a Hobby." In The Culture of Japan as Seen through Its Leisure, edited by Sepp Linhart and Sabine Frühstück, pp. 41–58. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.
Ekuan, Kenji. The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox. Edited by David B. Stewart. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998. Using Japanese food arrangement as a paradigm, the author expands to a general theory of Japanese design.
Frost, Griffith, and John Gaunter. Saké: Pure and Simple. Berkeley, Calif.: Stone Bridge Press, 1999.
Hosking, Richard. A Dictionary of Japanese Food: Ingredients and Culture. Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 1972. Names of Japanese ingredients with good English descriptions.
Ishige, Naomichi. "Japan." In The Cambridge World History of Food, edited by Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas, vol. 2, pp. 1175–1183. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Kondo, Hiroshi. Sake: A Drinker's Guide. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1984.
Kumakura, Isao. "Tea and Japan's Culinary Revolution." Japan Echo 26, no. 2 (April 1999): 39–43.
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Richie, Donald. A Taste of Japan. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1985. Essays on various Japanese foods by a major interpreter of Japan to the West. Well illustrated.
Rodríguez del Alisal, María-Dolores. "Japanese Lunch Boxes: From Convenient Snack to the Convenience Store." In Consumption and Material Culture in Contemporary Japan, edited by Michael Ashkenazi and John Clammer, pp. 40–80. London: Kegan Paul, 2000.
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Japanese bento, or obento, is a meal compartmentalized in a lidded box, usually made of lacquered wood. Often square or rectangular in shape, there are also round and oval types in which cut bamboo leaves are used to separate each food item. A bento box typically contains rice, pickles, braised vegetables, and a protein such as fish, poultry, or meat, each placed in individual sections. The new, internationally popular bento box lunch, served in a humble wooden or plastic box and usually offered by Japanese restaurants, is directly related to the makunouchi (meaning "between curtains") bento developed during the Edo period (1600–1868). This type of box lunch was intended as a conventional meal to be eaten during intermission at kabuki plays. During the same period, a more stylish type of bento box, called shokado bento, evolved in Osaka. In this type, each food item is placed in a small individual porcelain or lacquered wood dish, and then in a larger lacquered square or rectangular box. Shokado bento are not meant to be used as portable lunch boxes. Displaying colorful food rather artfully (much like traditional kaiseki, the elegant multi-course meals served prior to formal tea ceremonies), the shokado bento can be ordered in restaurants and other formal settings.
During the Meiji (1868–1912) and Taisho (1912–1926) periods, and with the arrival of railway stations, the eki-ben (meaning "station meal") box evolved. These boxes, although made of plastic or other lightweight material, are still available, often offering regional foods related to the station where people board the train. Eki-ben is, perhaps, also related to the original lunch-onthe-go given to the soldiers of the Heian period (794–1192). Once called tonjiki (meaning "soldier's meal"), onigiri is a handful of rice with salty fish or pickles set in the center and wrapped triangularly with nori (dried laver sheet), a common red algae.
Consistent with the Japanese appreciation for specificity, there are various types of bento box meals related to the particular individual or event. For example, a mother might prepare tsugaku bento for her child's school lunch or aisai (meaning "beloved wife") bento for her husband to take to work. Koraku bento are prepared for outdoor activities (for example, hiking), domu bento are sold at baseball stadiums, and hokaben bento are take-out meals.
Ashkenazi, Michael, and Jeanne Jacob. The Essence of Japanese Cuisine: An Essay on Food and Culture. Surrey, England: Curzon, 2000.
Kamekura, Junichi, Mamaru Watanabe, and Gideon Bosker. Ekiben: The Art of the Japanese Box Lunch. San Francisco: Chronicle, 1989.