Discover the world of Japanese cuisine, or Washoku (和食), and its place in the history, geography, and culture of Japan.
Sushi (寿司) 🍣, Tempura (天婦羅) 🍤, Ramen (ラーメン) 🍜. What comes to mind when you think of Japanese food?
The three dishes above are staples, so recognizable that each has its own emoji! But did you know that these are recent creations from a few hundred years ago?
The nigiri sushi you may know started as a popular street food during the Edo period (1603 - 1868).
Tempura, another street food, was brought by Portuguese merchants and missionaries in the 16th century.
Ramen arrived from China in the early 20th century, and was popular with post-war workers. Despite Japan's long history, dating back to 10,000 BC, many of the famous Japanese dishes known abroad are relatively recent.
Another name for Japanese cuisine is "Washoku" 和食 (和食 - 和 meaning "Japan" or "harmony", 食 meaning "food" or "eating"). As the Chinese characters imply, Washoku harmoniously blends ingredients for a nutritious and beautifully presented meal.
The term is actually a recent invention of the Meiji period (1868-1912), which marks the beginning of Japan's modernization and industrialization from the feudal era. Until then, contacts with foreign countries were severely restricted under the Tokugawa shogunate. When Japan opened its borders, an influx of new cultures (and food!) arrived from European nations and the United States.
The consumption of beef and pork, once considered taboo by Buddhist practice, quickly spread among the Japanese and fusion dishes such as Nikujaga (肉じゃが), Curry (カレー), Tonkatsu (トンカツ) and Croquette (コロッケ) were born. To distinguish traditional Japanese cuisine from exotic Western cuisine (西洋料理) and Western-influenced Japanese cuisine called Yoshoku (洋食), the term Washoku was coined.
Map of Japan by culinary specialties by Sandra Neuditschko
Looking at a map of Japan, it's easy to imagine how Japan's geography influences the nation's cuisine. The country's archipelago spans 3,500 islands, from the snowy northern island of Hokkaido to the subtropical region of Okinawa. With over 18,000 miles of coastline and 70% of the country covered by mountainous terrain, the cuisine is characterized by an abundance of "fruits of the sea" (海の幸) and "fruits of the mountains" (山の幸).
Image of Kirishima city Agricultural products
Four distinct seasons also play a key role in Japanese dishes. Although the seasons are not a unique phenomenon in themselves, the cycle of the seasons is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and is reflected in traditional arts, poetry, clothing and cuisine. This respect for nature's cycle is seen in Shun (旬) (meaning "season"), the time of year when produce reaches its peak flavor and nutritional value.
This awareness of the seasons in the kitchen is one of the defining aspects of Washoku.
Green peas and hamaguri clams in spring, shishito peppers and Japanese whiting in summer, matsutake mushrooms and pike in autumn, shungiku herbs and yellowtail in winter are examples.
Rice also has its shun. Newly harvested rice (新米) is collected from early autumn and is valued for its characteristic moist and tender texture.
You may also see seasonal patterns painted on plates and bowls, or a small sprig of tender green leaves or a bright red maple leaf adding a touch of color to the dish.
In 2013, UNESCO included Washoku on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Washoku was applauded for its "social practice based on a set of skills, knowledge, practices and traditions related to the production, processing, preparation and consumption of food... [and] respect for nature that is closely linked to the sustainable use of natural resources. " (UNESCO). Japanese Washoku has joined other famous cuisines on the UNESCO list, including French cuisine, traditional Mexican cuisine, and the Mediterranean diet.
While the UNESCO designation recognizes the importance of Japanese cuisine's history, it does not prevent it from evolving. Just as Yoshoku became part of Washoku, Japanese cuisine and Japanese appetites are continually changing and incorporating new cuisines. With the rise of Japanese cuisine abroad, such as teppanyaki, sushi, ramen and matcha, and the constant flow of tourists looking for a delicious meal and experience, it's exciting to think about what Japanese cuisine will look and taste like in the near future.
You may hear about different styles of multi-course Japanese meals - ending in Ryori (料理) - which translates to cook/cook/cookie. If you're looking for a fancy washoku dish on your trip to Japan, try one (or more!) of the following:
Shojin Ryori 精進料理 - Popularized by Zen Buddhism, Shojin Ryori refers to temple food that is entirely vegan (although some temples allow dairy products).
Cha-Kaiseki Ryori (also called Kaiseki Ryori) 茶懐石料理 - A meal served before a Japanese tea ceremony. Originally, Cha-Kaiseki Ryori was a frugal meal to satisfy cravings before the ceremony.
Kaiseki Ryori 会席料理 - Same pronunciation as above, but different Chinese characters. Kaiseki Ryori refers to a meal traditionally served at ceremonial banquets. There are restaurants that specialize in Kaiseki.
Honzen Ryori 本膳料理 - A formal meal of the court aristocracy, served on footed trays. Although rarer these days - replaced by tables and chairs - there are still places that offer a true Honzen Ryori experience.
The world of Washoku is so vast that one article cannot do it justice! At My Kimono, we will share various components of Washoku such as bento culture, festive cuisines, regional dishes and Ichijiru Sansai's (一汁三菜) style of cooking. So stay tuned!