Japan consists of over 3,600 islands - the four main ones being Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu, surrounded from all sides by the sea or the mountains. The traditional cuisine of Japan, called washoku, although complex in its techniques, can best be characterized as balanced, simple, and elegant, with the main aim of enhancing the qualities of whatever food is being prepared. The Japanese also pay a great deal of attention to seasonal feelings or kisetsukan, which is an appreciation of foods that appear at their respective seasons and foods that are best enjoyed at certain times of the year – spring, summer, autumn, and winter.
Influences on Japanese Cuisine
Japanese culinary tradition developed under periods of isolation from the rest of the world, which is why Japanese cuisine is so different than any other.
In the 6th century, Buddhism arrived from Korea to Japan, discouraging the consumption of meat in the process. In the 8th and 9th centuries, Japan was under Chinese culinary influence, when soy sauce and chopsticks started to be introduced to the country, and then again in the 13th century when Zen Buddhism was introduced, which demanded vegetarianism.
The Portuguese brought casutera sponge cake, tempura, and root vegetables such as sweet potato, potato, pumpkin, and taro in the 16th century. The 19th and 20th centuries brought Western (especially French) influence to Japanese cuisine, and vegetarianism plummeted as a direct result.
Characteristics of Japanese Cuisine
The Japanese developed new techniques of cutting in order to speed up cooking and to enhance the visual appearance of the finished dish. Due to the fact that knives and forks are not used and everything is eaten with chopsticks, meat and fish are cut into bite-sized pieces before cooking. Vegetables or fish often need to be cut in a specific way in order to encourage even transmission of heat and showcase natural textures.
Besides the use of fresh and seasonal ingredients, another characteristic of Japanese cuisine is attention to small details and the beauty of the ingredients, which often extends to the bowls and plates they are presented on.
Staple Foods and Techniques
Japanese cooking is distinguished by its use of seaweeds – dashi stock is made from kombu (kelp) and dried bonito, nori seaweed is typically used as a garnish, and wakame seaweed is often used in soups and other dishes. Another Japanese staple is the soybean, coming in the form of soy sauce, tofu, and miso bean paste. Green soybean pods called edamame are cooked and enjoyed as a snack.
Rice is equally important, served at most meals and used to make sushi (vinegared rice), sake (rice wine), and mirin (sweet rice wine). Special rice varieties with higher starch content are steamed and pounded into mochi, which is often used for rituals. Noodles of many shapes and sizes are very popular, made from wheat, buckwheat, soybean gelatin, or devil’s tongue root (konnyaku), eaten in soups or with dipping sauces on the side and served hot or cold. Mushrooms are also prized, and the most well-known are shiitake mushrooms, available throughout the year, dried or fresh.
The Japanese mostly use simmering and poaching for vegetables; meat is grilled, stir-fried, or deep-fried in batter, and fish is often served raw in forms of sashimi or sushi, while smaller whole fish are typically stewed, grilled, or poached. Baking dishes in the oven is quite rare, but stews are well represented. The food is seasoned with relatively few spices – dried lime zest, soy sauce, and mirin are the most popular flavorings.
The basic Japanese meal consists of five dishes: soup, served on the front right, three side dishes in the background, and rice, served on the front left spot, reserved for the most important items. There are also many one-pot dishes that are cooked at the table and served with rice as a complete meal, such as sukiyaki.
The courses are usually presented all at the same time in small portions, and they’re eaten in no specific order. The main meal always includes rice, soup, fish or shellfish, meat or poultry, and vegetables, salads, or pickles. Fresh fruits such as Japanese white peaches are often eaten for dessert, while sake, local beer, and green tea are common drinks.
Festivals, holidays, and rituals are very important in Japan, united by the main concept of sharing food. New Year is the most important holiday of the year, when special foods (oseichi) such as ozoni (New Year soup), kamaboko (red and white fish paste), whole cooked prawns, fresh salmon roe, gold jelly-filled mandarin oranges, lotus root, and fried chicken breasts glazed with golden sauce are served and enjoyed.
Other festive events include the Doll Festival, when colored rice cakes are popular, the Boy’s Festival, when people enjoy rice dumplings, and the cherry-blossom sakura festival, when seasonal foods such as cherry-blossom-shaped cakes can be eaten under the beautiful trees.