The Expert’s Guide to Japanese Food

Our expert’s guide to Japanese food could fill an entire encyclopedia as the country’s cuisine is so rich and so varied. And by the way, our team would love to take a year traveling the breadth of the country just to research it. Alas that is not an option, but we did pour our heart and soul into this summary. Can you tell we love Japanese cuisine?

Japanese cuisine encompasses the regional and traditional foods of Japan, which have developed through centuries of political, economic, and social changes. The traditional cuisine of Japan (和食 washoku) is based on rice with miso soup and other dishes with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients. Side dishes often consist of fish, pickled vegetables, and vegetables cooked in broth. Seafood is common, often grilled, but also served raw as sashimi or in sushi. Seafood and vegetables are also deep-fried in a light batter, as tempura. Apart from rice, staples include noodles, such as soba and udon. Japan also has many simmered dishes such as fish products in broth called oden, or beef in sukiyaki and nikujaga.

In terms of food, Japan has been an island figuratively and literally over the centuries, but that is now changing.

Japanese cuisine has opened up to influence from Western cuisines in the modern era. Dishes inspired by foreign food—in particular Chinese food—like ramen and gyōza, as well as foods like spaghetti, curry, and hamburgers have become adopted with variants for Japanese tastes and ingredients. Traditionally, the Japanese shunned meat due to Buddhism, but with the modernization of Japan in the 1880s, meat-based dishes such as tonkatsu and yakiniku have become common. Japanese cuisine, particularly sushi, has become popular throughout the world.

In 2011, Japan overtook France to become the country with the most 3-starred Michelin restaurants; as of 2018, the capital Tokyo has maintained the title of the city with the most 3-starred restaurants in the world.

The Origins of Japanese Cuisine

Japan has a long a proud culinary tradition and over the millennia their cuisine has evolved, especially though periods of peace and prosperity. However the basis of Japanese meals has remained constant. Japanese cuisine is based on combining the staple food, which is steamed white rice or gohan (御飯), with one or several okazu or main dishes and side dishes. This may be accompanied by a clear or miso soup and tsukemono (pickles).The phrase ichijū-sansai (一汁三菜, “one soup, three sides”) refers to the makeup of a typical meal served, but has roots in classic kaiseki, honzen, and yūsoku cuisine. The term is now also used to describe the first course served in standard kaiseki cuisine.

Common Dishes

  • grilled and pan-fried dishes (yakimono 焼き物),
  • stewed/simmered/cooked/boiled dishes (nimono 煮物),
  • stir-fried dishes (itamemono 炒め物),
  • steamed dishes (mushimono 蒸し物),
  • deep-fried dishes (agemono 揚げ物),
  • sliced raw fish (sashimi 刺身),
  • soups (suimono 吸い物 and shirumono 汁物),
  • pickled/salted vegetables (tsukemono 漬け物),
  • dishes dressed with various kinds of sauce (aemono 和え物),
  • vinegared dishes (su-no-mono 酢の物),
  • delicacies, food of delicate flavor (chinmi 珍味)

The Building Blocks of Japanese Cuisine

Kaiseki – This closely associated with tea ceremony (chanoyu), is a high form of hospitality through cuisine. The style is minimalist, extolling the aesthetics of wabi-sabi. Like the tea ceremony, appreciation of the diningware and vessels is part of the experience.

Vegetarian – Strictly vegetarian food is rare since even vegetable dishes are flavored with the ubiquitous dashi stock, usually made with katsuobushi (dried skipjack tunaflakes), and are therefore pescetarian more often than carnivorous. An exception is shōjin-ryōri (精進料理), vegetarian dishes developed by Buddhist monks. 

British journalist J. W. Robertson Scott reported in the 1920s that the society was 90% vegetarian. 50–60% of the population ate fish only on festive occasions, probably more because of poverty than for any other reason.

Rice – Since being influent 2,000 years ago by the Chinese, rice has been the staple food for the Japanese. Its fundamental importance is evident from the fact that the word for cooked rice, gohan and meshi, also stands for a “meal”.[

Noodles – Japanese noodles often substitute for a rice-based meal. Soba (thin, grayish-brown noodles containing buckwheat flour) and udon (thick wheat noodles) are the main traditional noodles, while ramen is a modern import and now very popular. There are also other, less common noodles.

Japanese noodles are traditionally eaten by bringing the bowl close to the mouth, and sucking in the noodles with the aid of chopsticks. The resulting loud slurping noise is considered normal in Japan, although in the 2010s concerns began to be voiced about the slurping being offensive to others, especially tourists. The word nuuhara (ヌーハラ, from “nuudoru harasumento”, noodle harassment) was coined to describe this.

Sweets – Traditional Japanese sweets are known as wagashi. Ingredients such as red bean paste and mochi are used. More modern-day tastes includes green tea ice cream. Kakigōri is a shaved ice dessert flavored with syrup or condensed milk which is usually sold and eaten at summer festivals. Dorayaki are sweet pancakes filled with a sweet red bean paste. They are mostly eaten at room temperature but are also considered very delicious hot.

Japanese cuisine is rich and varied and we could write an encyclopedia to properly cover the topic, but we hope this will at least give you a taste (pardon the pun) of Japanese cuisine. Our expert’s guide to Japanese food is just a start on your voyage of discovery to one of the world’s great culinary treasures.

Take a Leap

Every life-affirming trip starts with a leap of faith and every life changing experience ends with a great story. So our advice to anyone male ...