Traditional Japanese food, or washoku, is known for its seasonal ingredients, gentle flavor, and balanced taste. The recipes and cooking methods date back for centuries and millennia, shaping the current Japanese diet and cultural belief system. In fact, in 2013, washoku was registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage based on the four philosophies of washoku.
1. Use local and seasonal food to bring out the natural flavor
Nature is closely tied to Japanese culture as the country is surrounded by ocean and has a mountainous landscape. It also experiences all four seasons which are equally distributed throughout the year. These blessings create food diversity in Japanese cuisine and a further respect for nature. Seasonal food ("shun-no-mono") is highly valued as this is when it’s most flavorful.
Broth, ordashi, is commonly used inwashoku to bring out the natural flavor of food to its fullest. Dashi is full of umami, making additional seasonings less necessary to amplify the ingredient's natural flavor.
There are four basic broths used in washoku:
- Katsuobushi Dashi (Bonito)* -A refined all-purpose broth often used inudon/soba noodle soup,miso soup, andtamagoyaki (Japanese egg omelet).
- Niboshi Dashi (Dried Baby Sardines) -A fishy broth that adds a rich taste tomiso soup, simmered vegetables, andramen.
- Konbu Dashi (Kelp)* -A delicately flavored broth that adds a mellow hint of saltiness to porridge, simmered vegetables/tofu, andnabe hot pots.
- Hoshi Shiitake Dashi (Dried Shiitake Mushroom)* -An earthy broth that adds a deep flavor totakikomi gohan (seasoned rice), chawanmushi (savory Japanese steamed egg custard), and nutritious shiitake cha (tea).
2. Prepare a balanced meal
Preparing a balanced meal is the essence of washoku. Ichiju-sansai, meaning "one soup three dishes," is a guide for using balanced ingredients such as protein, vegetables, and seaweed.
The plant-based Zen Buddhist cuisine, Shojin Ryori, is known for its healthy diet and meditative practices, and has influenced the recipes of washoku throughout history. It creatively uses plant-based ingredients such as soybeans, sesame, seaweed, vegetables, mushrooms, and potatoes within a meal. Some side dishes such as gomaae (vegetables dressed in a sesame sauce) and goma dofu (sesame tofu made of kudzu starch and sesame) have influenced basic Japanese cuisine by promoting wellness-oriented eating habits.
3. Express nature's aesthetics and its seasonal changes through food
In washoku, the aesthetic presentation of the food is just as important as its flavor. As the seasons change, Japanese people observe their surroundings and incorporate them into meals that embrace the new season.
Kaiseki ryori is a traditional Japanese multi-course meal that emphasizes aesthetics through food. It is prepared based on three themes: seasonal food/ingredients, natural flavors, and entertaining guests. The entire course tells a narrative depicting seasonal changes expressed through food, decorations, and plates.
4. Celebrate festivals and life milestones with food
"Hare-no-hi" refers to the day of celebration. Certain meals are prepared on auspicious days to celebrate life milestones, show gratitude towards nature, and wish good health and prosperity to one’s family.
Some food has become less common over the years; however, washoku continues to unite people across generations in Japan.
*Available in our Dashi: “Umami” Care Package
Born and raised in Japan, Mary Hirata McJilton is a graduate of the University of Minnesota. While earning her degree in Global Studies and a minor in Political Science, she worked at a Japanese restaurant, was actively involved in a Japanese student group that hosted Japanese food events, and interned at Slow Food Minnesota. These experiences nurtured her curiosity around food culture and sustainability. With characteristic serendipity, she spontaneously meets new people wherever life takes her, expanding her repertoire of original Mary-stories that she loves to share over meals. In her downtime, she enjoys cooking with herbs and vegetables that she grows herself on her cozy balcony, and refreshing the Italian she learned from a stint studying abroad.