Washoku: Japanese Cuisine
Written by Kevin Kilcoyne
What is Washoku?
Simply put, washoku is Japanese cuisine. It is the old and the new, the traditional and the modern. Washoku reflects Japanese culture both in the way the ingredients are prepared and in the very ingredients themselves. It is a cuisine that is ever-changing while retaining a strong sense of history.
The kanji for washoku are: 和―wa meaning ‘Japan’ or ‘harmony,’ and 食―shoku meaning ‘food’ or ‘to eat.’ As these characters suggest, washoku is Japan’s unique culinary identity and traditionally focuses on achieving harmony, both in the pairing of ingredients and the creation of a harmonious eating experience. It is in this emphasis on harmony that some of the foundational elements of washoku can be best understood.
A Cuisine Defined by Nature
Japan is a nation made up of 3,500 islands with more than 18,000 miles of coastline, 70 percent of which consists of mountainous terrain. These geographical traits have influenced the development of Japanese culture and by extension culinary traditions and is a main determining factor in the regional variances one might find in dishes throughout Japan. The geographical make-up has shaped both lifestyle and culture, leading washoku to focus on 海の幸 (uminosachi) and 山の幸 (yamanosachi): the ‘fruit of the sea’ and the ‘fruit of the mountains.’
For this reason, a strong reverence for nature is a foundational element of washoku, as it is in many other forms of Japanese cultural expression. This reverence manifests itself in washoku as a focus on seasonality and locality and is defined by a desire to express gratitude for the food and respect for nature and the changing of the seasons. It as during these periods of change, or 旬 (shun-season), that seasonal produce is most prized. That is because when food is at its peak freshness, it is understood to be the perfect expression of nature’s bounty. Like the cherry blossoms in spring, these seasonal treats are a reminder of the ephemerality of life and the passage of time, a message that can be found in other traditional arts like chadō, the Japanese tea ceremony.
This awareness of the natural world plays a large part in the idea of harmony that is central to washoku. It is an expression of harmony within the body, for one is consuming food at its peak flavor and nutritional value. It is also an expression of harmony with nature itself, the source of our food. It is for that reason that many forms of traditional washoku focus on the simple preparation of ingredients to maximize their natural flavors rather than overpower them. This can be seen in the elaborate forms of multi-course cuisine like kaiseki ryōri and honzen ryōri, and even the Buddhist temple cuisine known as shōjinryōri.
In 2013 UNESCO designated washoku as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, writing that it was a “social practice based on a set of skills, knowledge, practice, and traditions related to the production, processing, preparation and consumption of food…[and] respect for nature that is closely related to the sustainable use of natural resources.”
Washoku Adapting in the Modern World
Despite Japanese culture having thousands of years of culinary history, the term washoku itself is a more recent invention. It dates to the Meiji period (1868-1912) during a time when Japan was opening its borders to the outside world and a large influx of cultures brought with it a large influx of foods and ingredients that were at the time foreign to Japanese cuisine. Additionally, before this time the consumption of beef, pork, and even chicken was considered somewhat taboo due to the influence of Buddhist practices, and so with the rise in popularity of these ingredients, meat-based dishes like tonkatsu (トンカツ), Japanese curry (カレー), and nikujaga (肉じゃが) were created.
In order to distinguish traditional Japanese cuisine and Japanese food creations from Western food, or yōshoku (洋食), the term washoku was created.
As a result, what is considered washoku not only includes the centuries old forms of traditional cuisine, but also the dishes developed around the influence of Western food culture. Examples of this being spaghetti napolitan, a pasta dish made with a tomato ketchup-based sauce, korokke, a fried food inspired by the French croquettes, and even ramen. The idea is that as time passes and these ingredients are assimilated and transformed in a uniquely Japanese way, they become culturally specific to Japan and therefore enter the culinary canon of washoku alongside the likes of sushi, udon, soba, donburi, and sashimi.
Image source: https://takeout.epark.jp/contents/useful/35/
The Foundation of a Cuisine
Yōshoku inspired washoku aside, what many consider to be the foundation of washoku is a form of cuisine known as ichijūsansai (一汁三菜.) This quintessential expression of washoku consists of four key elements: cooked white rice, which acts as the center of the meal; a soup to accompany the rice; one larger main dish, generally utilizing either fish or meat as the main ingredient; and one or two other small side dishes accompanied by a small serving of Japanese pickles. In this way, Ichijūsansai serves to create a meal that is nutritionally balanced and aware of locality and seasonality.
The Ingredients Make the Dish, The Dish Makes the Cuisine
As important and representative as the main dishes are to washoku, the cuisine is also defined by the unique ingredients used to make them. Miso, shoyu, mirin, katsuo bushi (a key ingredient in dashi stock), are all ingredients integral to Japanese cuisine, and in turn washoku. The flavors they impart and the meals they create are what help make washoku so unique.
Another integral element of washoku is the long history of fermented foods in Japan, known in Japanese as 発酵食品, hakkōshokuhin. They not only add flavor, but also add another element of harmony to washoku in that they work to preserve the gifts of nature and to create something unique to a specific locality. They include flavoring agents like shoyu, miso, and katsuo bushi, but also standalone dishes like natto (fermented soybeans,) tsukemono (pickles) like nakazuke and umebōshi, all of which can readily be found in countless Japanese recipes.
Image source: https://news.livedoor.com/article/detail/17292367/
Washoku’s Place at Home
An essential part of washoku is simplicity. Rather than just being about the skillful butchery of a fish, or an elaborate display of intricately cut vegetables, it is about the creation of food using what’s in season and what’s local, respecting the gift of the food and recognizing where it came from. It’s about flavoring simply and utilizing ingredients specific to Japanese cuisine. There is of course a great deal of skill involved in producing washoku at a high level, as is the case for any high-end cuisine, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from incorporating washoku into their home cooking.
With a handful of essential ingredients in your pantry, like shoyu, rice vinegar, dashi stock, miso, shio koji, and shichimi (a Japanese spice mixture based around Japanese chili peppers) adding the flavor of washoku becomes accessible to anyone. The breadth of washoku is extensive so it may come as a surprise what you find in your search for recipes. And after all, washoku is an adaptive cuisine, changing over time with the influences of other cultures and ingredients, so finding your own wa starts with giving it a try.
There is no wrong way to incorporate wa into your cooking. It doesn’t have to be traditional or by the books but should have the right spirit and ingredients. So if you’re inspired, do some research and find your own path towards creating your wa.
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@kevinjkilcoyne) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food.