Like most national cusines, Japan’s has evolved over many centuries, drawing on countless political and social changes to become the complex, amazingly healthy comglomorate loosely termed ‘Japanese Cuisine’. In the ancient era, many of Japan’s food traditions were influenced by Chinese and Korean culture, but along with the country’s social fabric, cuisine changed with the advent of the Medieval age, coinciding with a shedding of elitism with the age of Shogun rule. The most sweeping changes came with the introduction of the Western world to Japan.
Today called nihon ryōri, or washoku, means traditional-style Japanese food, similar to what existed before the end of national seclusion in 1868. In a broader sense of the word, it could also include foods whose ingredients or cooking methods were subsequently introduced from abroad, but which have been developed by Japanese who made them their own. Japanese cuisine is known for its emphasis on seasonality of food ( shun), quality of ingredients and presentation.
The typical Japanese meal may consist of a bowl of rice (gohan), a bowl of miso soup (miso shiru), pickled vegetables (tsukemono) and fish or meat. While rice is the staple food, several kinds of noodles (udon, soba and ramen) are very popular for light meals. As an island nation, the Japanese take great pride in their seafood. A wide variety of fish, squid, octopus, eel, and shellfish appear in all kinds of dishes from sushi to tempura.
The introduction of rice from Korea around 400 B.C. is probably the single most defining feature of the Japanese diet. Korea's rice growing techniques were passed on to the Japanese during the Yayoi period as migrating tribes settled in Japan; and rice used not only for eating, but also to make paper, wine, fuel and building materials. The cultivation of rice in paddy fields traditionally required great cooperation between villagers and this is said to have been central to the evolution of Japanese culture. Several thousand varieties are grown in Japan, with Koshihikari and Akita Komachi being among the most popular. (Takikomi gohan) or as a kind of watery porridge seasoned with salt (kayu) which is very popular as a cold remedy. Onigiri are rice balls with seafood or vegetables in the middle, usually wrapped in a piece of dried seaweed (nori). They are traditionally part of a packed lunch or picnic. Individually wrapped onigiri, usually a triangular shape, make a good snack and are available at convenience stores.
Noodles, udon, soba and ramen noodles also form an integral part of the Japanese diet. Udon noodles are made from wheat flour, boiled and served in a broth, usually hot but occasionally cold in summer, and topped with ingredients such as a raw egg to make tsukimi udon, and deep-fried tofu aburaage to make kitsune udon. Soba is made of buckwheat, making a thinner and a darker noodle. Soba is usually served cold (zaru soba) with a dipping sauce, sliced green onions and wasabi. When served in a hot broth, it is known as kake soba. Served with the same toppings as udon, you get tsukimi soba, kitsune soba and tempura soba. Ramen is thin egg noodles which are almost always served in a hot broth flavored with shoyu or miso and topped with a variety of ingredients such as slices of roast pork (chashu), bean sprouts (moyashi), sweet corn and butter. Ramen is popular throughout Japan and different regions are known for their variations on the theme. Examples are Corn-butter Ramen in Sapporo and Tonkotsu Ramen in Kyushu. Instant ramen, the classic staple for college kids all over the world, is both cheap and easy to prepare.
Soybeans and rice are used to make miso, a paste used for flavoring soup and marinating fish. Together with soy sauce (shoyu), miso is a foundation of Japanese cuisine. Tofu is soybean curd and a popular source of protein, especially for vegetarians. These days, even tofu donuts and tofu ice cream are available. Natto, fermented soybeans, is one of the healthiest but also the most notorious item on the menu. With a pungent smell and sticky, stringy texture, natto is easy to hate straight away. Japanese people themselves tend to either love it or hate it. It is usually served with chopped onions and a raw egg and mixed into a bowl of rice.
Sushi has a remarkable history, beginning not as a means to enjoy fresh, raw fish, but as a method of preserving fish by fermenting it in boiled rice. Fish that were salted and placed in rice were preserved by lactic acid fermentation, preventing proliferation of the bacteria that bring about putrefaction. This older type of sushi is still produced in the areas surrounding Lake Biwa in western Japan, and similar types are also known in Korea, southwestern China, and Southeast Asia. In fact, the technique first originated in a preservation process developed for freshwater fish caught in the Mekong River and is thought to have diffused to Japan along with the rice cultivation.
Sushi without fermentation appeared during the Edo period (1600-1867), and sushi was finally united with sashimi at the end of the eighteenth century, when the hand-rolled type, nigiri-sushi, was devised.
As in all phases of Japanese culture, etiquette is very important at the dining table. A handful of the many rules and rituals:
- It is customary to say itadakimasu (lit. "I shall receive") before starting to eat a meal, and gochisōsama deshita, (lit. "That was a feast") to the host after the meal and the restaurant staff when leaving.
- Before eating, most dining places will provide either a hot towel or a plastic wrapped wet napkin. This is for cleaning of the hands prior to eating and not after. It is rude to use them to wash the face or any part of the body other than the hands.
- The rice or the soup is eaten by picking the relevant bowl up with the left hand and using chopsticks with the right. Bowls of soup, noodle soup, donburi or ochazuke may be lifted to the mouth but not white rice. Soy sauce is not usually poured over most foods at the table; a dipping dish is usually provided. Soy sauce is, however, meant to be poured directly onto tofu and grated daikon dishes. In particular, soy sauce should never be poured onto rice or soup. Blowing one's nose at the table is considered extremely offensive. Noodles are slurped.
- Chopsticks are never left sticking vertically into rice, as this is how they are ritually offered to the dead. Using chopsticks to spear food, to point, or to pass food into someone else's chopsticks is also frowned upon. It is also very bad manners to bite on your chopsticks.
- When taking food from a communal dish, unless they are family or very close friends, turn the chopsticks around to grab the food; it is considered cleaner. If sharing with someone else, move it directly from one plate to another; passing food from one pair to another is a funeral rite.
- It is customary to eat rice to the last grain. Being a fussy eater is frowned upon, and it is not customary to ask for special requests or substitutions at restaurants. It is considered ungrateful to make these requests especially in circumstances where you are being hosted, as in a business dinner environment. Good manners dictate that you respect the selections of the host. This is a common mistake that visiting business people make.
- Even in informal situations, drinking alcohol starts with a toast (kanpai) when everyone is ready. It is not customary to pour oneself a drink; but rather, people are expected to keep each other's drinks topped up. When someone moves to pour your drink you should hold your glass with both hands and thank them.