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Japan Cuisine

Food individual to the country

Traditional Japanese cuisine is dominated by white rice (hakumai), and few meals would be complete without it. Anything else served during a meal--fish, meat, vegetables, tsukemono (pickles)--is considered a side dish, known as okazu.

Traditional Japanese meals are named by the number of side dishes that accompany the rice and soup that are nearly always served. The simplest Japanese meal, for example, consists of ichiju-issai ("one soup, one side" or "one dish meal"). This means soup, rice, and one accompanying side dish--usually a pickled vegetable like daikon. A traditional Japanese breakfast, for example, usually consists of miso soup, rice, and a pickled vegetable. The most common meal, however, is called ichiju-sansai ("one soup, three sides"), or soup, rice, and three side dishes, each employing a different cooking technique. The three side dishes are usually raw fish (sashimi), a grilled dish, and a simmered (sometimes called boiled in translations from Japanese) dish -- although steamed, deep fried, vinegared, or dressed dishes may replace the grilled or simmered dishes. Ichiju-sansai often finishes with pickles such as umeboshi and green tea.

This Japanese view of a meal is reflected in the organization of traditional Japanese cookbooks. Chapters are organized according to cooking techniques: fried foods, steamed foods, and grilled foods, for example, and not according to particular ingredients (e.g., chicken or beef) as are western cookbooks. There may also be chapters devoted to soups, sushi, rice, noodles, and sweets.

Since Japan is an island nation, its people consume much seafood including fish, shellfish, octopus, squid, crab, lobster, shrimp and seaweed. Although not known as a meat eating country, very few Japanese consider themselves vegetarians. Beef and chicken are commonly eaten and have become part of everyday cuisine.

Noodles, originating from China, have become an essential part of Japanese cuisine. There are two traditional types of noodle, soba and udon. Made from buckwheat flour, soba is a thin, brown noodle. Made from wheat flour, udon is a thick, white noodle. Both are generally served in a soy-flavored fish broth with various vegetables. A more recent import from China, dating to the early 19th century, is ramen (Chinese wheat noodles), which have become extremely popular. Ramen is served in a variety of soup stocks ranging from soy sauce/fish stock to butter/pork stock.

Although most Japanese eschew eating insects, there are a couple of exceptions. In some regions, grasshoppers (inago) and bee larvae (hachinoko) are not uncommon dishes. Salamander is eaten as well in places.

Traditional Japanese table settings

The traditional Japanese table setting has varied considerably over the centuries, depending primarily on the type of table common during a given era. Before the 19th century, small individual box tables (hakozen) or flat floor trays were set before each diner. Larger low tables (chabudai) that accommodated entire families were becoming popular by the beginning of the 20th century, but these gave way to western style dining tables and chairs by the end of the 20th century.

Traditional table settings are based on the ichiju-sansai formula. Typically, five separate bowls and plates are set before the diner. Nearest the diner are the rice bowl on the left and the soup bowl on the right. Behind these are three flat plates to hold the three side dishes, one to far back left (on which might be served a simmered dish), one at far back right (on which might be served a grilled dish), and one in the center of the tray (on which might be served boiled greens). Pickled vegetables are often served as well, and eaten at the end of the meal, but are not counted as part of three side dishes.

Chopsticks are generally placed at the very front of the tray near the diner with pointed ends facing left and supported by a chopstick holder, or hashioki.

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