Roots of Japan


In 2013, UNESCO added “Washoku, traditional dietary cultures of the Japanese, notably for the celebration of New Year” to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list, with the result that traditional Japanese cuisine started to attract global attention, and is now highly popular with restaurants in many nations.Japanese cuisine refers to the food developed in the climate and society of Japan and is divided into two main categories - “Washoku” (Traditional Japanese) and “Yōshoku” (Western-style).

Today, our focus is on “Washoku”.

The term “Japanese cuisine” and “Washoku” emerged around the end of the Edo period and the start of the Meiji period, in response to the appearance of the words “Western cuisine” and “Yōshoku”.Prior to the introduction of food from other countries there was no need for each dish to be defined by a specific word.It's really only recently that these terms came into existence.So where can we find the origin of “Japanese cuisine”?

As you may have guessed - rice.During the Yayoi period (1700 - 2300 years ago), people hunted animals and ate nuts such as acorns until the rapid development of rice cultivation after its introduction via the Korean Peninsula.Rice has numerous health benefits.It is a nutrient-rich food source that is easy to grow and to store.From ancient times up until today, rice has been at the heart of Japanese food culture and it has had a significant impact on its history.

So how does a cuisine change when it revolves around rice?

During the Heian period (794 - 1185), only simple cooking methods were used such as steaming, boiling and grilling.Food was seasoned with salt and vinegar. This would keep much of the original flavor of the ingredients.Moving into the Kamakura period (1185 - 1333), dishes using soybeans such as tofu, as well as noodles made from wheat, started to appear.In comparison with the cooking methods used in the Heian period this was remarkable progress!

And it was in this period that “miso” came into use.Before miso there was “hishio”, a rich seasoning and early ancestor of soy sauce.During the aging process, some food was found to taste so good that it became a food or seasoning in its own right.For example, it was the product that had yet to turn into “hishio” that was called “mishō”, “mishō” was then called “misho”, then finally it became “miso”.

In the Muromachi period (1336 - 1573) the essential ingredients for “washoku”, “dashi” and “shōyu”, began to be developed.While “dashi” might be considered a basic ingredient, it contains the essential components for “umami” - amino acids, nucleic acid, nutrients and its own unique aroma.

“Washoku” without “dashi” would be very plain indeed!While “shōyu” and “miso” can also be included as seasonings with “umami” they can never be a true substitute for “dashi”.“Mizuame” (starch syrup) and “mirin” were commonly used to sweeten food.Sugar was available in the past but it was so expensive that it wasn't in common use.

In this way, many kinds of simmered dishes and soups were created and the foundation of Japanese cuisine was born.

With each new period came new seasonings and cooking methods and it was during the Edo period (1603 - 1868) that something similar to what we now know as “Washoku” neared completion.Eating habits continued to change dramatically so that delicious food was readily available even for the common people.For example, “Tempura” was served at food stalls and even take-out services were offered.It is also said that it was during the Edo period that the first restaurants were opened.

What are the characteristics of “Washoku” now, after all this time?

1/ Respect for diverse, fresh ingredients and their natural flavor.
2/ Balanced nutrition to support a healthy diet.
3/ Expression of the beauty of nature and the changing seasons.
4/ A close connection to annual events.

These four points made up the definition of “Washoku” when it was registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Located in East Asia, Japan has a mostly temperate climate stretching from the north to the south. It is a country favored with sea, mountains, villages and abundant nature.The diversity of food which is rooted in the local community is a distinctive feature of the country, along with cooking methods that have been developed to make the best use of resources, and light seasonings created for each individual dish.

Vegetables and fruit, seafood and seaweed are abundance and rich in variety. However, historically, eating meat was prohibited and the use of dairy products was not popular.But after the ban on meat was lifted in the Meiji period (1868 - 1912) the consumption of meat started to spread to the general population.

Visitors may come to Japan expecting a great deal of delicious vegetarian food. But recognition and understanding of vegetarian dishes in Japan is still low and few restaurants offer it as a choice. For that reason, we would like to recommend “Shojin Ryori”.“Shojin Ryori” is a cuisine made without animal products and vegetables such as green onions are also avoided.Please do be aware though, that fish may be served in a small separate dish.

“Washoku” provides excellent nutritional balance for a healthy diet.This is due to “Ichiju-sansai” - one soup and three side dishes- the basics of an ideal meal.As you enjoy your meal, feel the changing of the seasons with utensils, dishes, seasonal ingredients and decorations of flowers and leaves that match the season and express the beauty of nature.

There's no doubt about it, “Sushi” is the most popular “Washoku” in the world!From its first appearance in the Edo period the popularity of sushi soon spread all over Japan. Perhaps the image that comes to mind is of “Nigirizushi”- sushi that is shaped by hand.

However, Japanese regional cuisine offers many kinds of sushi.For example, “Oshizushi” or “pressed sushi”, where toppings are layered onto vinegared rice and tightly compressed together.In Nara, the specialty is “Kakinoha-zushi” - persimmon leaf sushi. “Masu-zushi” or pressed trout sushi is a local dish of Toyama Prefecture.

Here we have given “Sushi” as an example, but throughout Japan there are many kinds of regional cuisine that are unique to the local area.“Washoku” - a cuisine inherited by modern Japan, nurtured by history and culture, the people and their food choices.

Take a step into a part of Japan that you have never been to before and you might just discover some amazing new food.

As you keep on exploring, you will be sure to find new features of “Washoku”, maybe even some new to Japanese people!

It is my opinion and summary. Please acknowledge that there are various opinions.