Cuisine of Japan


There are many views of what is fundamental to Japanese cuisine. Many think of sushi or the elegant stylized formal kaiseki meals that originated as part of the Japanese tea ceremony. Many Japanese, however, think of the everyday food of the Japanese people--especially that existing before the end of the Meiji Era (1868 - 1912) or before World War II. Few modern urban Japanese know their traditional cuisine.


Domestic food

Traditional Japanese cuisine is dominated by white rice (hakumai, 白米), and few meals would be complete without it. Anything else served during a meal--fish, meat, vegetables, tsukemono (pickles)--is considered a side dish. Side dishes are served to enhance the taste of the rice. 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 ichijū-issai (一汁一菜; "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 ichijū-sansai (一汁三菜; "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. Ichijū-sansai often finishes with pickled vegetables and green tea. One type of pickled food that is popular is ume.

This uniquely 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 are also usually chapters devoted to soups, sushi, rice, noodles, and sweets.

Being an island nation, its people consume much seafood including fish, shellfish, octopus/squid, crabs/lobsters/shrimp and seaweed. Although not known as a meat eating country, very few Japanese consider themselves vegetarians by any sense of the word. Beef and chicken are commonly eaten and have become part of everyday cuisine.

Noodles, although originating in China, have become an essential part of Japanese cuisine. There are two traditional types of noodle, soba and udon. Made from buckwheat flour, soba (蕎麦) is a thin, brown noodle. Made from wheat flour, udon (うどん) 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 (ラーメン; Chinese wheat noodles), which has 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 been 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, 箱膳) or flat floor trays were set before each diner. Larger low tables (chabudai, ちゃぶ台) that accommodated entire families were becoming popular by the beginning of the 20th century, but these gave way almost entirely to western style dining tables and chairs by the end of the 20th century.

Traditional table settings are based on the ichijū-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 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 (箸置き).

Dishes for special occasions

In Japanese tradition some dishes strongly tie to a festival or event. Major such combinations include as below:

  • Osechi - New Year
  • Chirashizushi, Clear soup of Crums and amazake - Hinamatsuri
  • botamochi (sticky rice dump covered sweat paste of azuki) - Spring equinox
  • Chimaki (steamed sweet rice cake) - Tango no Sekku and Gion Festival
  • Hamo (a kind of fish) and somen - Gion Festival
  • Sekihan, cocked rice with azuki - celebration in general
  • Soba - New Year Eve

In some regions every 1st and 15th day of the month people eat a mixture of rice and azuki (azuki meshi).

Essential Japanese ingredients

Essential traditional Japanese flavorings

It is not generally thought possible to make authentic Japanese food without shō-yu (soy sauce), miso and dashi.

Famous Japanese foods and dishes

Deep-Fried dishes (Agemono)


A one-bowl dish of hot steamed rice with various savory toppings

Grilled and Pan-Fried dishes (Yakimono)

  • Gyoza - Chinese dumplings (potstickers), usually filled with pork and vegetables
  • Hamachi Kama - grilled yellow tail tuna jaw and cheek bone
  • Kushiyaki - meat and vegetable kebabs
  • Okonomiyaki - pan-fried batter cakes with various savory toppings (see also Okonomiyaki restaurants)
  • Omu-Raisu - a fried ketchup-flavored rice sandwiched with a thinly spread beaten egg or covered with a plain egg omelette.
  • Omu-Soba - an omelette with yakisoba as its filling
  • Takoyaki - a spherical, fried dumpling consisting primarily of octopus and batter
  • Teriyaki - grilled, broiled, or pan-fried meat, fish, chicken or vegetables glazed with a sweetened soy sauce.
  • Unagi, including kabayaki - grilled eel
  • Yakisoba - Japanese style fried noodles
  • Yakitori - chicken kebabs

Nabemono (One Pot Cooking)

  • Sukiyaki - mixture of noodles, thinly sliced beef, egg and vegetables boiled in a special sauce made of fish broth, soy sauce, sugar and sake.
  • Shabu-shabu - noodles, vegetables and shrimp or thinly sliced beef boiled in a thin stock and dipped in a soy or sesame sauce before eating
  • Motsunabe - cow intestine, hakusai (bok choi) and various vegetables are cooked in a light soup base
  • Kimuchinabe - similar to motsunabe, except with a kimuchi base and using thinly sliced pork. Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish, but it has also become very popular in Japan, particularly in the southern island of Kyushu, which is situated closest to South Korea.
  • Oden

Noodles (Men-rui)

  • Soba - thin brown buckwheat noodles served chilled with various toppings or in hot broth
  • Ramen - thin light yellow noodle served in hot broth with various toppings; of Chinese origin, it is a popular and common item in Japan
  • Udon - thick wheat noodle served with various toppings or in a hot shoyu and dashi broth.
  • Champon - yellow noodles of medium thickness served with a great variety of seafood and vegetable toppings in a hot broth; originated in Nagasaki as a cheap food for students
  • Somen
  • Okinawa soba - a wheat-flour noodle often served with sōki, steamed pork


  • Agedashi Tofu - cubes of deep-fried silken tofu served in hot broth
  • Bento or Obento - combination meal served in a wooden box
  • Hiyayakko - cold tofu dish
  • Osechi - traditional food eaten at the New Year
  • Natto - fermented soybeans, stringy like melted cheese, infamous amongst non-Japanese for its strong smell and slippery texture. Often eaten for breakfast. Typically popular in Kanto and less so in Kansai.
  • Shiokara - salty fermented viscera

Rice (Gohanmono)

  • Mochi - rice cake
  • Ochazuke - green tea poured over white rice.
  • Onigiri - Japanese rice balls
  • Sekihan - red rice with Azuki beans
  • Kamameshi - rice topped with vegetables and chicken or seafood, then baked in an individual-sized pot
  • Kare Rice (see also curry) - Introduced from UK in the late 19th century, it became a staple food in Japan.
  • Hayashi Rice


Sashimi is raw, thinly sliced foods served with a dipping sauce and simple garnishes; usually fish or shellfish but can be almost anything including beef, horse and chicken.

  • Basashi - horse meat, sometimes called Sakura
  • Fugu - poison blowfish, a uniquely Japanese specialty
  • Rebasashi - usually liver of beef

Soups (Suimono & Shirumono)


Sushi is vinegared rice topped or mixed with various fresh ingredients, usually fish or seafood.

  • Nigirizushi - This is sushi with the ingredients on top of a block of rice.
  • Makizushi - Translated as "roll sushi," this is where rice and seafood or other ingredients are placed on a sheet of seaweed (nori) and rolled into a cylindrical shape on a bamboo mat and then cut into smaller pieces.
  • Temaki - Basically the same as makizushi, except that the nori is rolled into a cone-shape with the ingredients placed inside.
  • Chirashi - fresh sea food, vegetables or other ingredients are placed on top of sushi rice in a bowl or dish



Japanese influence on other cuisines

United States

Teppanyaki is said to be an American invention, as is the California roll, and while the former has been well received in Japan the latter has not and has, at worst, been termed not sushi by Japanese people. However thanks to some recent trends in American culture such as Iron Chef and Benihana, Japanese culinary culture is slowly fusing its way into American life. Japanese food, which had been quite exotic in the West as late as the 1970s, is now quite at home in parts of the continental United States, and has become an integral part of food culture in Hawaii.

Imported and adapted foods

As in most countries, Japan incorporates imported favorites from across the world (mostly from Asia, Europe and to a lesser extent the Americas). Chinese, French, Italian and Spanish cuisine is of particular interest to Japanese people. Many imported foods are made suitable for the Japanese palette by reducing the amount of spice used or changing a part of a recipe (Korean kimchi, originally fermented, was instead pickled minus fermented shrimp). Other changes include substituting the main ingredient or adding an ingredient which might be considered taboo in its country of origin (such as sliced, boiled eggs, sweetcorn, shrimps, Nori, and even mayonnaise sauce instead of tomato sauce on pizza).

While tales of hearing Japanese people ask, "Do you have McDonald's in America, too?" are probably apocryphal, the Japanese certainly do eat at hamburger chains. Mos Burger is a popular competitor. Other fast-food establishments are similarly popular. These include doughnut and ice-cream shops. Okinawa even has a chain of A&W drive-in restaurants featuring the company's root beer.

Washoku and Yōshoku

Imported cuisines and foods from America and Europe are called yōshoku (洋食), a shortened form of seiyōshoku (西洋食) lit. Western cuisine. Japanese cuisine is called washoku (和食), lit. Japanese cuisine and Chinese cuisine is called Chūkaryōri (中華料理), lit. Chinese recipe.

A number of foreign dishes have been adapted to a degree that they are practically considered Japanese, and are an integral part of any Japanese family menu. Yet, these are still categorized as yōshoku as they were imported. Perhaps the best example is curry rice, which was imported in the 19th century by way of the United Kingdom, and slightly resembles the original Indian dish. Another example is "hamburg steak", which is a ground beef patty (often extended with filler and chopped onions) smothered in gravy and served with a side of white rice and vegetables. Restaurants that serve these foods are called yōshokuya (洋食屋), lit. Western Cuisine Shop. Yōshoku is also used as a generic term for any foreign cuisines.


One of the oldest imported dishes is tempura, although it has been so thoroughly adopted that its foreign roots are unknown to most people, including many Japanese. As such, it is considered a washoku. Tempura came to Japan from Portuguese sailors in the 16th century as a technique for cooking fish. Since then, the Japanese have extended its ingredients to include almost every sort of seafood and vegetable. Shrimp, eggplant, squash, and carrots are typical ingredients today. Other foods like tempura that are considered "washoku" are, Anpan, Ramen, and Soumen.

Fusion Foods

In a constant quest to adopt and expand Japanese cuisine, Japanese have made hundreds of recipes that are distinctly different from the original recipes but still retain the "air" of their origins. For example, "Curry" from India, imported via the United Kingdom, has fused with varieties of foods to make new recipes. Curry made with fish based dashi is poured over udon, making "Kare Udon". It is stuffed into a bun and fried in oil, making "Kare Pan", lit. Curry Bread. According to certain groups of curry eaters in Japan, a proper way to eat curry rice is to pour soy sauce over curry and eat it with pickled vegetables called Fukujinzuke. Other recipes are so exotic by any standard that they remain a local cuisine. In Nagoya, a dish of warm sweet Macha spaghetti noodles with fresh cream, bean jam, ice cream, and fruits is served as a dessert in restaurants.

The last recipe is, by no means, a standard of fusion foods in Japan.

See also


Tsuji, Shizuo. (1980). Japanese cooking: A simple Art. Kodansha International/USA, New York.

Kumakura Isao, (1999). Table Manners Then and Now, Japanecho (, Vol. 27 No. 1.

External links


  • Yatai - Al-fresco dining in Japan (
  • Yasuko-san's Home Cooking ( gives a personal view of traditional recipes and traditional Japanese food.
  • The easy way to make Sushi on your own ( A lot of recipes and pictures.
  • A Japanese Cookbook for Kids ( has very authentic Japanese dishes (like miso soup) suitable for children to prepare.
  • Japanese Food - Japanese Lifestyle ( detailed information on Japanese food, including Japanese recipes and encyclopaedia of Japanese Food.
  • Emiko Kaminuma's Cooking Time ( from one of Japan's most successful television cooking programs.
  • Bob & Angie's Japanese Cooking ( A site originally hosted by Osaka Gas Company, Bob & Angie's has recipes, cooking advice, information about Japanese ingredients, and much more. No longer updated, but full of useful information.
  • The World of Kikkoman ( Official site of Kikkoman Soy Sauce and other Kikkoman products. For information about Japanese cuisine, see their "Food Forum" links.
  • Hiroko's Kitchen ( Web site of world-famous author, Hiroko Shimbo, author of The Japanese Kitchen (2001). Harvard Common Press.
  • Japanese cuisine basic techniques ( - Step by step instructions from the Tsuji cooking academy.
  • Open Kitchen ( -- Contemporary home cookery recipes with detailed instructions and photographs
  • Japanese recipes ( Kche

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