Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

Domestic Life in Japan


Present-day mass production of everything from electrical appliances to instant and frozen foods has made the urban Japanese kitchen similar to any in the West. The main difference is size. In Japan, refrigeration and storage space are minimal for several reasons: the prevalence of small-size homes, the preference for foods purchased fresh daily, and the custom of entertaining guests outside the home.

But Japanese women are well trained in the arts of the kitchen, in decoration, flower arranging, poise and good manners. Many are graduates in home economics, belong to cooking clubs, and love to watch food shows on television. But since most entertaining is done outside the home, and since very often the Japanese wife is not even sure if her husband will be home for the evening meal, most home cooking is of a much simpler nature than that found in restaurants. Yet the great care taken in the appearance and arrangement of both the table decor and the food itself is never neglected.

Harmony and identity with nature is a constant theme. Metal is used in cooking and cutting utensils out of necessity. But when it comes to wrapping foods – meats are often wrapped in large bamboo leaves – serving or eating foods, the elements of nature are preferred. Dishes and chopsticks are made of bamboo, ivory, or lacquered woods. Soup spoons are not used: larger pieces are picked out with chopsticks and then the broth is sipped from the bowl.

Japanese homes have a serene simplicity and so does the cooking. Hidden behind sliding shutters are folding furnishings and decorations that can transform the atmosphere and even the use of one room. In the same way one basic cooking method can make flavor differences in many different foods. Or reversed: one type of food cooked by many different methods will seem like a totally different dish. Again, a Japanese dining room with low table and soft cushions can be pushed to one side as mats, blankets, and pillows transform the room into a bedroom.

In the same way the tokonomo, which is a small alcove in the main room, is completely transformed by changing the wall hanging and the flower arrangement to give one a sense of another time or season. All of this is part of the complex artistry and creativity entwined with a oneness with nature that in Japanese hands comes out looking so naturally simple.

Every Japanese kitchen has a colorful collection of teacups, soup and rice bowls, handled teacups and saucers (for western coffee and tea), china plates, platters and tiny dishes of different shapes to be used for special clipping sauces. Chopstick rests made in a variety of materials and shapes complete the table collection. For decoration, many styles and colors of mats, cloths, and vases for arrangements of blossoms, twigs, and leaves add that special Japanese touch.

Kitchen utensils include a variety of sharp, strong knives and cleavers. Many have specific uses such as vegetable-cutting knives, fish knives, etc. The mortar and pestle is probably one of the oldest utensils and is used for grinding herbal medicines, tea leaves, and pounding rice for New Year’s cakes. Other basics include a wooden spatula (rice paddle) to ladle rice, bamboo lattice mats for molding sushi, sieves made of wood and horsehair, bamboo baskets for steaming, draining, and straining, a tub for cooking rice, graters, ladles, pots and pans.

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