Food Culture and Tradition

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Foods in Japan



Although dairy products have been known in Japan since ancient times, they have never been an important part of the diet. More recently (since the American occupation after World War II) more milk is consumed but still not significantly. Perhaps in its place, the many products derived from soybeans are used. Broths made from simmering bones, and the eating of tender fish bones all add calcium and phosphorus to the diet.


Japan’s variable climate and the careful cultivation of the soil is responsible for a wide variety of fruits and vegetables enjoyed both in season and later when dried, salted, pickled, and more recently, frozen.

Fruits familiar to other temperate and subtropical areas are common. Many varieties of oranges form the staple fruit. Loquats, berries, persimmons, summer mandarins (natsumikan), and pear apples (nijusiki) are among the favorites for simple refreshing desserts.

Japanese enjoy all available vegetables, seed, and bean sprouts, and they enjoy them not only cooked by many methods (stir-fried, steamed, boiled in soup) but also as salads. Japanese salads are actually lightly cooked vegetables chilled, thinly sliced, slivered or grated and dressed with seasonings. Vegetables may also he salted or pickled and used as appetizers or separate courses like the salads to be served after the main course.

Yams and taro were introduced to Japan in ancient times and often form the staple food in mountainous areas, as well as in times of famine when rice and grain crops have failed. Burdock, lotus roots, leeks, onions, and white radish (daikon) are great favorites, but it would be difficult to find a vegetable not enjoyed. Several types of seaweed and many varieties of local mushrooms such as shitake (tree mushrooms), shoro, kotake. shimeji, and hatsudake are also used. Tsukemono is the name given to pickled vegetables, while sunemono refers to vinegared vegetable dishes.


Meats are available and used according to means. These include all varieties of cuts – including offal – of beef, pork, veal, and lamb. Some poultry is used, as well as game meats, as available. Japanese kobe beef has gained a great reputation; it is beef fattened on beer shipped from the port of Kobe. Also famed and even more expensive is wadakin or matsuzaka beef raised in special dark sheds, fed on hot mash and even massaged regularly.

Although the precepts of Buddhism have been gently bent to permit meat-eating, the Japanese still eat only small quantities; their fish intake is reputedly five times that of North Americans. Unquestionably the abundant supply and the great variety of seafood from nearby waters makes the harvest from the sea the Japanese staple. Edible seaweeds, abalone, clams, squid, shrimp, prawns, oysters, cuttlefish, blowfish, as well as salmon, cod, sardines, trout, herring and shark, tuna, flounder, sea bream (tai), and bonito all find their way into delectable dishes.

In areas distant from the sea, fish is most often prepared from dried or salted varieties. In fact, it forms such an important part of all festive occasions that where marine food could not be obtained or afforded, seaweed or even salt was then substituted.

Sashimi is a dish of sliced varieties of raw fish, arranged in a pattern on a plate and eaten by dipping into a sauce. Sometimes slices of raw chicken are also called sashimi and eaten in the same manner. But most dramatic of all is the daring Japanese custom of eating raw blowfish called fugu. Fugu-eating is dramatic because each year many people die from consuming raw portions of this fish (the liver and ovaries are poisonous, so the fugu chef must be especially skilled).

Eggs are consumed in quantity often as appetizers in the form of fried egg yolk squares, boiled or pickled quail, duck or pigeon eggs, garnishes and rectangular-shaped omelets.

Bean pastes are used as seasoning and as ingredients in desserts. For instance, red bean cake is a type of candy made from agar-agar and red bean paste. But most widely used are the products made from soybeans, which include shoyu, a sweetish soy sauce made from wheat and barley, soybeans, salt and water; and miso, mostly used for flavoring thick soups and made from fermented bean paste.

Tofu or soybean curd is so widely used in Japanese cuisine that it can safely be considered a staple. Its smooth, white custard-like texture and bland taste make it an ideal ingredient. So versatile is it – it happily absorbs any other flavors – that restaurants in Japan take great pride in their tofu dishes.

Chestnuts and ginkgo nuts are enjoyed by themselves but more frequently in desserts and main dishes.


Rice is the staple grain in Japan. But rice is more than food, it is also an indispensable symbol in Shinto religious ceremonies. It has always had a place of reverence and has sometimes been considered medicinal. However, contrary to wide belief, rice is not the only important grain in the Japanese diet. Noodles made from wheat or buckwheat flour are so popular that they often form not only a main dish, but also a snack food. Rice may be eaten as a base for other foods or it may be eaten from its own separate bowl. Red rice is rice that has been cooked with the juice of red beans, then served cold garnished with salt and black sesame seeds.

Perhaps most popular is sushi, the rice sandwich. Basically, sushi is vinegared or sweet and sour cooked rice wrapped around colorful and flavorful food tidbits. Sushi is eaten with the fingers, often as a snack, picnic food, or appetizer with swallows of tea in between. It is sold in shops and by street vendors. Many types exist, each with a specific name indicating the ingredients. There are three main types of sushi:

Nigiri-Zushi: vinegared rice with raw or cooked fish, seafood, or eggs garnished with Wasabi (grated horseradish).

Norimaki-Zushi: vinegared cooked rice and tiny tidbits of fish, seafood, or meat and edible seaweed or laver rolled up like a jellyroll then sliced into bite-sized pieces.

Chirashi-Zushi: the most artful and complex sushi of all, made from nine ingredients prepared in nine special steps.

Japanese noodle dishes are very popular and may  be served hot or cold. Noodles are served in one of two ways: kake, which means the cooked noodles are placed in a bowl and hot soup poured over; and mori, which means the cold or hot cooked noodles are served on a bamboo plate and mouthfuls picked up with chopsticks and dipped into sauce before eating. Soba means fat noodles, while udon refers to thin noodles. Usually the name preceding either soba or udon indicates the garnish. Buckwheat noodles (toshikoshisoba) are believed to be good luck, are eaten on New Year’s Eve, and are considered an appropriate house gift, especially when wrapped in red paper and ribbon. In eastern Japan buckwheat noodles are favored, while wheat noodles are most popular in the western part of the country.

Besides rice and noodles made from wheat or buckwheat flour, barley and millet are also grown and used in Japan. Barley is also used to make a mild refreshing tea. Roasted barley grains are brewed in a pot and served either hot or cold.


Little fat is used in food preparation as many dishes are eaten raw, pickled, steamed or boiled, barbecued, or as soup. Few dishes are fried and this is mostly done in seed oil.


Japanese do not eat many sweets in the sense of consuming candies, cakes, pastries. However, much sugar is used in the seasoning of dishes rather than in actual sweet desserts. Sugar came into use in Japan in the late 1500s and has been an indispensable ingredient ever since. Even the Japanese soy sauce called shoyu is considerably sweeter than the Chinese version. Japanese snacks are not sweets. Most often they are snacks of skewered broiled meats, sushi, or noodle dishes.


Since the goal of Japanese cuisine is to present foods with artful simplicity and natural beauty, seasonings are always subtle. Any flavor that is pronounced, such as horse radish or scallions, is most often added by the diner at the table so the powerful tastes do not override the delicate ones. It is also interesting to note that in Japanese cookery seasonings are added only one at a time and in a strictly specified order, never all at once.

Shoyu, miso, dashi, and ajinomoto are the most popular seasonings. Shoyu is slightly sweetened soy sauce. Made from fermented bean paste, miso is mostly used to flavor thick soups called misoshiru. Dashi is clear base made from a broth of dried fish and dried seaweed. It can be purchased commercially prepared but is usually made at home. A small square of kombu (dried kelp) is placed in water and brought to a boil then removed. Shavings of katsuobushi (dried piece of bonito with green mildew on it) are then added and removed as soon as the broth returns to a full boil. The resulting liquid, seasoned with a dash of ajinomoto (Japanese monosodium glutamate) is dashi.

Vinegar and sugar are widely used. Sansho, a native pepper, and yuzu, citrus flavoring from peel, as well as sesame seeds (black and white), red peppers, hot mustard, horse radish, shiso leaves and berries, fresh ginger root, and occasionally peanuts, ground walnuts, and ginkgo nuts round out the seasoning “shelf” of the Japanese kitchen.

Rice wine called sake and fortified rice wine called mirin or toso are often used to enhance flavors as well.


Tea is the number one drink in Japan. Tea accompanies meals, is taken as a refreshment, and is the indispensable ingredient and symbol in the exquisite Chanoyu (tea ceremony). Green teas are favored and there are many different types. Matcha is the fine powdered green tea reserved especially for the Chanoyu, while gyokuru (literally, “gem-dew”) is considered next to matcha. Other green teas include aoyagi or aoyanagi, sen-cha and ban-cha, which are coarser, and habu-cha. Kombu-cha is a tea made from seaweed, while mugi-cha is a tea brewed from toasted wheat or barley grains and taken cold, especially in hot humid weather.

Sake is made from fermented rice in a process similar to beer making. This mild yeasty-flavored wine is served warm in tiny cups called sakazuki and poured from an individual porcelain or pottery flask called tokkuri to accompany meals. Mirin is the type used in cooking. Toso is used for special occasions. Sake contains about 20 percent alcohol – most wines are about 10 percent – so despite its gentleness on the tongue, it is potent. Beer is also enjoyed, usually brewed from inferior rice or sweet potatoes, called sochu. There is also a growing demand for Scotch whiskey.

Coffee enjoys some popularity in Japan. Water is never drunk as such, milk very seldom.

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