Growing up in Japan, food was everywhere around me. It symbolizes celebration, joy and a connection to nature and people alike.
In Japan, school lunch is as important as any class. Menus are developed by an onsite school dietitian, and students eat balanced meals every day. From the first day of school, students serve their own food and learn to be responsible for setting the table and cleaning up after lunch. I used to love peeking through the window of my school kitchen to see the ladies in white uniforms stirring a pot that was twice as big as they were.
Occasionally, the dietitian put a special dessert on the menu, such as egg custard. Everyone, including me, was on our best behavior on those days. The foodservice staff made the exact amount for the number of students in a class, so our classroom became a battleground when a student was absent. Everyone fought over that extra egg custard!
Every day during lunchtime, our teacher or sometimes the dietitian would talk to us about the food. They covered topics ranging from the importance of balanced nutrition to where our food comes from and shared the wisdom of traditional Japanese cooking.
Traditions and Cuisine
In 2013, the Japanese traditional cuisine Washoku was registered on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list for its significance in Japanese culture. Japanese cuisine emphasizes simplicity while maximizing the natural flavor of each ingredient. People are particularly careful about the quality of food; therefore, seasonality plays a large role in choosing ingredients. The word “shun” indicates foods that are harvested and eaten at their peak season, since those foods are most flavorful and nutritious.
In Japan, people say “itadakimasu” before starting a meal and “gochisousama” after finishing the meal to show gratitude for nature and the people who brought the food to the table.
Japanese cuisine follows one foundational principle, Ichiju-sansai, which means a bowl of soup, a bowl of rice and three dishes (one main and two sides). Japanese people follow this principle for balanced nutrition. Also, these dishes are served in small individual bowls instead of a plate, making it easier to control portion sizes.
Common Flavors and Ingredients
Now widely known, the fifth basic taste umami (meaning deliciousness) was first discovered in Japan. Umami is a key component of Japanese cuisine, creating healthful and flavorful dishes without using animal fats. Generally, in Japanese cuisine, dashi stock made of kombu seaweed and katsuobushi (flakes of dried, smoked fish, also known as bonito flakes) is a base for many dishes. The synergistic effect of amino acids in kombu, which contains glutamate, and dried bonito, containing inosinate, intensifies the umami flavor in a dish. Because Japanese people favor modest flavors, cooking with dashi is essential to enhance the flavor of ingredients. Generally, dishes are flavored with traditional seasonings such as shoyu (soy sauce), miso (fermented soybean paste), mirin (sweet rice wine), sake (rice wine) and rice vinegar.
The major source of protein for Japanese people is seafood, including fish, octopus, squid, shrimp, clams and more. However, meat consumption is increasing with Western food influence. Sushi is a globally recognized Japanese dish, but in Japan, it is reserved for special occasions. For everyday eating, seafood is cooked, most often grilled at home.
Like seafood, fermented foods are a critical part of Japanese cuisine. There are many probiotic-rich foods in Japan, many of which originate from koji culture, which is used to produce various fermented foods including sake, rice vinegar, miso and shoyu. A popular breakfast food and plant-based protein, natto is a fermented soybean product. Highly regarded by Japanese centenarians for its possible health properties, natto consumption has been associated with a decreased risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease, and has been shown to increase vitamin K2 levels.
Plain steamed rice is a staple in Japan, and a bowl of miso soup appears in almost every meal. Noodles are another common food in Japan. Soba noodles are made of buckwheat flour, which contains various minerals and soluble fiber. Udon is a thicker noodle made from wheat flour. These noodles are a favorite comfort food for many Japanese people. Usually served in broth, they can be eaten hot or cold depending on the season.
Contemporary Japanese dishes include ramen (wheat noodle in meat or seafood broth), tempura (deep fried battered seafood or vegetable), karaage (fried chicken) and yakitori (grilled chicken). As Japanese people have adopted more Western culture, our cuisine has evolved. Animal protein and the use of fats are now part of the daily Japanese diet. Bread and other flour-based products also are becoming more prevalent.
Japanese cuisine is not just about the ingredients but the practice around food. I remember my mother packed lunch for me after we moved to the United States because I missed the school lunches in Japan. The lunch she prepared always looked colorful, and she taught me that each color of an ingredient has special functions in my body. I still incorporate these teachings into my daily meals and say “itadakimasu” before starting to eat.
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Nagata C, Wada K, Tamura T et al. Dietary soy and natto intake and cardiovascular disease mortality in Japanese adults: the Takayama study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2016;105(2):426-431.
Tsukamoto Y, Ichise H, Yamaguchi M. Prolonged Intake of Dietary Fermented Soybeans (Natto) with the Reinforced Vitamin K2 (Menaquinone-7) Enhances Circulating GAMMA-Carboxylated Osteocalcin Concentration in Normal Individuals. J HealthSci. 2000;46(4):317-321.
Washoku, traditional dietary cultures of the Japanese, notably for the celebration of New Year. Intangible Cultural Heritage website. Accessed June 19, 2019.