Japanese Food: The Basics
The typical Japanese meal consists of a bowl of rice (gohan), a bowl of miso soup (miso shiru), pickled vegetables (tsukemono) and fish or meat. While rice is the staple food, several kinds of noodles (udon, soba and ramen) are cheap and very popular for light meals. As an island nation, the Japanese take great pride in their seafood. A wide variety of fish, squid, octopus, eel, and shellfish appear in all kinds of dishes from sushi to tempura.
A bowl of steaming rice
A serving of chilled soba
Sticky, short-grained rice is the staple food in Japan. Uncooked rice is called kome. The cultivation of rice in paddy fields traditionally required great cooperation between villagers and this is said to have been central to the evolution of Japanese culture. Their are several thousand varieties grown in Japan, with Koshihikari and Akita Komachi being among the most popular. Rice is also used to make mochi (rice cakes), senbei (rice crackers) and sake (rice wine).
Rice can also be cooked with red beans (sekihan), seafood and vegetables (Takikomi gohan) or as a kind of watery porridge seasoned with salt (kayu) which is very popular as a cold remedy. Onigiri are rice balls with seafood or vegetables in the middle, usually wrapped in a piece of dried seaweed (nori). They are traditionally part of a packed lunch or picnic. Individually wrapped onigiri, usually a trianular shape, make a good snack and are available at convenience stores.
Noodles - Udon and soba
Udon noodles are made from wheat flour. They are boiled and served in a broth, usually hot but occasionally cold in summer, and topped with ingredients such as a raw egg to make tsukimi udon, and deep-fried tofu aburaage to make kitsune udon. Soba is buckwheat noodles, which are thinner and a darker color than udon. Soba is usually served cold (zaru soba) with a dipping sauce, sliced green onions and wasabi. When served in a hot broth, it is known as kake soba. Served with the same toppings as udon, you get tsukimi soba, kitsune soba and tempura soba.
Noodles - Ramen
While udon and soba are also believed to have come from China, only ramen retains its image as Chinese food. Ramen is thin egg noodles which are almost always served in a hot broth flavored with shoyu or miso. This is topped with a variety of ingredients such as slices of roast pork (chashu), bean sprouts (moyashi), sweetcorn and butter.
Ramen is popular throughout Japan and different regions are known for their variations on the theme. Examples are Corn-butter Ramen in Sapporo and Tonkotsu Ramen in Kyushu. Instant ramen (the most famous brand is Pot Noodles), to which you just add hot water, has become very popular in recent years.
The Michelin Guide lists almost 30 Tokyo ramen shops as Bib Gourmand, a notch below its three-tiered star system. In 2015 Tsuta, a tiny 9-seat eatery in the northern Tokyo suburb of Sugamo, went one further to become the world's first ramen restaurant to earn a Michelin star. Like many popular ramen restaurants, it has a loyal clientele that can often be seen lining up for blocks. But for ¥1,000 (give or take) they can enjoy ramen with rosemary-flavoured chashu or shoyu ramen with a hint of porcini mushroom.
A bowl of ramen from Tsuta
A decorative sushi selection
Seafood & Meat
Japanese people consume a lot more fish than is typical in western countries and this is said to be a major factor in the country's relatively low rate of heart disease. Seafood is eaten in just about any form you can imagine, from raw sushi and sashimi to grilled sweetfish and clams. The spread of ¥100 kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurants has made sushi into a homegrown fast-food that offsets some of the influence of imports like McDonalds.
Many people are surprised to learn that meat consumption was illegal in Japan until the ban was lifted during the Meiji Restoration in the 1870s. As the country opened up to western culture, eating habits also began to change. Now meat is increasingly part of the everyday Japanese diet, with yakitori (grilled chicken), yakiniku (Korean barbeque), gyudon (beef bowl) and of course the standard fare of foreign and local hamburger chain restaurants ubiquitous across the country. This has led to an increase in related health problems, though the Japanese still maintain their position as the world's longest-living people.
Japan's consumption of fish has its controversial side as well. The country buys up about three quarters of the global catch of tuna, for example, which has driven the bluefin tuna close to extinction. As sushi was traditionally an expensive food eaten mainly on special occasions, some blame the cheap and ready availability provided by kaitenzushi for this situation.
The consumption of whale meat was relatively minor and restricted to small coastal communities until the end of WWII, when the U.S. occupation forces pushed whale as a viable source of much-needed protein. As a result a whole generation of Japanese grew up eating whale meat in their school lunches, a practice that continued even despite international shift toward conserving whales threatened with extinction. But in the 21st century, the consumption of whale and dolphin meat seems to be dying out, regardless of right-wing pressures to maintain this "pillar of Japanese food culture.".
This video is a light-hearted look at the traditions of eating at a sushi restaurant (not to be taken too seriously!)
The humble soybean (daizu) is used to make a wide variety of foods and flavourings. Soybeans and rice are used to make miso, a paste used for flavouring soup and marinating fish. Together with soy sauce (shoyu), miso is a foundation of Japanese cuisine. Tofu is soybean curd and a popular source of protein, especially for vegetarians. These days, even tofu donuts and tofu icecream are available. Natto, fermented soybeans, is one of the healthiest but also the most notorious item on the menu. With a pungent smell and sticky, stringy texture, natto is easy to hate straight away. Japanese people themselves tend to either love it or hate it. It is usually served with chopped onions and a raw egg and mixed into a bowl of rice.
Some other pages you might enjoy:
- Japan's most popular food dishes
- Japanese alcohol: sake, shochu, beer, etc
- Ready to go out for a drink? Read our guide to Japan's various drinking spots