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Japanese Food & Cuisine History

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With so much attention being given today to maintaining a healthy diet, sometimes it seems the tastiest dishes are those that are the least healthy. What if we told you that the majority of Japanese cuisine is both healthy and delicious? If you haven’t yet sampled this culture’s wonderful cuisine, or if you’re a fan who wishes to learn more, then read on.

A basic history lesson

Known as “the land of the rising sun”, Japan is actually four main islands (and thousands of smaller ones): Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. These islands extend along the Pacific coast of Asia, below Korea and China. Existent since 7th century BC, Japan was founded by the ancestral Emperor Jinmu. His line of emperors has continued throughout the ages to this very day.

Given Japan’s close proximity to China and Korea, it has absorbed numerous cultural influences from both regions. One of these, the religion known as Buddhism, proved very influential upon Japanese culture, and as you’ll soon read, upon Japan’s culinary development. One of Korea’s most important contributions to Japan was that of rice growing techniques, with the Yayoi tribe providing especially helpful tools and techniques during the 3rd century BC. China’s main contributions included soy sauce, tea, chopsticks, and noodles.

During the medieval period, Japan was ruled largely by shoguns (‘shogun’ is Japanese for general). The Tokugawa shogunate in particular was very suspicious of foreign influences, mainly Catholic missionaries and China’s Manchu Qing Dynasty. During this period in Japan’s history, roughly from 1600-1850, Japan became very culturally isolated from outside influences, barring trade with all Europeans but the Dutch. Shortly before this however, the Portuguese traded with Japan. One very happy result of this was their introduction of fried foods. We have them to thank for the emergence of fried tempura, a delicious, lightly breaded batter which the Japanese would use to dip vegetables and fish in.

Japan was not only culturally and geographically isolated, it also faced the challenge of having largely mountainous, and earthquake prone, terrain, with little agricultural development there. In order to survive, the Japanese relied on the most prevalent natural resource around them: the sea.

Indeed, Japanese cuisine is a seafood lover’s dream!

Contemporary Japan is of course open to trade and western influences, but those centuries of relative isolation have enabled Japan to develop a highly distinctive style of cuisine. There’s a refreshing subtlety of flavor which comes from the absence of heavy spices, and a ‘lightness’ that results from an impressively low use of dairy products, cholesterol, and fat.

Religion, rice, and fish

Based on written records, historians know that Buddhism was introduced into Japanese culture in the 6th century AD, when it became Japan’s official religion. It prohibited the eating of meat, a prohibition that lasted for 1200 years. It’s interesting to note that even before that, as early as 675 AD, there existed various Empirical decrees forbidding the eating of various animals, such as cattle, horses, dogs, chickens, etc. Due to Japan’s geographical limitations, these animals were undoubtedly more valuable either for the work they performed or for the eggs they produced.

Fortunately for Japan, rice grows abundantly there. For over 2000 years, the cycle of sowing, seed-transplanting, weeding, and harvesting has continued uninterrupted. Short-grain rice plays such a huge part in Japanese life that it’s not just used as a food staple. Until roughly 100 years ago, it was also a currency for paying taxes and wages! The amount of rice one owned indicated his/her economic status. Ropes, sandals, saki wine, fuel, and building materials have been fashioned from either rice or the straw of the rice plant. The Japanese eat rice daily, with the terms gohan or meshi being Japanese for “boiled rice”. They also are colloquial synonyms for the word “meal”.

Because the Japanese considered that the essence (or sacred power) of rice became purer when pounded, mochi (pounded rice cakes) contained the “spirit of rice”, and was considered the most celebrated form that rice could take. Today we see that rice cakes are popular not only in Japan, as a visit to the snack food aisle in our local supermarket will attest.

Along with rice, fish, both freshwater and marine, has been the foundation of Japanese cuisine. Sushi, one of Japan’s most popular dishes, originated as a way of preserving marine fish so that it could be transported and sold to the Japanese who lived in inland areas. This freed them from relying solely on freshwater fish. In the 15th century, the sushi process was improved, making both the fish and the rice edible. Soon after, during the Edo period of 1600’s, sushi was combined with sashimi (raw fish chilled and sliced thin, arranged without rice), forming nigiri-sushi, which is what most of us refer to as simply sushi today.

Japan’s lack of meat and dairy led to an aversion to oily tastes (with tempura and dumplings being popular exceptions), as well minimal use of spices (traditionally used more for medicines and cosmetics). These two characteristics help make Japanese cuisine a refreshingly healthy choice when dining out. To be full without feeling heavy and to be able to savor the subtle flavors of the fish and vegetables is a delightful experience.

Today, Japan’s fishing fleet is one of the largest in the world, accounting for almost 15% of the world’s catch.

Japan does also grow several types of vegetables, with soybeans and sweet potatoes being among them. The sea provides other vegetables, such as sea weed and algae.

Philosophy of food

For the Japanese, freshness and simplicity are of paramount importance. “Eat it raw first of all, then grill it, and boil it as the last resort” is a proverb that sums up their approach to fish. Whereas the western approach to cooking aspires to create new tastes not naturally existent, the Japanese ideal aims to retain the natural taste of the food with as little artificial process as possible. Generally speaking, you will find less emphasis on sauces and more emphasis on the natural flavor of the ingredients. The Japanese favor simplicity in their cuisine.

Buddhism played yet another role in the development of Japanese cuisine. Traditional Japanese meals feature five colors (yellow, black, white, green, and red) and flavors (sweet, spicy, salty, bitter, and sour). This is because Buddhism emphasizes being attuned to the seasons. Seasonal representation in Japanese cuisine is both visual and culinary. During the hotter summer months, a dish like somen (thin white noodles dipped in soup) might be served in transparent cool-blue glass bowl with blue chop-sticks, ice cubes, and a green maple leaf on top. Thus, the meal becomes refreshing both in taste and in presentation.

Simply put, Japan’s view of nature favors the elimination of the artificial. It makes sense then that their cuisine strives to eliminate artificial ingredients and to remain attuned with nature and the seasons. Given such balance, it’s no surprise that, according to a 2002 United Nations survey, the average Japanese life span is one of the longest in the world, and that Japanese cuisine is one of the healthiest in the world.

Popular dishes

Fish and vegetables

So what sort of delicious meals are you likely to have when you dine out at a traditional Japanese restaurant? Here are some universal favorites, starting with a popular Portuguese influenced dish:


Tempura

As you learnt earlier, tempura is the delicious deep fried batter used to cover seafood or vegetable items. Shrimp tempura is especially tasty, and can be found in any Japanese restaurant. Tentsuyu, a dipping sauce of dashi (a type of broth), soy sauce, and grated daikon (radish), is served on the side. In keeping with the Japanese adherence to simplicity and natural flavor, the tempura never overpowers the vegetable or fish it covers, instead being applied very lightly and with little or no salt added. You might also find tempura served over soba (buckwheat noodles); this dish is called either tempura soba or tennsoba. Finally, donburi is tempura shrimp and vegetables served over a bowl of steamed rice. In Japan, there are specialized tempura restaurants, ranging from fast-food chains to five star establishments.

Sushi

One of the healthiest meals around, sushi has become Japan’s culinary ambassador to the United States, offering a delicious, wholesome meal. The simplest definition of sushi is vinegared rice either topped or mixed with extremely fresh raw fish (ocean fish, not freshwater, which is cooked on the rare occasions it is used in sushi) or vegetables. There are four main kinds of sushi:

  • Nigirizushi presents the ingredients atop a block of rice
  • Makizushi is rice and seafood/vegetables rolled inside nori (seaweed) and then cut and served in smaller pieces
  • Temaki is a cone shaped version of makizushi
  • Chirashi presents seafood or vegetables atop rice and served in a bowl or dish

There are many delightful possibilities for different ingredients when serving sushi. Salmon, tuna, crab, shrimp, squid, eel, octopus, and fish roe are popular seafood options, with cucumbers, avocado, seaweed, sesame seeds, and tofu used as well. Sushi is usually served with the following condiments: sho-yu (soy sauce), wasabi (spicy green horseradish paste), gari (sweet pickled ginger), shiso (a green herb, part of the mint family), and mirin (a rice wine with a slightly sweet taste).

True to form, sushi is often a highly refined aesthetic experience, with bold colors and tastes often chosen for their complementary and contrasting qualities. Another Japanese culinary practice is that of serving food in small quantities. Sushi is the perfect and delicious embodiment of this tradition.


Sashimi

Not to be confused with sushi, sashimi is thinly sliced raw fish or meat served with simple vegetable garnishes and dipping sauce. Yellowtail, tuna, cuttlefish, and cooked octopus are popular types of sashimi. As with many Japanese meals, simplicity is the key here. Sashimi is usually served only with a garnish like daikon and a dipping sauce like sho-yu, wasabi, or ponzu (a mix of rice vinegar, mirin, bonito [a fish in the mackerel family], and seaweed). A formal Japanese meal will usually begin with sashimi. Because it is so mildly flavored, the Japanese feel that such subtlety would be lost on the palate if it were to follow more strongly flavored courses. Sashimi is often served with sushi.

Soups and stews

Donburi

Donburi is a hearty and filling rice bowl dish, usually filled with fish, meat, and vegetables that have been simmered before being served over rice and set with egg. The simmering sauce often consists of mostly dashi, flavored with shoyu and mirin. Donburi is often served seven possible ways:

  • Oyakodon features chicken and egg, and sometimes salmon and salmon eggs
  • Katsudon is served with tonkatsu (deep fried breaded pork cutlet), egg, and onions
  • Gyudon features beef
  • Tendon is served with tempura battered seafood and vegetables dipped in soy sauce
  • Unadon features grilled eel prepared in a soy-based sauce
  • Chukadon features vegetables, seafood, and meat in a thick Chinese style sauce
  • Tekkadon is served with maguro (raw tuna) and seaweed

Miso

Miso is a thick salty paste made from fermented soy beans and sea salt. Miso soup is a combination of miso, dashi, and solid ingredients, usually seaweed, mushrooms, scallions, and tofu. It’s a light but nourishing soup that makes a perfect side dish with any Japanese meal.



Nabemono

Known as “one pot cooking”, nabemono refers to stews and soups cooked in a nabe pot, which is a traditional Japanese clay pot. Nabemono dishes are ideal wintertime fare. There are several different kinds of nabemono, often different according to different geographical areas of Japan. Here are a few:

  • Ishikari includes salmon, onion, tofu, cabbage, shiitake mushroom, and other ingredients
  • Syabu-syabufeatures thinly sliced beef, vegetables, and shiritaki noodles
  • Benkei includes duck, wild boar, chicken, beef, pork, Japanese radish, carrot, cabbage, shallot, and dumplings

These are delightfully hearty dishes; some of them were originally only served to Sumo wrestlers to help them maintain their weight! Nabemono is usually served with either a ponzu or sesame sauce.

Meat dishes

Yakitori

This is the Japanese answer to chicken kebab, although vegetables, beef, pork, fish, and other meats are also used. The meat is usually threaded through bamboo skewers and grilled over charcoal. Delicate flavors are added, usually from brushed on salt or tare sauce (made from mirin, sake, soy sauce, and sugar), which is also offered as a dip. This is one of Japan’s most popular dishes.


Teriyaki

Authentic Japanese teriyaki is one of the tastiest ways to enjoy a good steak or piece of fish. The technique involves sliced meat being grilled or broiled in a sweet soy sauce marinade. Mirin, sugar, soy sauce, and sake (a popular Japanese alcoholic rice beverage) comprise the marinade, and are boiled and reduced to the perfect thickness. The meat is then marinated until ready for cooking. Ginger and green onion are popular garnishes.


Gyoza

Also known as jiaozi in China, this is a popular fried or boiled dumpling, usually with minced pork, cabbage, and nira (garlic chives). Each dumpling is seasoned with soy sauce, rice vinegar, and sesame oil. They are delicious when eaten while they are steaming hot!

We hope this overview on Japanese cuisine has been informative and appetizing. Of course, to really experience the delight of Japanese cuisine, you’ll want to find a high-quality restaurant in your area. Please use our site’s helpful geographical index to find a restaurant near you.


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