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Japanese cuisine facts for kids

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Osechi, new year special dishes

Japanese cuisine encompasses the regional and traditional foods of Japan, which have developed through centuries of political, economic, and social changes. The traditional cuisine of Japan (Japanese: washoku) is based on rice with miso soup and other dishes; there is an emphasis on seasonal ingredients. Side dishes often consist of fish, pickled vegetables, and vegetables cooked in broth. Seafood is common, often grilled, but also served raw as sashimi or in sushi. Seafood and vegetables are also deep-fried in a light batter, as tempura. Apart from rice, a staple includes noodles, such as soba and udon. Japan also has many simmered dishes, such as fish products in broth called oden, or beef in sukiyaki and nikujaga.

Historically influenced by Chinese cuisine, Japanese cuisine has also opened up to influence from Western cuisines in the modern era. Dishes inspired by foreign food—in particular Chinese food—like ramen and gyōza, as well as foods like spaghetti, curry and hamburgers, have been adapted to Japanese tastes and ingredients. Some regional dishes have also become familiar throughout Japan, including the taco rice staple of Okinawan cuisine that has itself been influenced by American and Mexican culinary traditions. Traditionally, the Japanese shunned meat as a result of adherence to Buddhism, but with the modernization of Japan in the 1880s, meat-based dishes such as tonkatsu and yakiniku have become common. Since this time, Japanese cuisine, particularly sushi and ramen, has become popular globally.

In 2011, Japan overtook France to become the country with the most 3-starred Michelin restaurants; as of 2018, the capital of Tokyo has maintained the title of the city with the most 3-starred restaurants in the world. In 2013, Japanese cuisine was added to the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List.

Traditional cuisine

Japanese cuisine is based on combining the staple food, which is steamed white rice or gohan (御飯), with one or more okazu, "main" or "side" dishes. This may be accompanied by a clear or miso soup and tsukemono (pickles). The phrase ichijū-sansai (一汁三菜, "one soup, three sides") refers to the makeup of a typical meal served but has roots in classic kaiseki, honzen, and yūshoku cuisine. The term is also used to describe the first course served in standard kaiseki cuisine nowadays.

The origin of Japanese "one soup, three sides" cuisine is a dietary style called Ichiju-Issai (一汁一菜, "one soup, one dish"), tracing back to the Five Great Zen Temples of the 12-century Kamakura period (Kamakura Gozan), developed as a form of meal that emphasized frugality and simplicity.

Rice is served in its own small bowl (chawan), and each main course item is placed on its own small plate (sara) or bowl (hachi) for each individual portion. This is done even in Japanese homes. This contrasts with Western-style home dinners in which each individual takes helpings from large serving dishes of food placed in the middle of the dining table. Japanese style traditionally abhors different flavored dishes touching each other on a single plate, so different dishes are given their own individual plates as mentioned or are partitioned using, for example, leaves. Placing main dishes on top of rice, thereby "soiling" it, is also frowned upon by traditional etiquette.

Breakfast at Tamahan Ryokan, Kyoto
Breakfast at a ryokan (Japanese inn), featuring grilled mackerel, Kansai-style dashimaki egg, tofu in kaminabe (paper pot)

Although this tradition of not placing other foods on rice originated from classical Chinese dining formalities, especially after the adoption of Buddhist tea ceremonies; it became most popular and common during and after the Kamakura period, such as in the kaiseki. Although present-day Chinese cuisine has abandoned this practice, Japanese cuisine retains it. One exception is the popular donburi, in which toppings are directly served on rice.

The small rice bowl (茶碗, chawan), literally "tea bowl", doubles as a word for the large tea bowls in tea ceremonies. Thus in common speech, the drinking cup is referred to as yunomi-jawan or yunomi for the purpose of distinction. Among the nobility, each course of a full-course Japanese meal would be brought on serving napkins called zen (), which were originally platformed trays or small dining tables. In the modern age, faldstool trays or stackup-type legged trays may still be seen used in zashiki, i.e. tatami-mat rooms, for large banquets or at a ryokan type inn. Some restaurants might use the suffix -zen () as a more sophisticated though dated synonym to the more familiar teishoku (定食), since the latter basically is a term for a combo meal served at a taishū-shokudō, akin to a diner. Teishoku means a meal of fixed menu (for example, grilled fish with rice and soup), a dinner à prix fixe served at shokudō (食堂, "dining hall") or ryōriten (料理店, "restaurant"), which is somewhat vague (shokudō can mean a diner-type restaurant or a corporate lunch hall); writer on Japanese popular culture Ishikawa Hiroyoshi defines it as fare served at teishoku dining halls (定食食堂, teishoku-shokudō), and comparable diner-like establishments.


Osechi 001
Osechi, new year dishes

Rice is a staple in Japanese cuisine. Wheat and soybeans were introduced shortly after rice. All three act as staple foods in Japanese cuisine today. At the end of the Kofun Period and beginning of the Asuka Period, Buddhism became the official religion of the country. Therefore, eating meat and fish was prohibited. In 675 AD, Emperor Tenmu prohibited the eating of horses, dogs, monkeys, and chickens. In the 8th and 9th centuries, many emperors continued to prohibit killing many types of animals. The number of regulated meats increased significantly, leading to the banning of all mammals except whale, which were categorized as fish. During the Asuka period, chopsticks were introduced to Japan. Initially, they were only used by the nobility. The general population used their hands, as utensils were quite expensive.

Due to the lack of meat products Japanese people minimized spice utilization. Spices were rare to find at the time. Spices like pepper and garlic were only used in a minimalist amount. In the absence of meat, fish was served as the main protein, as Japan is an island nation. Fish has influenced many iconic Japanese dishes today. In the 9th century, grilled fish and sliced raw fish were widely popular. Japanese people who could afford it would eat fish at every meal; others would have to make do without animal protein for many of their meals. In traditional Japanese cuisine, oil and fat are usually avoided within the cooking process, because Japanese people were trying to keep a healthy lifestyle.

Preserving fish became a sensation; sushi was originated as a means of preserving fish by fermenting it in boiled rice. Fish that are salted and then placed in rice are preserved by lactic acid fermentation, which helps prevent the proliferation of the bacteria that bring about putrefaction. During the 15th century, advancement and development helped shorten the fermentation of sushi to about one to two weeks. Sushi thus became a popular snack food and main entrée, combining fish with rice. During the late Edo period (early-19th century), sushi without fermentation was introduced. Sushi was still being consumed with and without fermentation till the 19th century when the hand-rolled and nigri-type sushi was invented.

In 1854, Japan started to gain new trade deals with Western countries when a new Japanese ruling order took over (known as the Meiji Restoration). Emperor Meiji, the new ruler, staged a New Years' feast designed to embrace the Western world and countries in 1872. The feast contained food that had a lot of European emphases. For the first time in a thousand years, people were allowed to consume meat in public. After this New Years feast, the general population from Japan started to consume meat again.


Kaiseki 001
Kaiseki appetizers on a wooden plate

Emphasis is placed on seasonality of food or shun (), and dishes are designed to herald the arrival of the four seasons or calendar months.

Seasonality means taking advantage of the "fruit of the mountains" (山の幸, yama no sachi, alt. "bounty of the mountains") (for example, bamboo shoots in spring, chestnuts in the autumn) as well as the "fruit of the sea" (海の幸, umi no sachi, alt. "bounty of the sea") as they come into season. Thus the first catch of skipjack tunas (初鰹, hatsu-gatsuo) that arrives with the Kuroshio Current has traditionally been greatly prized.

If something becomes available rather earlier than what is usual for the item in question, the first crop or early catch is called hashiri.

Use of tree leaves and branches as decor is also characteristic of Japanese cuisine. Maple leaves are often floated on water to exude coolness or ryō (); sprigs of nandina are popularly used. The haran (Aspidistra) and sasa bamboo leaves were often cut into shapes and placed underneath or used as separators.

Traditional ingredients

A characteristic of traditional Japanese food is the sparing use of red meat, oils and fats, and dairy products. Use of ingredients such as soy sauce, miso, and umeboshi tends to result in dishes with high salt content, though there are low-sodium versions of these available.

Meat consumption

As Japan is an island nation surrounded by an ocean, its people have always taken advantage of the abundant seafood supply. It is the opinion of some food scholars that the Japanese diet always relied mainly on "grains with vegetables or seaweeds as main, with poultry secondary, and red meat in slight amounts" even before the advent of Buddhism which placed an even stronger taboo. The eating of "four-legged creatures" (四足, yotsuashi) was spoken of as taboo, unclean or something to be avoided by personal choice through the Edo period. The consumption of whale and terrapin meat were not forbidden under this definition. Despite this, the consumption of red meat did not completely disappear in Japan. Eating wild game—as opposed to domesticated livestock—was tolerated; in particular, trapped hare was counted using the measure word wa (), a term normally reserved for birds.

Nabe being made at a dinner party in Japan
Beef hot pot being made at a party in Japan

In 1872 of the Meiji restoration, as part of the opening up of Japan to Western influence, Emperor Meiji lifted the ban on the consumption of red meat. The removal of the ban encountered resistance and in one notable response, ten monks attempted to break into the Imperial Palace. The monks asserted that due to foreign influence, large numbers of Japanese had begun eating meat and that this was "destroying the soul of the Japanese people." Several of the monks were killed during the break-in attempt, and the remainder were arrested. On the other hand, the consumption of meat was accepted by the common people. Gyūnabe (beef hot pot), the prototype of Sukiyaki, became the rage of the time. Western restaurants moved in, and some of them changed their form to Yōshoku.

Vegetable consumption has dwindled while processed foods have become more prominent in Japanese households due to the rising costs of general foodstuffs. Nonetheless, Kyoto vegetables, or Kyoyasai, are rising in popularity and different varieties of Kyoto vegetables are being revived.

Cooking oil

Generally speaking, traditional Japanese cuisine is prepared with little cooking oil. A major exception is the deep-frying of foods. This cooking method was introduced during the Edo period due to influence from Western (formerly called nanban-ryōri (南蛮料理)) and Chinese cuisine, and became commonplace with the availability of cooking oil due to increased productivity. Dishes such as tempura, aburaage, and satsuma age are now part of established traditional Japanese cuisine. Words such as tempura or hiryōzu (synonymous with ganmodoki) are said to be of Portuguese origin.

Also, certain rustic sorts of traditional Japanese foods such as kinpira, hijiki, and kiriboshi daikon usually involve stir-frying in oil before stewing in soy sauce. Some standard osōzai or obanzai dishes feature stir-fried Japanese greens with either age or chirimen-jako [ja], dried sardines.


Kikkoman Soy Sauce, Front-view jp-type ,
The use of soy sauce is prevalent in Japanese cuisine.

Traditional Japanese food is typically seasoned with a combination of dashi, soy sauce, sake and mirin, vinegar, sugar, and salt. A modest number of herbs and spices may be used during cooking as a hint or accent, or as a means of neutralizing fishy or gamy odors present. Examples of such spices include ginger, perilla and takanotsume [ja] (鷹の爪) red pepper.

Intense condiments such as wasabi or Japanese mustard are provided as condiments to raw fish, due to their effect on the mucus membrane which paralyze the sense of smell, particularly from fish odors. A sprig of mitsuba or a piece of yuzu rind floated on soups are called ukimi. Minced shiso leaves and myoga often serve as yakumi, a type of condiment paired with tataki of katsuo or soba. Shichimi is also a very popular spice mixture often added to soups, noodles and rice cakes. Shichimi is a chilli-based spice mix which contains seven spices: chilli, sansho, orange peel, black sesame, white sesame, hemp, ginger, and nori.


Once a main dish has been cooked, spices such as minced ginger and various pungent herbs may be added as a garnish, called tsuma. Finally, a dish may be garnished with minced seaweed in the form of crumpled nori or flakes of aonori.

Inedible garnishes are featured in dishes to reflect a holiday or the season. Generally these include inedible leaves, flowers native to Japan or with a long history of being grown in the country, as well as their artificial counterparts.


Spinach Ohitashi
Japanese boiled spinach salad (ohitashi)

The o-hitashi or hitashi-mono (おひたし) is boiled green-leaf vegetables bunched and cut to size, steeped in dashi broth, eaten with dashes of soy sauce. Another item is sunomono (酢の物, "vinegar item"), which could be made with wakame seaweed, or be something like a kōhaku namasu (紅白なます, "red white namasu") made from thin toothpick slices of daikon and carrot. The so-called vinegar that is blended with the ingredient here is often sanbaizu [ja] (三杯酢, "three cupful/spoonful vinegar") which is a blend of vinegar, mirin, and soy sauce. A tosazu [ja] (土佐酢, "Tosa vinegar") adds katsuo dashi to this.

An aemono [ja] (和え物) is another group of items, describable as a sort of "tossed salad" or "dressed" (though aemono also includes thin strips of squid or fish sashimi (itozukuri) etc. similarly prepared). One types are goma-ae (胡麻和え) where usually vegetables such as green beans are tossed with white or black sesame seeds ground in a suribachi mortar bowl, flavored additionally with sugar and soy sauce. Shira-ae (白和え) adds tofu (bean curd) in the mix. An aemono is tossed with vinegar-white miso mix and uses wakegi scallion and baka-gai (バカガイ / 馬鹿貝, a trough shell, Mactra chinensis) as standard.

Cooking techniques

Different cooking techniques are applied to each of the three okazu; they may be raw (sashimi), grilled, simmered (sometimes called boiled), steamed, deep-fried, vinegared, or dressed.


Soya beans

Soya beans are a very important ingredient in Japanese cooking; it is used in soya sauce, miso and tofu. Soya milk is also used as a drink. One example of a dish with soya beans in it, is tofu. Tofu is made from pressing soybeans into cubes and then boiling them. Tofu is often in soups and stews. Deep fried tofu is also used in many popular Japanese dishes, for example as kitsune udon and inari sushi. Soya beans also have omega 3 fatty acids, that can also be found in salmon.


Udon noodles
160430 Togakushi soba Nagano Japan02s
Soba noodles

Noodles (like in most Asian foods) are used often in Japanese foods. The dishes usually come originally from China; nevertheless they have reached a unique development in Japan.

  • Ramen (egg noodles with soup, vegetables and meat or fish)
  • Udon (Thick noodles with soup that can be with tofu, meat or vegetables. For the hot dish, noodles and soup are usually served together in the same bowl. For the cold dish, noodles and soup are usually served in different dishes)
  • Soba (Thin noodles with soy-sause-based soup. In hot dishes, noodles and soup are usually served together in the same bowl. For cold dishes, the noodles and soup are usually served in different bowls)
  • Yakisoba (Stir fry vegetables and/or meat with egg noodles and a soy based sauce)
  • Sōmen (Very thin white noodles made of wheat flour)
  • Sōmin champurū (Okinawan very thin noodles that are stirred and fried with green onions and pork meat)


Sushi platter

Japan is surrounded by the ocean so there is a rich variety of seafood which is an important part of Japanese cooking.

  • Sushi (cooked rice with raw fish, vegetables or other seafood)
  • Sashimi (sliced raw fish)
  • Yakizakana (cooked whole fish)
  • Asari no miso shiru (miso soup with small mussels called "asari")


Yakiniku meat
Yakiniku meat

Japanese people did not eat meat until the Europeans first came. Fish was the most common food.

  • Yakiniku (fried slices of beef with a sweet and spicy sauce- originally Korean)
  • Nikujaga (beef, potatoes and usually carrots cooked in mentsuyu – a soy sauce based sauce)
  • Yakitori (bits of chicken staked with soy based sauce)
  • Shabu shabu is meat (or other protein-based food) and vegetables boiled in a simple broth flavored with seaweed and/or fish. Each piece of meat is put in the broth for a short time.
  • Botan nabe


Wasabi is Japanese horseradish. It is often a green paste used with sashimi and sushi. Wasabi is also used with many other Japanese foods. Wasabi is sold as a paste or in powder form. Wasabi powder has to be mixed with water to be turned into a paste. Wasabi has a strong, very spicy (hot) taste.


Salmon sashimi
Salmon sashimi

Sashimi is very thinly cut raw seafood. Many different kinds of fresh fish and other seafood are served raw in Japanese dishes. Sashimi is one of them. It is almost the same as sushi, but it has no vinegar rice. When the slices of fish are put on small pieces of rice they are called "Nigiri Sushi". Sashimi is artistically arranged and put on the plate on top of shredded daikon and shiso leaves. The fish pieces are dipped into soya sauce before being eaten.


Kobumaki, Kombumaki, Kombu roll
A roll of kombu with salmon inside, cooked

Seaweed has been a very important part of Japanese dishes for a long time. Today, many different types of seaweed are used in soups, seasonings and other forms of Japanese cooking. These are the three seaweeds used the most:

  • Kombu (large type of seaweed)
  • Wakame (sold in dried form, and then put in water before people use it in their foods)
  • Nori (thin, dried seaweed sheets, used in sushi)


Summer wagashi 10
Wagashi, a kind of Japanese sweet commonly served at a traditional tea ceremony

Traditional Japanese sweets are known as wagashi. Ingredients such as red bean paste and mochi are used. More modern-day tastes includes green tea ice cream, a very popular flavor. Almost all manufacturers produce a version of it. Kakigōri is a shaved ice dessert flavored with syrup or condensed milk. It is usually sold and eaten at summer festivals. A dessert very popular among the children in Japan are dorayaki. They are sweet pancakes filled with a sweet red bean paste. They are mostly eaten at room temperature but are also considered very delicious hot.

Dishes for special occasions

In Japanese tradition some dishes are strongly tied to a festival or event. These dishes include:

  • Botamochi, a sticky rice dumpling with sweet azuki paste served in spring, while a similar sweet Ohagi is served in autumn.
  • Chimaki (steamed sweet rice cake): Tango no sekku and Gion Festival.
  • Hamo (a type of fish, often eel) and sōmen: Gion Festival.
  • Osechi: New Year.
  • Sekihan is red rice, which is served for any celebratory occasion. It is usually sticky rice cooked with azuki, or red bean, which gives the rice its distinctive red color.
  • Soba: New Year's Eve. This is called toshi koshi soba (literally "year crossing soba").
  • Chirashizushi, Ushiojiru (clear soup of clams) and amazake: Hinamatsuri.

In some regions, on every first and fifteenth day of the month, people eat a mixture of rice and azuki (azuki meshi (小豆飯); see Sekihan).

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See also

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