In 2013, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized traditional Japanese cuisine (washoku) as one of few intangible cultural heritages of humanity. With uniquely delicious dishes such as ramen and sushi, Japan’s food culture is truly special.
Ever since 5th century B.C., rice was the main agricultural produce and staple food in Japan. Meals in Japan are referred to as “go-han,” which literally means “rice.” During festivals, cooked glutinous rice would be pounded into mochi and consumed with sake, fermented rice wine. Rice was considered sacred and included with almost every Japanese meal. On the contrary, meat from mammals was forbidden up until the 15th century. In the 7th century, an imperial edict influenced by Buddhist belief forbad killing animals. However, this decree did not extend to seafood, and so preparing fish for the table evolved into an art, as depicted in the picture below. If you are still skeptical, just watch the documentary, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.”
Figure 1: Sushi as Food and Art
During the Meiji restoration in 1868, the government decided that the workforce needed to be taller and stronger as manufacturing became widespread, and so meat made a comeback. Because old recipes did not provide guidelines for cooking meat and dairy, chefs sought inspiration from western dishes. Incorporating Spanish and Portuguese deep-frying techniques and Chinese vegetable stir-fry, Tempura (deep fried vegetables or seafood) was created. Following this creation, tonkatsu (deep fried pork cutlets) and Japanese curry were born near the 20th century after England began importing Indian curry powder to Japan. Today, most Japanese restaurants in the U.S. serve Tonkatsu curry over rice.
Figure 2: Tonkatsu Curry Dish
So now you know what you could be having for dinner. However, in Japan they do some things differently when it comes to meals. We will only talk about some rules that are particular to Japanese dining, so when it comes to blowing your nose at the table or burping loudly, maybe we can give common sense a shot. In Japan, some restaurants have very low tables and cushions on traditional tatami mats. You will have to remove your shoes before entering the tatami room, but it gives you an authentic Japanese eating experience. You also don’t want to step on any cushion that is not your own, unless your annoying younger brother is with you.
Figure 3: Traditional Japanese Dining Room
Prior to receiving your food, staff will come out with wet towels, called oshibori, for cleaning. It’s like you’re at a Michelin star restaurant everywhere you go in Japan! Ok, now the serious stuff. Like in most East Asian culture, it is common to wait for everyone to get his or her food before eating unless given express permission. Next, for small bowls, you will want to pick them up and eat from it close to your mouth. At the end of the meal, return the plates and bowls to how they were presented on your tray at the start of the meal. Now for the fun part, drinking! It is customary to serve each other rather than pour yourself alcohol. It is also good practice to make sure your friends constantly get refills so a good dinner becomes a great dinner…if you know what I mean.
So why are some of the most popular, delicious, and fun snacks being consumed in the world from Japan? It comes down to the snack culture. In Japan, it is polite to offer snacks to guests. It makes guests feel welcome, valued, and happy, because who doesn’t like a soft red bean cake with a side of hot green tea? However, if you are visiting multiple friends in Japan on the same day, you better go on an empty stomach!
Figure 4: Green Tea Mochi with Tea
Hopefully you learned a bit about Japan and its food culture from us. If you are planning to visit Japan and want to learn more, we don’t want to leave you empty handed! Check out the links below for more information, mata mite ne!
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