Food · Japan

Washoku: Writing an essay on traditional food

Yes, my love of food is so boundless that for one of my finals in Japan I wrote several pages on the subject but for good reason.

Traveling to a place like Japan can be very difficult as adapting to the language and customs takes time. In addition the huge difference in culture can seem difficult to bridge at times. Nevertheless it is my belief that being open and trying new things can help to ease the transition and open one up to new opportunities. Cuisine in this regard plays a vital role as it acts as a means of understanding people’s livelihood and ancestral past.

Bento lunch box assortment

Japan has a very vibrant culinary culture dating back several centuries yet many new dishes have also been created relatively recently. Washoku, the traditional Japanese food culture has even made it into UNESCO as part of Japan’s intangible cultural legacy. At the same time the increasing prevalence of Western foods raises concerns not just about the sustainability of Japanese consumer diets but also as to the survival of traditional food.

While Japan is not unique in regards to the aesthetically pleasing plating of dishes, it is one of the few that takes careful care in the plating regardless of how expensive or cheap it might be. Even simple dishes are guaranteed to look just as good as the pictures in menus and of course be delicious.

Chirashizushi or “scattered sushi” bowl

Unlike other cuisines which use a variety of different spices, the objective of washoku is to balance flavors in a manner which will enhance the overall taste of each ingredient as opposed to the ingredient by itself. Another element to this traditional style of cooking is that there is a large focus on freshness and the seasonality of ingredients that varies from region to region. Washoku also has a high ratio of vegetables and a low ratio of meat in comparison to Western diets. Many people in older generations have virtually no transfats or refined sugars in their daily diets aside form very rare occasions and this could very well be one possibility why so few people have had serious ailments. The result is a cuisine with quite a lot of variety and innovation as well as dishes full of nutritional value which many credit for the longevity of the Japanese.

The layout of many of these dishes typically consists of several small dishes being served together on a platter. The most notable of these is the Kyoto style Obanzai Ryori (home-cooking) or the more traditional and much more expensive Kaiseki Ryori.

Giant iron pot of noodles near Saiko lake

However changing demographics of the Japanese diet have resulted in serious concerns about the survival of washoku. Many ask who will eat those kinds of foods if meat and Western foods become ever more popular. In addition the diminishing of fish populations across the world has raised alarm as Japan’s traditional food source becomes ever more scarce. Yet cuisine as a whole adapts to each situation and the case of Japan is no different. Eating patterns will inevitably have to change but that is not necessarily a bad thing. New dishes and mixtures can be created but washoku will remain an integral and intangible part of Japan’s cultural heritage.

Obanzai Ryori‘s small dish assortment



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