The modern Japanese palate is very sophisticated, and many international cuisines can be found in restaurants and homes across the country. As we have covered before, Japanese chefs can be very creative in their search for delicious food, and popular sensations like ramen and matcha are making inroads around the world. Washoku, on the other hand, remains a relatively little-known concept outside of Japan, despite its basis in a food tradition that dates back centuries; a tradition that colors every aspect of Japanese cuisine, from simple family meals to elaborate kaiseki feasts for the tea ceremony.
One simple and informative expression that succulently incorporates the basics of washoku is ichiju-sansai, which means “one soup, three dishes.” The standard of one soup and three dishes is perceived to provide a properly balanced meal when coupled with cooked rice and pickled vegetables, which are assumed to be a part of every meal. This assumption of eating rice with every meal is one of the primary differentiating aspects of washoku cuisine. Other common expressions include umi no sachi, and yama no sachi, which could be translated colloquially as “bounty of the sea” and “bounty of the land” respectively. These expressions emphasize the importance of having variety in one’s meals and celebrate the rich diversity of food available across the Japanese archipelago.
Japan is a nation that has been blessed with a rich abundance of fresh water and a wide variety of food resources. There are a wide variety of vegetables, fish, shellfish, and seaweed that represent the traditional diet of Japan. Japanese chefs have devised a wide range of cooking methods and diversity based on the local climate and available resources. Washoku incorporates ingredients in various states of processing, from raw to fermented and from steamed to fried. The different cooking methods used in washoku have been developed to complement one another and bring out the best qualities of the ingredients. In selecting ingredients, special care is taken regarding shun, or the time when a particular foodstuff at peak season.
Washoku, in essence, is a set of mores and social values that are passed down in the home and at other shared communal mealtimes. The social aspect of washoku is acknowledged in its 2013 inscription on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Even to the untrained eye, aspects of it make their way into the daily lives of Japanese people. For example, at family meals and communal public school lunches Japanese people are taught how to create a properly balanced meal, good table manners, like how to hold utensils and navigate their tableware, and even what to say at mealtime: namely itadakimasu and gochisōsama-deshita, which express gratitude before and after the meal, respectively.