Overview of traditional Japanese cuisine
Breakfast at a ryokan (Japanese inn), featuring grilled mackerel, Kansai style dashimaki egg, tofu in kaminabe (paper pot)
Japanese cuisine is based on combining the staple food which is steamed white rice or gohan (御飯?) with one or several okazu or main dishes and 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 yūsoku cuisine. The term is also used to describe the first course served in standard kaiseki cuisine nowadays.
Rice is served in its own small bowl (chawan), and each course item is placed on its own small plate (sara) or bowl (hachi) for each individual portion. This is done even at home. It contrasts with the Western-style dinners at home, where each individual takes helpings from the large tureens and plates of food presented at 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 leaves, etc. This is why in take-out sushi the tamagoyaki egg and fish, or Blue-backed fish and white-fleshed fish are carefully separated. Placing okazu on top of rice and “soiling” it is also frowned upon by old-fashioned etiquette. This is in sharp contrast to Chinese cuisine, where placing food on rice is standard.
The small rice bowl or chawan (lit. “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.
Kaiseki appetizers on a legged tray
In the olden days, among the nobility, each course of a full-course Japanese meal would be brought on serving trays called zen (膳?), 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 (膳) as a classier 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, 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); but e.g. Ishikawa, Hiroyoshi (石川弘義) (1991). Taishū bunka jiten (snippet). Kōbundō. p. 516. defines it as fare served at teishoku-shokudō (定食食堂 “teishoku dining hall”?), etc., a diner-like establishment.
Emphasis is placed on seasonality of food or shun (旬?), and dishes are designed to herald the arrival of the four seasons or calendar months.
Much lie the haiku poem, traditional Japanese cuisine strives to present seasonality (shun).[original research?]
Seasonality means taking advantage of the “fruit of the mountains” (山の幸 yama no sachi?, alt. “bounty of the mountains”) (e.g. bamboo shoots in spring, chestnuts in the fall) as well as the “fruit of the sea” (海の幸 umi no sachi?, alt. “bounty of the sea”) as they come into season. The 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 usual, the first crop or early catch is called hashiri.
Use of (inedible) tree leaves and branches as decor is also characteristic of Japanese cuisine. Maple leaves are often floated on water to exude coolness or ryō (涼?), 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
Further information: History of Japanese cuisine and List of Japanese ingredients
A characteristic of traditional Japanese food is the sparing use of meat (mammal meat), oils and fats, and dairy products. Use of soy sauce, miso, and umeboshi makes them high in salt content, though there are low-sodium versions of these available nowadays.
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 fowl meat secondary, and mammal 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. But under this definition Whale meat and suppon (terrapin) would not be regarded as taboo four-legged meat. Meat-eating never went completely out of existence in Japan. Eating wild game, as opposed to domesticated livestock, tended to be regarded as acceptable, and slaughtered hare is counted using the measure word wa (羽?), normally used for birds.
Vegetable consumption has dwindled while processed foods have become more prominent in Japanese households due to the rising costs of general foodstuffs.
Traditional Japanese food, generally speaking, is not prepared using much food oil. An exception is deep fried types of preparation was introduced during the Edo Period due to influence from Western foods (once called nanban-ryōri (南蛮料理?) and Chinese foods, and became commonplace with the availability of oil due to increased productivity. Examples of these such as Tempura, aburaage, satsumaage 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 homey or rustic sort of traditional Japanese foods such as kinpira, hijiki, kiriboshi daikon usually involves stir frying in some oil before stewing in soy sauce flavoring. Some standard osōzai or ”obanzai”(ja) dishes feature stir fried Japanese greens with age or chirimen-jako(ja) (dried small fish, young sardines).
See also Japanese flavorings
Traditional Japanese food is typically flavored using a combination of dashi, soy sauce, sake and mirin, vinegar, sugar, and salt. These are typically the only flavorings used when grilling or braising an item. During cooking, a modest number of herbs and spices are used as a hint or accent, or as a means to remove fishy or gamy odor, and include ginger, and takanotsume (鷹の爪?) red pepper. This contrasts conceptually with e.g., barbecue or stew where a blend of seasonings is used before and during cooking.[original research?]
Only after a main dish has completed its cooking are spice elements such as minced ginger and various pungent herbs added as a garnish, called tsuma. In some underseasoned dishes, a dollop of wasabi, and grated daikon (daikon-oroshi), or Japanese mustard are provided as condiment. A sprig of mitsuba, a piece of yuzu rind floated on soups are called ukimi. Minced shiso leaves and myoga often serve as yakumi, or a type of condiment to go with tataki of katsuo or soba. Minced or crumpled nori and flakes of aonori are seaweeds used as an herb of sorts.