When the topic of Japanese cuisine is broached, most minds turn to sushi, and to an extent, rice. But as we discovered from speaking with Japan Consul General Takahiko Watabe, “Japanese cuisine, Washoku, is deeply-rooted in the culture of Japanese people.” The Japanese kanji characters forming the word和 (wa), meaning Japanese, or harmony, and 食 (shoku), meaning food or to eat, translate to the harmonious nature of Japanese cuisine.
As a result of Buddhism, eating meat was prohibited in Japan from about 650 – 1870 AD, but fish and dairy products were permitted. “The uniqueness of Japan’s food culture is formed by many dishes flavoured with dashi broth made from bonito and kombu kelp, as well as fermented foods such as soy sauce, natto, and miso,” Consul General Watabe explains.
A country deeply rooted in tradition, Japan also sees value in embracing other cultures, and adapting them. Several dishes and techniques can be historically traced to China, which brought both miso and ramen to Japan. Contact with India introduced curries. In the 16th century, Portuguese missionaries brought with them a fritter-style cooking that evolved into the popular Japanese tempura. The coexistence of tradition and innovation can be seen in the restaurants found across Japan – many serve French or Chinese cuisine – and in everyday meals, too.
For Kevin Kent, founder and CEO of Knifewear, a traditional Japanese breakfast is one he longs for: “A typical hotel breakfast is miso soup, grilled fish, vegetables cooked in dashi, umeboshi and served with one or two extra dishes, tea and coffee, always makes jetlagged me smile.”
At the same time Consul General Watabe points out the divergence from tradition. “It has become more common to see many people enjoying a more English-inspired breakfast such as toast with egg, or smoothies for breakfast.” Meals later in the day often lean into Western culture, with many people enjoying burgers, pasta, and steak for lunch or dinner, too.
But food is more than just daily nutrition. It is significant during festivals and gatherings, and in day-to-day life, too. Omiyage, literally ‘souvenir’, is a gift that is purchased during a trip that you then give to friends and family upon your return, and it is usually edible.
Kent, who has traveled to Japan many times, and experienced both culture and cuisine in a variety of settings, loves the tradition. “Every region of Japan has local food specialties and if you want to bring a gift to someone, this is what you grab,” he explains. “My favourite omiyage from Kyoto is either traditional Japanese pickles from Nishiki market or yatsuhashi – mochi wrappers folded around flavoured bean pastes.”
The kind of festival will determine the food served. “Foods like ozōni soup and osechi-ryori are found at New Year festivals, rice cakes wrapped in bamboo leaves are traditional for Children’s Day, and eel is eaten on the hottest day of the year for energy,” says Consul General Watabe.
For Hinamatsuri, ‘Doll’s day’ or ‘Girl’s Day’, celebrated every March 3rd, chirashi-zushi – ‘scattered sushi’ – is served. While this is often eaten at other times of the year, when prepared for Girl’s Day, it uses shrimp (to wish for a long, healthy life until the girls grow old with curved backs, like the shrimp have), beans (so that girls will have the health to grow up and work diligently), and lotus root (the holes in the lotus root, which can be seen through, signify the hope that girls will be able to see luck in their future).
It is a cuisine also known for its visual appeal. “One does not only eat Japanese food, but also enjoys its presentation and assortment of colours,” Consul General Watabe adds. “Much like any other form of art, one can find value in its beauty.”
This month we spoke with 4 Alberta chefs who create Japanese food with a nod to tradition and innovation, resulting in dishes that are as appealing to the palate as they are to the eye!