Chinese Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 6th century. In Buddhism, bowing was, and still is, a way of showing respect to a spiritual master. It wasn’t long before bowing was ingrained in the Japanese culture as a sign of respect, greeting, apology and gratitude. The bow is a small, yet widespread act that says a lot about the Japanese way of life.
Japanese culture is reserved and humble. There is a communal effort to maintain social harmony. Even the most hectic and crowded spaces in Japan are quiet. Things that disrupt the silence, like talking on the phone or eating in public, are frowned upon. The Japanese are courteous to well being. With the mildest cold or allergy symptoms, it is common for Japanese to wear a mask in order to prevent spreading germs to others.
In Japan, hospitality, or “omontenashi”, is seen as treating others with respect, patience, and understanding. “Omote” means public face, and “nashi” means nothing. Together, they represent honesty, serving whole heartedly, and mutual respect. The concept originated in the Japanese tea ceremony, where each event was seen as “ichigo ichie” or a once in lifetime experience. The traditional tea ceremony is still practiced and considered one of Japan’s highest art forms. A single tea ceremony can take up to a year of preparation because each component is carefully curated for each guest.
“Omontenashi” is seen in restaurants as well, where the attention to detail rules all — even the temperature of sushi rice is carefully curated for each fish. Traditional Japanese cuisine, or “washoku”, aims to protect nature and transmit knowledge to future generations. It is one of three nations recognized by the UN for its cultural significance. Due to the varying climate in Japan, the cuisine is highly regional. Many cities have developed their own traditional dishes and specialties, all derived from the season and local ingredients. While ingredients differ by location, dishes remain similar throughout the season.
Popular Japanese foods by season….
- Winter: hot pot dishes and sweet sake.
- Spring: bamboo shoots, and fresh vegetables such as rapeseed and cherry blossom.
- Summer: cold soba, udon, and vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplant, and cucumbers.
- Autumn: eggplant, sweet potato, pacific saucy, and new rice.
A Japanese meal is a social act, designed for joyful interaction with others. In order to maintain joy at the table, the Japanese apply a common etiquette. Napkins should be tied into bows or folded after a meal, never put on top of your plate. Noodle soups are intended to be slurped in order to enhance the flavor of the meal, while rice soups are never slurped. Chopsticks should be placed on a stand next to the plate, rather than laid on the plate or stuck into the bowl.
Japanese food is based on freshness and balance, which comes from Buddhism roots of naturalism and purity. Elements are constantly changing with the seasons. Eating seasonal plants is a celebration of abundance in the fields and life in general. Japanese chefs carefully select ingredients that are in their peak of freshness and represent that time in place. In order to bring out the natural flavor of each ingredient, chefs preparation is minimal and the presentation showcases the food itself. Great thought is put into every detail, and presentation is seen as an art form. Food is served in small, separate plates, each chosen for a specific reason. Colors, patterns and shapes represent different seasons. They are used to tell a story and bridge the current moment with another time.
Japanese consume twice as much fish as Americans, they have a higher ratio of plant based foods, and portions are smaller. Rather than drinking water with their meals, hydration comes in the form of soups and broths. Japanese cuisine is known for umami, a category of taste best described as “savory”, commonly found in miso, soy sauce, mushrooms, seaweed, bonito flakes or broth. Simple condiments like soy, miso, dashi, citrus, and wasabi are used to enhance, rather than mask ingredients.
A typical Japanese breakfast includes…
- Rice: steamed or prepared as a porridge. Typically served with pickled plums, vegetables, or shiso leaves. It can also be served with dried bonito, kelp, or seafood.
- Nori: seasoned and dried seaweed.
- Vegetables and fruits.
- Natto: fermented soybeans, typically prepared with spicy mustard, dried bonito, seasoned seaweed, and chopped green onions.
A typical Japanese meal includes…
- Rice: typically white or brown.
- Fish: typically grilled, such as salmon or mackerel, or plant based protein like tofu or beans.
- Soup: typically miso.
- Vegetables: typically simmered, such as eggplant, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale.
- Pickles: typically seaweed, such as nori or wakame.
- Dessert: typically fresh fruits like fuji apples, persimmons and tangerines, nothing overly sweet.
The table is a place to practice mindfulness. The Japanese pace themselves while they eat, move slowly from dish to dish, and make a point of eating until they are only 80 percent full. “Itadakimasu” is said prior to the meal, and “gochisousama” is said after the meal as a way of giving thanks to the nature and people that made the food. Japanese believe in the importance of expressing gratitude for their life.
What we can learn from the Japanese:
- Small portions: use small bowls and plates to bring your food to life while eating less.
- Simple, seasonal foods are best: choose the highest quality foods. Let the food speak for itself with little additives and simple flavors.
- Eat lots of plants: as well as fish, and whole grains like rice.
- Presentation is an art: make your food appealing to the eye and relish in the beauty.
- Slow down and say thanks: soak in the delicacy of your food and express gratitude to the land and ones who prepared it.
- Show respect: keep things clean, be honest, and stay humble.
I’m Callie, and I’m the Founder & CEO of Nonna Eats, a Boulder (CO) startup dedicated to fostering community through food. I have experience running a variety of culinary teams, as well as web design and branding.
About this publication
This is a series of stories about reclaiming the art of eating and gathering. Through working with the highest quality chefs and producers, we know how to eat well. If you’d like to read more, please follow. Originally posted on nonnaeats.com.