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Japan’s traditional washoku cuisine feeds body and soul

by Makiko Itoh

Special To The Japan Times

Whenever I am away from my homeland for too long, there is one meal that fills my dreams. At the center is a bowl of plain steamed rice, white and glistening. On the side, a steaming bowl of fragrant miso soup. There’s fish, perhaps sanma (Pacific saury), so hot from the grill that its skin sizzles when a splash of soy sauce is added, and a mound of refreshing and sharp grated daikon radish on the side as a foil to the oiliness. And in the corner, a small plate of crunchy tsukemono, pickled seasonal vegetables.

Whenever I ponder the question of what washoku, the quintessential Japanese cuisine, is, this is the meal I think of. It is simple yet complicated, plain yet sophisticated. It is salty, sour, sweet, slightly bitter and full of umami. And it is beautifully presented. Washoku does not hit you in the face with spice or other flamboyant flavors. It is a gentle caress as it satisfies your senses.

When washoku was designated as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity this past December, there was some confusion outside of Japan as to what this meant. While some Japanese dishes have become popular worldwide in the past couple of decades, washoku remains a mystery for many.

What is washoku?

Washoku when written in kanji characters, 和食, is made up of the character wa, which indicates Japan or Japanese, and shoku, which means food or to eat. It is just one of the types of cuisine that make up what’s known as Japanese cuisine; the others are chūka, or Chinese cuisine that’s been adapted to Japanese tastes (the term is also used for Chinese cuisine in general), and yōshoku, European-style cuisine that’s been similarly adapted. Washoku is the type that is considered to be the most traditional and most indigenous, the most Japanese or wa of these.

The importance of the seasons

The roots of washoku do go back at least to the courtly Heian Period (794-1185). Given that much of Japan has four very distinct seasons, especially in the region around Kyoto, where the Imperial court resided for hundreds of years, it’s no wonder that seasonality plays such a strong role in so much of Japanese culture. Everything from traditional forms of poetry such as haiku and tanka, decorative elements of dress and architecture, and even the indigenous religion of Shinto is infused with seasonality.

Washoku is no exception. The peak season of a particular ingredient is called its shun (旬) and the shun of key foods are eagerly anticipated: tender bamboo shoots and nanohana (rapeseed buds) in spring; refreshing cucumbers and melons in summer; chestnuts and mushrooms, and sweet potatoes in fall; tart and sweet citrus fruit in winter.

The importance of shun extends way beyond fruits and vegetables. Fish, a supremely important part of the cuisine of a nation that is a long archipelago surrounded by the sea, also has its seasons, depending on when it’s considered to be tastiest.

Bonito or skipjack tuna (katsuo) is enjoyed in spring to summer months when it has shed its winter fat, while amberjack or buri is considered at its peak in the coldest months, when it’s called kan-buri and commands a premium price. Even the humble and ubiquitous salmon is enjoyed at various stages of its development, the peak being late fall to early winter when it is fat and juicy.

Even staple grains have their seasons in Japan. Shin-mai or new-harvest rice, available in fall, is one of the most eagerly anticipated seasonal foods; high in moisture, it has a subtle sweetness and stickiness that is greatly prized. Newly harvested and ground buckwheat (soba) was the highlight of the year for people in buckwheat-growing regions like Shinshū as well as for the people of Edo, the old name for Tokyo, and shin-soba or new-harvest soba noodles are still appreciated in November.

Umami and the four flavors

One of the key characteristics of washoku is that it attempts to highlight the flavors and textures of the ingredients, rather than tries to disguise them. This concept of highlighting the ingredients themselves and their seasonality is very trendy worldwide, but it’s been the central concept of washoku for hundreds of years. Washoku flavoring tends to be quite subtle. There are very few very spicy ingredients, for example; when spices are used, they are applied sparingly for a flash of stimulation.

The key flavor of washoku is a word for which there is no good translation, so it’s become a part of the culinary vernacular worldwide: umami. Umami is that satisfying flavor that is at the heart of so many dishes, especially savory ones, but is also in sweet dishes, too.

Chemically, the purest form of umami is monosodium glutamate, a substance isolated by Kikunae Ikeda, a professor at Teikoku University (now Tokyo University) in 1907 from kelp. Kelp is commonly used as a natural source of umami and many other flavoring ingredients that have been used for hundreds of years in Japan are packed with umami: dried fish flakes called katsuobushi; miso; soy sauce; and more.

Fish and vegetables are fermented and pickled to bring out their inherent umami. Meat, which was reintroduced to the Japanese diet in the 19th century after many years of imposed abstinence, was reappreciated for its umami. Even the national alcoholic drink, sake, has plenty of umami in its depths.

The other four flavors that human beings can detect — sweet, sour, salty and bitter — are just as important. Even bitterness, a flavor that’s not usually appreciated, is welcomed in washoku; for instance, sansai (bitter mountain vegetables) are enjoyed as a stimulating wake-up call to the taste buds after the cold winter months.

It’s the balance of the five flavors that counts. Nowhere is this more evident than in osechi, the traditional New Year’s spread. The colorful array of food packed like jewels in a lacquered box was the centerpiece of the Japanese presentation to have washoku recognized by UNESCO. Osechi flavors are sour and sweet, bitter and salty, and packed with umami.

Each item in the osechi array is also packed with good-luck symbolism; although we Japanese may have an image of being not that religious, we are, and were once quite superstitious. Kazunoko, salted marinated fish eggs symbolize a wish for many children; black beans ward off evil spirits; kuri kinton (chestnuts in a golden sweet potato paste) signify a wish for good fortune. Even the humble pounded rice cake called mochi has meaning: It is a concentrated form of rice, the most precious of foods in Japanese culture, and it is eaten in appreciation of the kind gods that keep us fed.

Washoku: living, evolving cuisine

While the roots of washoku are ancient, most of the dishes that are known as “quintessentially” Japanese elsewhere are in fact quite recent inventions, created within the last couple of centuries.

The best-known Japanese food worldwide, sushi, is of the type known as Edo-mae zushi — a slice of fresh, often raw fish on a ball of sweet-sour rice that originated sometime in the 19th century as a street food sold to the workers at the fish markets in Edo (Tokyo).

Tempura, deep-fried seafood or vegetables in a crispy light batter, also originated in Edo in the late 17th or early 18th century. Even a custom like appreciating shin-soba (new harvest buckwheat) noodles came about in the Edo Period, when better roads made it easier to transport fresh buckwheat to the big city.

Some other foods have even more modern roots: tonkatsu (breaded deep-fried pork) was born in the late 19th or early 20th century, after the prohibitions against eating four-legged animals were lifted, as was sukiyaki (beef hot pot) and yakiniku (griddle-cooked meat). And other well-known Japanese dishes like ramen and curry are classified under the other types of Japanese cuisine mentioned above; the latter is an example of yōshoku and the former is the most famous, and most heavily Japanified chūka dish of them all.

When the UNESCO announcement was made in December, several media sources published stories saying how this just-designated heritage cuisine was dying in Japan, taken over by Westernized fast food and the like. One of the motivations for designating washoku as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity may have been based on concerns of that nature.

However, I believe the rumors of the death of washoku are premature. It’s natural for a nation’s cuisine to evolve and adapt — the above examples show that the realities of modern life mean that people have less time to cook, so there are more processed foods, more “fast” foods and more foods are prepared outside the home.

But I for one am not too worried that traditional washoku will disappear anytime soon.

I don’t know of any other nation of people who are more obsessed and concerned with good food than the Japanese are. Go to almost any Japanese town and you’ll encounter a thriving, vibrant food culture. There are the usual international fast-food franchises of course, but they compete for the attention of hungry customers alongside tiny mom-and-pop izakaya and noodle shops, as well as elegant, expensive kappō cuisine served in tranquil tatami rooms at high-end ryōtei.

And we are also a nation of avid home cooks. Cookbooks are best-sellers and cooking classes thrive, as do websites dedicated to home cooking. Children are taught about appreciating food, where it is grown and how to eat it properly through a program called shokuiku, and retired senior citizens travel around the country avidly pursuing the best regional food. Regional cuisine, called gotōchi gurume, is even used successfully to attract tourists.

We will continue to eagerly adopt and even master the cuisines from other nations as we have done for many years — of that I’m sure. But at the same time, I’m as equally sure that we will also continue to appreciate and treasure the fundamental goodness of our traditional cuisine. It’s where our souls reside, as well as our stomachs.

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