My first encounter with Japan’s food culture was serendipitous. In the mid-1960s, I was given the opportunity to experience a short homestay in rural Japan. At the time, I spoke no Japanese and had never cooked anything myself. But I marveled at the nimble kitchen rhythms of the Shikoku household in which I first found myself. Simple, wholesome, satisfying fare came to the table throughout the day, every day in a cycle of seemingly effortless kitchen activity.
Fast-forward five decades, during which my curiosity led me to study the food and culture of Japan in earnest. Along the way, I realized that often what made the difference between “just ordinary” and “wonderful” food was a mindset and a set of practical guidelines that Japan’s washoku home cooks have relied on for centuries, and continue to use today.
That Japanese kitchen mindset can best be summed up with the word kansha — appreciation. Kansha encourages the creative use of all edible parts of a plant or creature, including kitchen scraps (peels and trim) and repurposed leftovers. Cooks practicing kansha are grateful for nature’s abundance and appreciative of those who steward and gather that bounty to nourish themselves and others.
Practical washoku guidelines speak to organizing food choices so that the five colors, five tastes and five ways of preparing food are evident at every meal — the Japanese refer to this as goshiki, gomi and gohō. It sounds complicated at first, but once you understand the benefits to be reaped from being attentive to color, flavor profile and method of food preparation, I think you’ll agree it’s well worth trying to adopt this approach yourself.
Eating colorful foods (red, yellow, green, black and white) ensures dietary balance, because the pigmentation of each food is a roadmap to its nutritional profile. Colorful foods provide visual interest, too, making any meal more appealing.
Washoku guidelines regarding flavor urge balance among sweet, sour, salty, bitter and spicy tastes. Why? To control food cravings. Binging on one flavor wreaks havoc with our bodies’ natural sense of appetite. Ever wolfed down a box of cookies but then found yourself hungering for salty chips? Most people have experienced food cravings caused by lopsided flavor indulgence. Simply being attentive to the need for balancing flavors goes a long way in taming cravings. Balancing flavors will allow you to feel satisfied without overeating.
Washoku’s kitchen wisdom further suggests you prepare your ingredients in a variety of ways at each meal. In days past, when neither artificial refrigeration nor swift transportation was available to extend the shelf life of perishable foods, people had fewer choices about what they ate. Making the most of what was available locally and in season meant knowing how to coax different “personalities” from the same ingredient: salt-massaging thin slices of daikon makes a crunchy pickle that is very different from stewed-until-tender chunks of the same radish, and very different still from stir-fried strips of the daikon’s peel. Those seeking to use their food and energy resources frugally and efficiently will find menus based on multiple methods give you the ability to take whatever you have on hand, even (and especially) if the number of ingredients is limited, and make an expansive meal.
Applying Japan’s best kitchen practices — using food fully while being mindful of balancing color, flavor and method — doesn’t mean that every dish you serve needs to contain every element. It’s the cumulative effect of using goshiki, gomi and gohō as your menu template that will enable you to serve good-looking, good-tasting, good-for-you meals.
Ready to give it a go? Start by looking at what you eat … but consider your menu through a washoku lens. Is your meal colorful? Note what colors you’re missing and add accordingly. Next think about flavor profile: Is your meal balanced? Have you avoided salty and sweet binges and used a balanced hand with spice? Have you included something sour (especially important in hot weather to help your body regulate temperature) and something bitter (to help reset your taste buds)? What about variety in methods of preparation? Do you have too many fried foods, and nothing simmered or stewed? Have you included some raw foods? Soups are a great way to fill in menu gaps, as are salads.
Although most Japanese home cooks do not talk about washoku guidelines, their kitchen practice reflects those habits. In Japan, examples are all around you from simple neighborhood teishoku eateries to elaborate, high-end kaiseki establishments and everything in between — family-style restaurants, bento takeout and more. It’s also worth noting that even though these tenets are central to washoku, they’re equally applicable to any style of cuisine. Think of them as guidelines, rather than hard-and-fast rules.
So whether you are strapped for time and decide to purchase sōzai side dishes from a department store food hall, or prefer to make things entirely from scratch, why not try organizing your meals around the five colors, five flavors and five ways of a Japanese kitchen.
For more information, visit tasteofculture.com. Washoku Essentials is a series focusing on the building blocks of Japanese cooking wisdom.
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