In December 2013, washoku - Japanese food - was officially registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Even before it received this designation, Japanese food already enjoyed great popularity abroad, due in large part to its reputation as a healthy cuisine. It is probably safe to say that by now most people have sampled such representative Japanese dishes as sushi and tempura.
As popular as sushi and tempura may be, however, the UNESCO designation was not intended to single out those or any other specific dishes; rather it was given in recognition of Japan's traditional food culture as a whole - a food culture characterized by great variety and diversity.
But what is traditional Japanese food? Basically it can be described as being the diet of the average Japanese family. It is regional in character, having developed in close connection with each region's annual cycle of traditional events. At such events, locally grown ingredients are used to make food that is then eaten communally. The blessings of nature are shared, and, in the process, family and community ties are strengthened.
The traditional Japanese menu is made up of four components: rice, soup, vegetables, and pickles. Rice is the main staple, and the other three components exist to complement it. Such is the concept behind the basic Japanese meal. The meal is eaten using chopsticks and bowls. A unique feature of Japanese culinary practice is that the diner alternates between the bowls containing the staple dish and the side dishes, first picking up one and eating from it, putting it down, and then picking up another.
In the not too distant past, washoku, as eaten by the average Japanese family, was made from what could be grown or gleaned in the family field. This could encompass a varied supply of high-quality ingredients: more than 300 types of edible wild plants and cultivated vegetables grow in Japan's mountains and fields, while its coastlines are home to many kinds of fish and seaweed. As for rice, Japan receives a more-than-ample amount of rainfall, and, as a result, rice paddies span the length and breadth of the country.
Today, however, the average Japanese family no longer finds its food near at hand, and the ordinary Japanese diet is no longer the traditional one. In the past the Japanese had to make the best use of whatever food they had at hand. That necessity no longer exists: modern Japanese live in an age in which perishable foodstuffs are in plentiful supply and in which imported foods are easily and cheaply obtainable. They can go to a supermarket and, regardless of the season, buy any kind of food they want, while convenience stores offer essential food items twenty-four hours a day.
Meanwhile, the Japanese diet has become an increasingly Western one, with the result that such things as pasta, steak, curry, and hamburgers are now eaten on a daily basis. In the rural districts, of course, there are still Japanese who observe the traditional food culture, but their numbers are declining. Indeed, the fear that the traditional Japanese food culture will one day vanish was no doubt one of the motivating factors behind the UNESCO Cultural Heritage designation.
Statistics and the Changing Japanese Diet
Based on a survey of 245 countries, National Geographic's 'What the World Eats' offers a look at food intake on a worldwide scale, as well as by individual country, over a fifty-year period from 1961 to 2011 According to its findings, the average person's daily calorie intake in 1961 was 2,194 calories. In 2011, however, the average intake totaled 2,870 calories, an increase of 30.8%. In the case of Japan, the average daily intake in 1961 was 2,523 calories, while in 2011 the figure had risen to 2,717, an increase of 7.7%.
A closer look at the figures, however, reveals a major shift in Japanese dietary habits. In 1961, 46% of a Japanese person's daily calorie intake came from rice, but in 2011 only 21% - less than half - did. In 1961, 15% of calorie intake came from sugars and fats, but in 2011 the figure had risen to 27%. Calorie intake from meat products rose from 6% to 12%, while that from dairy products and eggs increased from 4% to 8%.
As these statistics make clear, the Japanese diet has undergone a great transformation in only fifty years. It has become so Western that the Japanese can be said to be no longer eating Japanese food. According to one website, the foods now most preferred by Japanese are 1) sushi 2) Korean-style barbequed beef 3) ramen 4) tempura 5) sashimi 6) fried chicken 7) curry rice 8) grilled chicken 9) pot stickers 10) pork cutlet. While three of the items - sushi, tempura, and sashimi - are part of the traditional Japanese diet, the others came to Japan from abroad and are meat-centered.
Sushi: A History
Sushi, Japan's number-one most popular food, is equally well loved abroad, where many kinds of sushi are eaten. Historically speaking, however, the first sushi was quite different from today's nigiri-zushi, which is made by shaping vinegar-flavored rice by hand and then topping it with seafood or other items. Sushi's original form was a fermented food called nare-zushi. Rice, barley, or other cereal grains were cooked. Fish were packed in layers in the grain mixture and then allowed to ferment. This lactate fermentation method is said to have originated in Southeast Asia, where hill tribes utilized it as a way of preserving and storing fish. Nare-zushi is thought to have come to Japan via China and Korea in the Nara Period (circa 700 AD).
Sushi that resembled today's nigiri-zushi first made its appearance in the early 19th century. A professional sushi maker in Edo (present-day Tokyo) called Hanaya Yohei is credited with having developed it in 1824, and a stone marker in Sumida Ward's Ryogoku neighborhood claims to occupy the spot where 'Yohei sushi' originated. According to the marker's inscription, it was Yohei who made improvements to the fish toppings and created the distinctive type of sushi now known as nigiri-zushi.
At first, such sushi was sold from wooden buckets by itinerant vendors. Eventually stalls were erected where the sushi was prepared in front of the customer. This style of preparing and selling sushi became a big hit.
In fact, Edo-mae-zushi, as it was called, became Edo's fast food. Edo-mae literally means 'front of Edo', a reference to Tokyo Bay, which fronted the city. At that time Tokyo Bay had a much richer abundance of sea life than it does today. It teemed with shrimp, conger eel, mantis shrimp, octopus, clams . . . the inhabitants of Edo were no doubt proud of the fresh seafood that their own front yard so generously provided.
Edo-mae also refers to the fact that the sushi was ingeniously prepared right in front of the customer. Edo-period Japan did not have today's transportation system, nor were there refrigerators or freezers. Fresh fish quickly lost its quality with the passage of time. To counter this, Edo's sushi chefs devised ways of treating freshly caught fish so that its freshness would be preserved and, at the same time, its umami would actually be enhanced. Such techniques included the use of salt and vinegar. Others involved steaming, simmering, or immersing the fish in a sauce.
Another ingenious flavor enhancement method utilized by Edo-mae-zushi involves brushing the fish topping with a sauce called ni-kiri, which is made by mixing soy sauce and mirin, bringing the mixture just to a boil, and then taking it off the flame. Instead of ni-kiri, a sweet sauce called tsume is sometimes coated on simmered octopus and conger eel, while coarse salt is used to bring out the flavor of a type of squid called aori-ika and that of some types of white-fleshed fish.
Sushi is at its best the moment that it leaves its maker's hand, when the rice is at skin temperature. However, because certain toppings can alter the temperature of the rice, Edo-mae-zushi chefs accordingly learned how to adapt the toppings to the rice in order to achieve the ideal harmony of topping and rice.
Sushi is typically served with a type of pickled ginger called gari. Sometimes a thin layer of wasabi is put between the topping and the rice. Both gari and wasabi have anti-bacterial properties. It seems that the ancestors of today's Japanese anticipated modern methods of sterilization and preservation. Oddly enough, aside from their practical benefits, gari and wasabi actually enhance the flavor of the sushi. Edo-mae-zushi, in all its aspects, can truly be said to embody a wealth of knowledge accumulated over generations.
Tempura: Did It Come from Portugal?
Although considered to be a typical Japanese dish, tempura is actually thought to have arrived, along with guns, in Japan about 470 years ago in 1543. Oil was then a precious commodity used in lamps, and so tempura, which requires a great amount of it, was regarded as a very high-end food. As for the word itself, one theory holds that it derived from the Portugese word temperar, another that it came from the Spanish or Italian temporas. The origin, however, is not certain.
At that time, tempura batter was made with sugar, salt, and sake. Pieces of food were dipped into this batter and then fried in lard. Because the batter was strongly flavored, the tempura was eaten as was and not dipped into any kind of sauce. It probably resembled a kind of fritter. In this form it reached Osaka, where it morphed into something called tsu-age, which mainly featured vegetables fried not in lard, but in sesame (goma) oil. It reached Edo (Tokyo) at around the time of the founding of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603). There, seafood sold along the riverbanks of the Nihonbashi area was fried in sesame oil, and the result was called goma-age. Rapeseed oil, cheaper than sesame oil, was also used, and when, around the middle of the Edo Period, rapeseed oil production grew, the oil became even cheaper, and its use spread among the masses. Like Edo-mae sushi, Edo-mae tempura drew on the bounty of Tokyo Bay. Seafood that was coated in flour and then deep fried came to be called tempura. In food stalls called tempura-ya, customers stood and ate freshly fried tempura served on skewers. Also popular were stalls that sold soba, sushi, and eel.
Although Edo-mae tempura made long use of sesame oil, tempura restaurants nowadays commonly resort to a refined rapeseed oil called shirame-yu or refined soybean oil. The tempura batter is made from low-gluten flour mixed with ice water and egg. Shrimp, whiting, conger eel, and scallops are among the seafood items most frequently made into tempura, while eggplant, lotus root, and mushrooms are some commonly used vegetables. These items are dipped in the batter and then fried in oil at a temperature of 180 degrees centigrade. This is now the ordinary method for making tempura.
Both sushi and tempura are still loved by modern Japanese. Sushi establishments come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from exclusive, 50,000-yen-a-head restaurants to 100-yen-a-plate conveyer-belt-type kaiten-sushi shops. Similarly, a tempura restaurant might be a high-end venue frequented by Hollywood stars or an unpretentious eatery with a fast-food ambience.
Many people took time from their busy schedules to help us research this article. We wish to especially thank the following:
Sushi restaurant Kazama.
Tempura restaurant Tenko.
Taiyaki, The Tauyaki Naniwaya Souhonten
Hota Fishery Association, Kyonan-machi, Chiba Prefecture.
Aoki Noen, Miura-shi, Kanagawa Prefecture.