Author: Karen W.
Editor: Aika M.
Translator: Theo F.
Original Language: Japanese
Have you ever had Japanese food before? In 2013, Washoku, the traditional Japanese culinary culture, was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage. From this delegation, we can see that the traditional Washoku is up to a healthy standard, but what aspect of it is healthy? Furthermore, when you compare Japanese cuisine to foreign cuisines, it is apparent that Japanese cuisine revolves around fish and has lighter flavours, while foreign cuisines tend to use a higher variety of spices. This article aims to delve into the world of Washoku and explore the origins of its healthy nature.
To begin, let’s talk about the nutritious values Washoku offers. To have a healthy diet, we need to have a balance in nutrients. This balance mainly includes carbohydrates, protein, minerals, vitamins, and fat. This means that if we only have junk foods, we will not reach an ideal nutritious balance; the excess calories often lead to obesity and other health problems. On the contrary, even just one meal of Washoku contains an ideal balance of nutrients. This is due to the fact that the traditional Japanese menu contains Ichiju Sansai, one soup and three dishes. Although there are a total of four items, their portions are kept small, making it easy to eat. This allows us to taste different dishes and absorb different nutrients in one single meal.
To illustrate, let me give you an example of an actual Washoku meal I have had. Cooked with only water, the star of the meal is rice. It has a soft taste and usually goes well with all kinds of dishes. Since the weather is getting warmer, the main ingredients for the miso soup are the summer vegetables, eggplants and okra. The main dish of our meal is the staple goya chanpuru, an Okinawanian stir-fried dish with bitter melon, egg and tofu. Our side dish is a salad composed with summer vegetables and glass noodles. The second side dish contains chopped chicken breast and pickled plum for our daily intake of minerals. The ingredients used in this Washoku meal includes all forms of nutrients: rice for carbohydrates; egg, tofu, and chicken for protein; plums for minerals; summer vegetables for vitamins; and fat from glass noodles. As such, you can see how the traditional style of one soup and three dishes is healthy for us. Moreover, the incorporation of summer ingredients would really allow us to taste the season!
Actually, nutrition balance is not the only reason behind Washoku’s healthy nature. In Japan, chefs have developed cutting edge techniques to completely bring out the flavours of each ingredient. Although it differs from region to region, oil, sugar, and salt were not commonly used as condiments for cooking back in the days. Oil especially, was a luxurious item and was only used to light lamps. The latter half of the 19th century brought western cuisine influences to Japan where they started to implement the use of oil for cooking.
< https://japanese.hix05.com/Folklore/Food/food06.oil.html >
Let me introduce three traditional meals from the Chiba, Tokyo, and Saitama prefectures while highlighting the use of Japanese fish. In Chiba, we have “futomaki sushi” that is usually eaten during funerals and weddings. In Tokyo, we have Japan’s symbolic dish – sushi. Meanwhile in Saitama, we eat eels on the day of the ox. None of these traditional dishes incorporate the use of oil as they were not really available back in the days. Originally, sushi was actually called “box sushi” as it was preserved by fermenting fish with rice in a square wooden box. It was not until the Edo period that vinegar was added to the cooking process and sushi took on its present form.
In addition, the Japanese climate and environment provides a great influence that makes Japanese food healthy. The Japanese archipelago stretches from the North all the way to the South, and is exposed to all four natural seasons while surrounded by sea in all directions. As a result of this natural environment, we can harvest fresh seafood, vegetables, and fruits exclusive only to Japan. Different seasonal ingredients are also used in each region, which has given rise to unique local cuisine styles.
< https://www.jice.or.jp/knowledge/japan/commentary01 >
The diversity of nature in turn influences the religious beliefs of Japanese people. The Japanese have a reverence for nature and a sense of “nature worship” – a belief in natural objects and phenomena which are then deified and worshipped. In connection to this, there are many annual events linked to the seasons and have a close relationship with food culture. For example, on New Year’s Day, we welcome the New Year’s God, who is believed to bring happiness, prosperity and a good harvest. The staple food for these celebrations is glutinous rice, due to the belief in rice cultivation. This glutinous rice is steamed, mashed and kneaded to make mochi, an offering to the New Year’s gods; it is decorated with two layers of round mochi, one large and one small, in the shape of a round mirror.
On New Year’s Day, we prepare “Osechi”, an offering to the New Year’s God. A five-tiered square container “jubako” contains dishes made from lucky charms to bring prosperity to the family. This dish is full of the characteristics of Japanese food, in that the quantity of each dish is not large, but the number of dishes is high. Some of the most important dishes in Osechi include the red and white kamaboko (fish cake), which is a symbol of good luck (with red to ward off evil and white for purity); date rolls that are shaped like the scrolls found in old Japanese books and a symbol of knowledge and culture; chestnut Kintoons that are golden in colour and symbolises good luck and wealth. There are also many other side dishes with the wishes of prosperity of descendants and longevity. As you can see, each of the dishes in Osechi has its own congratulatory meaning, but the wide variety of ingredients, including seafood and wild vegetables, makes it a nutritious and well-balanced dish.
I hope that having read this article you have learned some new things about Japanese cuisine. Feel free to try these healthy dishes if you are interested!