The food of Japan is steeped in tradition. A celebration of the freshest seasonal ingredients, colours and textures, authentic Japanese cuisine is known as ‘washoku’. The first kanji character, ‘wa’, means Japan or Japanese, and also stands for harmony, while the second character, ‘shoku’, means food or to eat.
Washoku is so highly regarded beyond Japan that it was registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013. UNESCO describes washoku as “a social practice based on a set of skills, knowledge and traditions related to the production, processing, preparation and consumption of food. It is associated with an essential spirit of respect for nature that is closely related to the sustainable use of natural resources.”
At its heart, washoku showcases natural, locally sourced ingredients when they are in season, such as fish, rice, vegetables, fruits and wild plants. Japan is blessed with four distinct seasons, and Japanese people value the pure, natural taste of in-season ingredients so highly that you’ll often see them ‘snacking’ on simply prepared fruits, nuts and vegetables, such as roasted sweet potatoes and chestnuts in autumn.
A traditional washoku meal comprises four key elements: a bowl of steamed rice, a small dish of konomono (pickled seasonal vegetables), ju (soup containing vegetables, tofu and miso) and three cooked dishes, such as fish, tofu and vegetables.
Long before ‘umami’ became a buzz word in Western kitchens, Japanese cuisine has balanced five flavours: salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami, which is best described as a ‘savoury’ flavour.
It’s not just the food or the flavours that define washoku cuisine. The Japanese style of hospitality is also unique. You may have heard the kitchen team and waiters call out “Itadakimasu!” as you enter your favourite Japanese restaurant, but do you know what it means? This cheerful exclamation gives thanks for nature’s bounty and the meal you are about to enjoy. Next time you hear this phrase, take a moment to thank the farmers and cooks who have made your food. And be sure to brush up on your Japanese table manners with this simple guide.
While washoku is firmly based in the traditions of the past, it is just as relevant today. Our resident Japanese cooking expert, Kin-San, has even been enlisted to teach washoku classes in Melbourne and Brisbane, proving that these ancient techniques and traditions are valued by today’s up-and-coming chefs.
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