The Story of Japanese Cuisine

From the lecture series Food: A Cultural Culinary History

By Ken Albala, Ph.D., University of the Pacific

Japan is a very different, very rapidly changing nation—especially in terms of its food. Even sushi in its original form used to be very different from what it is today.

Japanese food served on the table.
(Image: hijodeponggol/Shutterstock)

Outside Influences of Japanese Cuisine

Put out of your minds several preconceived notions about what Japanese cuisine is. Don’t think about a Japanese steakhouse at all—beef was really only introduced in the last two centuries or so. The Japanese are crazy about it today and you can buy that wonderfully expensive Kobe or wagyū where they feed the animals beer and give them daily massages to evenly distribute the fat, but that’s really a modern and Western thing.

Even tempura: The word itself is Portuguese. It refers to the time or rather quatuor tempora or ember days, which was the fast when you couldn’t eat meat so they ate fish, and the Portuguese typically would fry their fish in batter.

The Portuguese introduced it in the 16th century, and tempora remained even long after they were kicked out, along with a whole slew of other foods introduced by the Portuguese: kasutera, which is a Castilla, a kind of yellow sponge cake from Spain (Castile); or konpeito, which are confections (candies); karumera, or caramels.

This is a transcript from the video series A Cultural Culinary History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Even soy sauce was only introduced in the last century or so. It is a Chinese invention that the Japanese seem to have perfected—as they do many things nowadays—but it is one example of the many things that came over in the past few hundred years.

Sapporo’s a great beer, but it is influenced by German people. And influences go both ways. You may be surprised to learn the Japanese are now the nation on earth with the highest per capita consumption of mayonnaise. Japan’s culture is a very different, very rapidly changing place today, especially in terms of food.

The most important of these is rice, which only arrived in Japan at the end of the Neolithic Period, about 2,400 years ago with immigrants that came from the mainland.

Traditional Japan, during the era of the Shoguns; the Edo Period, from 1603–1867. But first, some background so you don’t get the impression that Japan was always so isolated.

Many of Japan’s cultural and even culinary traditions came from China and from Korea especially. The most important of these is rice, which only arrived in Japan at the end of the Neolithic Period, about 2,400 years ago, with immigrants that came from the mainland.

Before that, in the Jomon Era, the Japanese were still hunters and gatherers. The original inhabitants (Ainu) were Caucasian; they had long beards and very light-colored hair. Their descendants actually still exist in very small numbers, and probably most of them are of mixed descent, but some Ainu still live in the mountains and they’re said to eat bears.

Asiatic peoples came later from the continent and they brought with them rice and metal tools; and then suddenly, like everywhere else, the population rose.

Learn more about the transition to agriculture 

Rice and Noodles in Japanese Cuisine

The variety of rice introduced was short-grained, sticky, and it is relatively sweet. To this day, the Japanese don’t really eat long-grain rice. Much of their cuisine is based on the tactile quality of the rice that they use and the fact that it sticks together—you can pick it up with a chopstick.

Japanese rice
The rice varieties used in Japanese cuisine are sticky so it can be picked up with a chopstick (Image: Nishihama/Shutterstock)

The respect and reverence afforded to rice is so great that it is not flavored or seasoned with spices or sauces, it is always white and boiled. Other foods may be added on top of rice, but the rice should be pure and bland to start with. This is a kind of respect for the natural flavor and aroma that the rice has on its own, as nature made it.

The only traditional preparation that really alters the rice dramatically is Mochi, little rice cakes that are made by pounding steamed glutinous rice with these huge hammers. The idea here is you’re concentrating the pure spirit of the rice and actually making it purer, it is an intensification, and Mochi is one of those things that you consume on New Year’s, it is a very important festival.

Much the same can be said about sake. Even though it is thought of as a corruption of rice, it is considered raising to a finer and more spiritual level. Sake plays a very important role in religious festivals: It is the food of the gods in the Shinto religion—it  is essential in the coronation of the emperor.

Japanese noodles: ramen, udon, and soba.
Clockwise, ramen, udon and soba noodles. (Image: Ducka_house/Shutterstock)

Rice is, indisputably, the central staple, even made into noodles which is another technology introduced from China in the 8th century. Later noodles made from flour were introduced (the udon—popular in Western Japan), and then buckwheat (soba) was introduced in the 14th and 15th century. They were especially popular in the 17th century, the Edo Period in Eastern Japan (or now Tokyo). Ramen are of course a much more recent invention (proper, fresh ramen noodles, not the instant noodles you may be familiar with). Starch was usually rice or noodles, which form the substructure of Japanese cuisine.

Learn more about the traditions of vegetarianism in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism

Fish Dishes in Japan

What else was eaten? This entire cuisine was based on fish. Only strict Buddhist monks avoided fish. Here, the topography works perfectly to their advantage.

Japan’s surrounded by water; you’re never very far from the sea. The ideal became fish as fresh as could possibly be found—unlike Europe where most of the fish was salted, pickled, or preserved in some way.

Sushi Set nigiri and sushi rolls with tea served on gray stone
Sushi started out as a way to preserve fish for several years (Image: Natalia Lisovskaya/Shutterstock)

In Europe, only the very wealthy could afford fresh fish. In Japan, even far from the coast, people wanted fresh fish, no matter if it had to be freshwater fish. The simpler the better; there’s a saying:

“Eat it raw first, then grill it, and boil it as a last resort.” The idea is you don’t want to ruin the flavor of the fish. The raw fish, of course, was cut in thin slices (namasu); that’s always been eaten in Japan.

The practice of dipping what we now call sashimi in soy sauce with wasabi is really only a 17th-century invention; and the act serves to mask the pure flavors of the fish, especially if you’re talking about something very delicate.

Sushi, in its original form, started as a way to preserve the fish for several years. Click To Tweet

Sushi, in its original form Nare-Zushi, was very different from what it is today. It started out as actually a way to preserve the fish for several years.

A bite-sized piece, or sometimes what looks like a little goldfish, was salted and then rolled in rice flavored with vinegar, and then it is left to cure.After it is preserved, the soured bacterially-attacked decomposed rice was wiped off and then the fish was preserved and you could eat it.

Learn more about how the Italian Renaissance brought a new aesthetic approach to cookery

In the 15th century, there a developed a much quicker way to ferment the fish, and then you could actually eat the rice, too; and after that, unfermented sushi with raw fish came in the Edo Period.

In the 18th century, you started getting people competing with these very interesting, novel ways of doing things. You started getting hand-rolled Nigiri sushi and it is basically served at a kind of restaurant as a kind of fast food.

Staples of Japanese Cuisine

There are also a slew of vegetables: Daikon radish is probably the one most familiar to you, cut into impossibly thin sticks. If you’ve seen someone do this, it is absolutely amazing.

White daikon radish
Daikon radish (Image: nada54/Shutterstock)

The Daikon is sliced with a long knife and as it is sliced, it is turned, and so you get this long, thin ribbon cut from the root with this very narrow blade, and then that’s sliced and cut into tiny little sticks. Daikon can also be pickled yellow.

Pickling is really popular in traditional Japanese cooking, but it is usually very simple salt fermentation; it is not vinegar cured with dill and garlic like we’d do a cucumber pickle. The pickles come at the end of a Japanese meal, and they contrast with the blander flavor of rice.

Start with mild flavors and you build up to stronger ones. The practice in Japanese restaurants in the U.S. is to start with miso soup because Americans want to drink soup at the beginning. That really makes no sense in Japanese cuisine; in Japan, soup always comes at the end because it has a very, very strong flavor.

Our practice of starting with sour pickles as an appetizer also makes little sense. Other important vegetables are gourds, dried and cut into long strips; mushrooms, like the shiitake (a unique Japanese cultivar) and matsutake.

Learn more about the traditional Japanese reverence for nature as reflected in their respect for the natural flavors

Soybeans are also clearly central. They’re eaten boiled and cold as edamame. They’re made into tofu, which was introduced from China from about the 11th century and, for Buddhist monks, serve as a wonderful source of protein.

soy beans, yellow miso and red miso paste.
Red miso and yellow miso paste made from soy beans are used as a universal flavoring in Japanese cuisine (Image:  jazz3311/Shutterstock)

Soy’s also made into miso paste, which is a fermented, storable seasoning for boiled dishes, for soup, and it is really kind of a universal flavoring also. It is made by boiling and mashing the beans and then introducing a fungus that grows on rice grains (it is Aspergillus oryzae, called koji in Japanese) and salt, and you just leave it and let it mature for about a year or so.

There are dozens of different types, some of them really, really expensive, some only made by some local craftsmen in one locality. The Japanese appreciate the subtle differences in miso—between yellow and white miso, and red miso—sort of the way Europeans obsess over wine.

Some Miso are considered very bland and good for children, and then there are these really dark, pungent, salty ones. The Japanese have been making miso since the 8th century.

The Japanese have a theory of five basic flavors: salty, sour, sweet, bitter, AND umami. Click To Tweet

Of course, there’s also shoyu (as we call it, soy sauce). That’s a relative newcomer; it began to be made on a commercial level in the 16th century. Obviously, today it is the most important seasoning; it goes into about 70 percent of all Japanese dishes. Along with that, there’s mirin—a sweetened kind of sake, and then all sorts of sauces made with soy, vinegar, citrus (like ponzu).

The Japanese have a theory of five basic flavors: There’s not just salty, sour, sweet, and bitter, but there’s another one called umami that might be translated as “meaty” or “savory” or “mushroom flavor.” Glutamates is what causes it; but you find it in a whole range of foods, especially soy sauce.

Common Questions About Japanese Cuisine

Q: What are some traditional Japanese foods?

The Japanese love sushi and sashimi, of course. Ramen is hugely traditional and popular, as well as miso soup.

Q: Do the Japanese leave food on the plate as a sign of hunger like the Chinese?

No. In Japan it is largely considered rude to the chef or host to leave food behind on the plate.

Q: Does Japan have a national dish?

Two dishes are considered the national foods of Japan: sushi and rice with curry.

Q: What is a traditional Japanese breakfast?

A traditional Japanese breakfast always consists of rice and miso soup. Generally there will be some type of protein and perhaps a few side dishes.

This article was updated on 9/6/2019

Keep Reading
The Great Courses Learning Paths—Food and Wine Appreciation
Food “Columbusing” and the Debate Over Cultural Appropriation
Fast Food Continues 30-Year Decline in Nutritional Value