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A Guide to Traditional Japanese Food

Japan produces some of the most delicious (and healthy) food in the world. It’s famous for sushi restaurants and ramen shops that have spread around the world. While these shops and restaurants offer fantastic dishes, Japan has much more to offer, and a lot of the country’s tastiest dishes fly under the radar. 

What Do Japanese People Eat?

Traditional Japanese food is based on fresh, local ingredients, with minimal processing, highlighting instead the natural flavors of the food. Fish, rice, noodles, and vegetables are some staples that make up the basis of most Japanese diets. Seafood, one of the main sources of protein in Japan, is easily accessible. Tofu, fruits, seaweed, eggs, and meat are also common but less prominent components of Japanese cuisine.

a chef prepares raw fish.

Maybe the best part of Japanese cuisine is that it’s both delicious and healthy. Fish and vegetables, both staples in Japanese cuisine, are rich in nutrients give other health benefits, and Japanese foods are generally prepared without many added sugars and fats. Meals also tend to include a wide variety of foods with a small amount of each dish, a natural way to maintain a balanced diet. A well-rounded diet might be one of the reasons Japan has one of the longest life expectancies in the world!

There are many styles of cooking in Japan. Fish, for instance, can be served raw, grilled, boiled, or fried. While Japanese cooking tends to focus on natural flavors and simplicity, it offers a wide variety of rich flavors.

Japan also has a history of adapting foods from foreign countries. For example, ramen and curry are both deeply rooted in Japanese cuisine but actually originated in China and India. 

How to Make the Basics in Japanese Cuisine

Some dishes are essential components for most meals in Japan. A typical meal includes rice, a main protein, miso soup, pickled vegetables, and another vegetable side. Try these staples to get started with Japanese cooking:

  • Rice: Plain, steamed rice is a main element in most Japanese meals. For authentic rice, use Japanese short-grain rice. First, rinse the rice until the water runs clear. Then drain the rice and cook it with a 1:1.2 ratio of rice to water. That is, use the same amounts of rice and water, plus a little extra water. Then you can cook it in a rice cooker or on low heat on the stove. 
  • Miso Soup: This soup is another primary dish in Japanese cuisine. It’s made using miso (a fermented soybean paste) and dashi (fish) stock, with additional ingredients according to preference.
  • Tsukemono: Tsukemono, or pickled vegetables, are served as a side with most meals in Japan.
miso soup, a popular Japanese breakfast food

How to Make a Traditional Japanese Breakfast

In Japan, breakfast isn’t all that different from lunch and dinner. Breakfast often includes rice, fish or another protein, miso soup, and sides just like any other meal! What sets breakfast apart are the portion sizes and the lighter preparations. Breakfast tends to be smaller than lunch or dinner and isn’t typically fried, where lunch and dinner might include fried foods. 

Because breakfast is so similar to lunch and dinner in Japan, families often reheat rice or miso soup from the previous day to save time in the mornings. Store-bought pickled vegetables, natto, and other toppings for rice are also time-savers.

Natto, a traditional breakfast food in Japan

Try these dishes often found in traditional Japanese breakfasts:

  • Yakizakana: Grilled or broiled fish, called yakizakana, makes a great breakfast, but it can also be served with lunch or dinner.
  • Natto Rice Bowl: A common breakfast in Japan features a bowl of rice with natto, soy sauce, and either fried or raw eggs. Natto is made with fermented soybeans, and it can be found in the refrigerated section in Japanese or Asian markets. 
  • Nori: Dried and seasoned seaweed, called nori, is commonly enjoyed over a bowl of rice for breakfast. You can find nori in Japanese or Asian markets.
  • Oyakodon: Literally meaning “parent-child bowl,” oyakodon is a bowl of rice served with chicken and eggs. 
  • Ozoni: Ozoni, a miso-based rice-cake soup, is associated with New Year’s and often reserved for a holiday breakfast.
  • Tamagoyaki: A rolled omelet called tamagoyaki makes a delicious and hearty breakfast.
  • Omurice: The omurice is an omelet stuffed with rice and meat. The rice filling is typically flavored with ketchup and Worcerstershire sauce.
omurice, a traditional japenese breakfast.

How to Make a Traditional Japanese Lunch

Lunch breaks in Japan tend to be short, so the priority for lunch options is speed. Many people grab a quick bite at a restaurant or from a street vendor or pack a traditional bento box.

  • Bento Boxes: Bento boxes are Japanese lunch boxes. They’re cheap, and they offer a lot of variety. Bento boxes are made with small compartments that can be filled with rice, meat, vegetables, or anything you’d like.
  • Onigiri: Onigiri are seasoned rice balls wrapped in nori (seaweed) and filled with your choice of meat or vegetable.
bento, a traditional japanese lunch box
  • Ramen: Though originally a Chinese dish, ramen in Japan is often made with miso, salt, soy sauce, noodles, pork, and eggs.
  • Soba: Soba noodles are made with buckwheat and can be a quick, easy meal to whip up, hence their popularity in fast Japanese lunches.
  • Gyudon: As another fast and easy dish, gyudon beef bowls are a popular choice for lunch in Japan. They feature thinly sliced beef, rice, and onion.
  • Takoyaki: This famous street food is a round dumpling with an octopus filling.
  • Corn Soup: Served warm or chilled, corn soup makes a great summer meal.
ramen, a traditional japanese dinner food

How to Make a Traditional Japanese Dinner

Dinner is the main meal of the day in Japan. As with lunch and breakfast, typical meals often include rice, a main protein, miso soup, and vegetable sides. These are some popular options you might find:

  • Tonkatsu: This pork cutlet is served breaded and fried alongside a bed of shredded cabbage.
  • Tempura: This is a light and crispy batter used in Japan for frying vegetables and seafood. It’s easy to make and delicious, so it’s been popularized in other cuisines as well.
  • Hambagu: Meatloaf made its way to Japan, where it was adapted to fit Japanese cuisine. The result is hambagu, the Japanese hamburger steak.
  • Sushi: Sushi is one of the most popular Japanese dishes around the world. Try your hand at making your own sushi, which traditionally features rice, nori (dried seaweed), vegetables, and raw fish.
  • Okonomiyaki: This savory pancake is made with batter, cabbage, and pork pieces, with Worcerstershire sauce, mayonnaise, and bonito fish flakes as toppings. 
a plate of okonomiyaki, a traditional japanese dinner
  • Tanuki Udon: Thick udon noodles and dashi stock serve as the basis for this soup, which is then garnished with crispy tempura flakes.
  • Nikujaga: Beef and potato stew is found in various forms all over the world, including Japan in the form of nikujaga.
  • Sukiyaki: This popular Japanese version of hot pot calls for cooking a variety of meats and vegetables together in a hot broth typically made with sugar and soy sauce.
sukiyaki, a japanese dinner, being prepared

Try Your Hand at Preparing Traditional Japanese Foods

Food allows people to explore and experience cultures around the world, making it possible to appreciate what each has to offer. Even if you’ve never been to Japan, you can have a small taste of Japanese culture right in your kitchen (although visiting Japan would be even better). If you have Japanese heritage, traditional Japanese food offers the unique opportunity to connect with your cultural heritage in a way that uses all the senses. 

Are you inspired to try some of these mouth-watering recipes? Try taking pictures and making notes about your favorite ones to save and share with friends and family. Did this experience help you relate to your ancestors or Japanese culture?

Source: Family Search

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