Japanese cuisine has developed over the centuries as a result of many political and social changes. The cuisine eventually changed with the advent of the Medieval age which ushered in a shedding of elitism with the age of Shogun rule. In the early modern era massive changes took place that introduced non-Japanese cultures, most notably Western culture, to Japan.
The modern term "Japanese cuisine" (nihon ryōri, 日本料理 or washoku, 和食) means traditional-style Japanese food, similar to what already existed before the end of national seclusion in 1868. In a broader sense of the word, it could also include foods whose ingredients or cooking methods were subsequently introduced from abroad, but which have been developed by Japanese who made them their own. Japanese cuisine is known for its emphasis on seasonality of food (旬, shun), quality of ingredients and presentation.
During the Kofun period some of Japanese civilization came from Korea which heavily influenced Japan. As such Buddhism was a large influence on Japanese culture. After the 6th century, Japan directly pursued the imitation of Chinese culture under the Tang dynasty. It was this influence that marked the taboos on the consumption of meat in Japan. In 675 A.D. Emperor Temmu decreed a prohibition on the consumption of cattle, horse, dogs, monkeys, and chickens during the 4th-9th months of the year, to break the law would mean a death sentence. Monkey was eaten prior to this time, but was eaten more in a ritualistic style for medicinal purposes. Chicken were often domesticated as pets, while cattle and horses were rare and treated as such. A cow or horse would be ritually sacrificed on the first day of rice paddy cultivation , a ritual introduced from China. Emperor Temmu's decree however did not ban the consumption of deer or wild boar, which were important to the Japanese diet at that time.
The 8th century saw many additional decrees made by emperors and empresses on the ban of killing of any animals. In 752 A.D., Empress Kōken decreed a ban even on fishing, but made a promise that adequate rice would be given to fishermen whose livelihood would otherwise been destroyed. In 927 A.D. regulations were enacted that stated that any government official or member of nobility that ate meat, was deemed unclean for three days and could not participate in Shinto observances at the imperial court.
It was also the influence of Chinese cultures that brought the chopsticks to Japan early in this period. Chopsticks at this time were used by nobility at banquets, they were not used as everyday utensils however, as hands were still commonly used to eat with. Metal spoons were also used during the 8th-9th century, but only by the nobility. Dining tables were also introduced to Japan at this time. Commoners used a legless table called a oshiki, while nobility used a lacquered table with legs called a zen. Each person used their own table. Lavish banquets for the nobility would have multiple tables for each individual based upon the number of dishes presented.
Upon the decline of the Tang dynasty in the 9th century, Japan made a move toward its individuality in culture and cuisine. The abandonment of the spoon as a dining utensil is one of the marked differences and commoners were now eating with chopsticks as well. Trade continued with Korea and China, but influence en mass from outside of Japan would not be seen again until the 19th century. The 10th and 11th centuries marked a level of refinement of cooking and etiquette found in the culture of the Heian nobility. Court chefs would prepare many of the vegetables sent as tax from the countryside. Court banquets were common and lavish, garb for nobility during these events remained in the Chinese style which differentiated them from the plain clothes of commoners.
The dishes consumed post 9th century included grilled fish and meat (yakimono), simmered food (nimono), steamed foods (mushimono), soups made from chopped vegetables, fish or meat (atsumono), jellied fish (nikogori) simmered with seasonings, sliced raw fish served in a vinegar sauce (namasu), vegetables, seaweed or fish in a strong dressing (aemono), and pickled vegetables (tsukemono) that were cured in salt to cause lactic fermentation. Oil and fat were avoided almost universally in cooking. Sesame oil was used, but rarely as it was of great expense to produce.
Documents from the Heian nobility note that fish and wild fowl were common on the table along with vegetables. Their banquet settings consisted of a bowl of rice and soup, long with chopsticks and a spoon along with three seasonings which were salt, vinegar and hishio which was a fermentation of soybeans, rice, wheat, sake and salt. A fourth plate was present for mixing the seasonings to desired flavor for dipping their food into. The four types of food present at a banquet consisted of dried foods (himono), fresh foods (namamono), fermented or dressed food (kubotsuki), and desserts (kashi). Dried fish and fowl were thinly sliced (e.g. salted salmon, pheasant, steamed and dried abalone, dried and grilled octopus), while fresh fish, shellfish and fowl were sliced raw in vinegar sauce or grilled (e.g. carp, sea bream, salmon, trout, pheasant). Kubotsuki consisted of small balls of fermented sea squirt, fish or giblets along with jellyfish and aemono. Desserts would have included Chinese cakes, and a variety of fruits and nuts including pine nuts, dried chestnuts, acorns, jujube, pomegranate, peach, apricot, persimmon and citrus. The meal would be ended with sake.
Minamoto Yoritomo, the first shogun punished other samurai who followed the prior showy banquet style of the nobility. The shogun banquet, called ōban was attended by military leaders from the provinces. The ōban originally referred to a luncheon on festival days attended by soldiers and guards during the Heian period and as such was attached to the warrior class. The menu usually consisted of dried abalone, jellyfish aemono, pickled ume called umeboshi, salt and vinegar for seasoning and rice. Later in the period, the honzen ryōri banquet became popularized.
The cuisine of the samurai came distinctly from their peasant roots. The meals prepared emphasized simplicity while being substantial. Specifically the cuisine avoided refinement, ceremony and luxury and a shedding of all further Chinese influence. One specific example is the change from wearing traditional Chinese garb to a distinct clothing style that combined the simplistic clothing of the common people. This style evolved into the kimono by the end of the Middle Ages.
The Buddhist vegetarian philosophy strengthened during the Kamakura period as it began to spread to the peasants. Those who were involved in the trade of slaughtering animals for food and/or leather came under discrimination. Those practicing this trade were considered in opposition to the Buddhist philosophy of not taking life, while under the Shinto philosophy they were considered defiled. This discrimination eventually intensified to the creation of a separate caste.
A standard Japanese meal generally consists of several different okazu accompanying a bowl of cooked white Japanese rice (gohan, 御飯), a bowl of soup and some tsukemono (pickles). The most standard meal comprises three okazu and is termed ichijū-sansai (一汁三菜; "one soup, three sides"). Different cooking techniques are applied to each of the three okazu; they may be raw (sashimi), grilled, simmered (sometimes called boiled), steamed, deep-fried, vinegared, or dressed. This Japanese view of a meal is reflected in the organization of Japanese cookbooks, organized into chapters according to cooking techniques as opposed to particular ingredients (e.g. meat, seafood). There may also be chapters devoted to soups, sushi, rice, noodles, and sweets.
As Japan is an island nation its people eat much seafood. Meat-eating has been rare until fairly recently due to restrictions placed upon it by Buddhism. However, strictly vegetarian food is rare since even vegetable dishes are flavored with the ubiquitous dashi stock, usually made with katsuobushi (dried skipjack tuna flakes). An exception is shōjin ryōri (精進料理), vegetarian dishes developed by Buddhist monks. However, the advertised shōjin ryōri usually available at public eating places includes some non-vegetarian elements.
Noodles are an essential part of Japanese cuisine usually as an alternative to a rice-based meal. Soba (thin, grayish-brown noodles containing buckwheat flour) and udon (thick wheat noodles) are the main traditional noodles and are served hot or cold with soy-dashi flavorings. Chinese-style wheat noodles served in a meat stock broth known as ramen have become extremely popular over the last century.
Rice (gohan, 御飯)
The rice most often served in Japan is of the short-grain Japonica variety. In a traditional Japanese setting (e.g. served in a conic bowl) it is known as gohan (御飯) or meshi (飯, generally only males say meshi). In western-influenced dishes, where rice is often served on the plate (such as curries) it is called raisu (ライス, after the English word "rice".) Other rice dishes include Kayu or Okayu, donburi (どんぶり, big bowl) and Sushi
Noodles (men-rui, 麺類)
Often takes the place of rice in a meal. However, the Japanese appetite for rice is so strong that many restaurants serve noodles-rice combination sets.
Bread (pan, パン)
Bread (the word "pan" is derived from the Portuguese Pão) is not native to Japan and is not considered traditional Japanese food, but since its introduction in the 19th century it has become common.
Many yōshoku items from that time have been adapted to a degree that they are now considered Japanese and are an integral part of any Japanese family menu. Many are served alongside rice and miso soup, and eaten with chopsticks. Yet, due to their origins these are still categorized as yōshoku as opposed to the more traditional washoku (和食), lit. Japanese cuisine.
While "local" ingredients are now available nationwide, and some originally regional dishes such as okonomiyaki and Edo-style sushi have spread throughout Japan and is no longer considered as such, many regional specialties survive to this day, with some new ones still being created.
Regionalism is also apparent in many dishes which are served throughout Japan such as zoni soup. For example, the dashi-based broth for serving udon noodles is heavy on dark soy sauce, similar to soba broth in eastern Japan, while in western Japan the broth relies more on the complex dashi-flavoring, with a hint of light soy sauce.
Many types of Seafood are part of Japanese cuisine. Only the most common are in the list below. Includes freshwater varieties:
Traditionally, the rice bowl is placed on the left and the soup bowl on the right. Behind these, each okazu is served on its own individual plate. Based on the standard three okazu formula, behind the rice and soup are three flat plates to hold the three okazu; one to far back left, one at far back right, and one in the center. Pickled vegetables are often served on the side but are not counted as part of the three okazu.
In some regions every 1st and 15th day of the month people eat a mixture of rice and azuki (azuki meshi (小豆飯), see Sekihan).
Foods from other countries vary in their authenticity. Many Italian dishes are changed, however Japanese chefs have preserved many Italian seafood oriented dishes that are forgotten in other countries. These include pasta with prawns, lobster (an Italian specialty known in Italy as pasta all'aragosta), crab (another Italian specialty, in Japan is served with a different species of crab) and pasta with sea urchin sauce (the sea urchin pasta being a specialty of the Puglia region of Italy). Japanese rice is usually used instead of indigenous rice (in dishes from Thailand, India, Italy, etc.) or including it in dishes when originally it would not be eaten with it (in dishes like hamburger, steak, omelettes, etc.).
In Tokyo, it is quite easy to find restaurants serving authentic foreign cuisine. However, in most of the country, in many ways, the variety of imported food is limited; for example, it is rare to find pasta that is not of the spaghetti or macaroni varieties in supermarkets or restaurants; bread is very rarely of any variety but white; and varieties of imported cereal are also very limited, usually either frosted or chocolate flavored. "Italian restaurants" also tend to only have pizza and pasta on their menus. Interestingly for Italian visitors, the cheaper Italian places in Japan tend to serve the American version of Italian foods, which often vary wildly from the versions found in Italy or in other countries.
Hamburger chains include locations such as McDonald's, First Kitchen, Lotteria and MOS Burger. Many chains developed uniquely Japanese versions of American fast food such as teriyaki burger, kinpira rice burger, green-tea milkshakes and fried shrimp burgers.
Curry, which was originally imported from India into Japan by the British in the Meiji era was first adopted by the Imperial Japanese Army, eventually leading to its presence in Japanese cuisine. Japanese versions of Curry powder and the Japanese sauces create through its use can be found in many foods, among them curry udon, curry bread, and curry tonkatsu.
Japanese cuisine is an integral part of food culture in Hawaii in the United States. Popular items are sushi, sashimi and teriyaki. Kamaboko, known locally as fish cake, is a staple of saimin, a noodle soup invented in and extremely popular in the state. Sushi, long regarded as quite exotic in the west until the 1970s, has become a popular health food in parts of North America, Western Europe and Asia.
In Mexico, certain Japanese restaurants have created what is known as "Sushi Mexicano", in which spicy sauces and ingredients accompany the dish, or are integrated in Sushi rolls. The habanero and serrano chiles have become nearly standard and are referred to as chiles toreados, as they are fried, diced and tossed over a dish upon request.
Kamaboko is popular street food in South Korea, where it is known as eomuk (어묵) or odeng (오뎅). It is usually boiled on a skewer in broth and often sold in street restaurant carts where they can be eaten with alcoholic beverage, especially soju. Taiwan has adapted many Japanese food items. Taiwanese versions of tempura, only barely resembling the original, is known as 天婦羅 or 甜不辣 (tianbula) and is a famous staple in night markets in northern Taiwan. Taiwanese versions of oden is known locally as Oren (黑輪) or 關東煮 Kwantung stew, after the Kansai name for the dish. Skewered versions of oden is also a common convenience store item in Shanghai where it is known as aódiǎn (熬点).
Ramen, of Chinese origin, has been exported back to China in recent years where it is known as ri shi la mian (日式拉麵, "Japanese lamian"). Popular Japanese ramen chains serve ramen alongside distinctly Japanese dishes such as tempura and yakitori, something which would be seen as odd in Japan. Ramen has also gained popularity in some western cities in part due to the success of the Wagamama chain, although they are quite different from Japanese ramen. Instant ramen, invented in 1958, has now spread throughout the world, most of them barely resembling Japanese ramen.