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Washoku - Japanese Cuisine

The Transformation of Japanese Cuisine in Changing Seasons

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In 2013, washoku (Japanese cuisine) was registered in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list as a unique culinary culture that has been handed down from generation to generation.

Japan’s area extends from north to south in a long mountainous landmass with few flat plains. Blessed with vibrant nature and distinctly changing seasons, Japan’s cuisine relishes the natural flavours of fresh produce, while refining the cooking techniques best suited for each ingredient.

Low in animal fat, Japanese cuisine features the ingenious use of umami flavour in cooking. This savoury flavour is derived from seafood and plants and is considered one of the five basic tastes along with sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness. Washoku meals often consist of 'one soup and three dishes' (ichiju-sansai), providing nutritional balance.  Japanese cuisine embodies seasonal delicacies that visibly appear on dishes, vessels, and also in the way foods are arranged or decorated. Osechi ryori (ryori simply meaning “cooking”), refers to Japanese New Year dishes, and mochi (rice cakes) are very closely associated with the year's end. For the Japanese, food is not merely a nutrition source, but something that has dialogues with nature, ingenuity handed down for generations, and is at the very heart of their culture.


Tableware and presentation

The essence of the enjoyment of washoku is rooted in people’s reflection upon, reverence for, and relish of natural bounty. For instance, a traditional Japanese full-course meal or kaiseki is served with dishes decorated with seasonal flowers that have bloomed that day or food placed on fresh green leaves or pottery crafted with patterns unique to the source area of the ingredients. To some extent, they signify the transient nature of all living things and the respectful use of the ingredients.

Order of dishes

Kaiseki ryori originally started as a meal served before a formal tea ceremony that the host prepared for the guests. More popularized in today’s Japan, modern kaiseki refers to a social gathering or celebration and is tailored to enjoy sake drinking. It involves the serving of a full-course meal of elegant and refined Japanese dishes. For instance, dishes in a modern kaiseki ryori course are served one by one in the following order: sakizuke (appetizer), oshinogi (middle dish), wanmono (soup or boiled dish), mukouzuke (sashimi or raw fish), yakimono (grilled dish), takiawase (stew), rice and konomono (pickles), and lastly kanmi (sweets).

Dashi stock

From soup to noodles and stews, the foundation of Japanese is the umami of soup stock. It is said that the salt content of Japanese food is modest because umami makes it taste delicious enough without the addition of lots of extra salt. The typical soup stock is made from dried kelp (kombu) and bonito flakes (thin shavings of dried, smoked bonito fish), but depending on the region and cuisine, dried sardines, dried flying fish or dried shiitake mushrooms can also be used.

Teishoku set meals

Teishoku is a set meal served on a single tray with a main dish, miso soup, pickles, and side dishes. It is based on the typical ichiju sansai style of home-cooked foods as a way of offering a well-balanced diet. While a popular teishoku menu could sashimi (raw fish), karaage (deep-fried chicken), yakizakana (grilled fish), and yakiniku (grilled meat), an almost infinite variety of teishoku dishes are continuously invented offering a flexible combination of different foods to enjoy.

Yakitori grilled chicken

Yakitori is bite-sized pieces of chicken on skewers that are grilled over an open fire, then seasoned with salt or savory and sweet tare sauce. It is one of the most popular dishes that people enjoy regularly. In addition to the thigh and breast, yakitori consists of all parts of a chicken including the kawa (skin), bonjiri (tail), nankotsu (cartilage), hatsu (heart), reba (liver), sunagimo (gizzard), and chochin (ovary and young egg yolk). The origins of Japanese yakitori culture date back to the Heian period (794-1185).

Bento boxes

Bento culture developed in Japan from the practice of people, when away from home, eating a pre-made 'meal to go' carried in a single-portion container filled with rice and accompanying dishes in a rich array of colors. Japan historically opted for cultivating short-grain rice as its staple food, which is sticky enough to be shaped to fit in a lunch box. This is said to be most likely why various types of bento evolved. The only bento-making rule is as simple as putting ingredients into a container. Fill it with any favorites and nutritious items that are pleasing to the eye, such as a Japanese omelet, grilled salmon, and vegetables. Bento boxes are also an environmentally friendly way to take your lunch to work or school. A range of bento boxes is available in The Shop at Japan House London

Enjoy washoku at Japan House 

Featured in Michelin Guide UK 2020, AKIRA is the Japanese restaurant at Japan House offering guests a taste of washoku in the heart of London. Named after Japanese chef Shimizu Akira, the restaurant offers a whole range of Japanese dishes from ramen and bento to sushi and kushiyaki skewers. Presentation is of vital importance to Chef Akira; he specially commissioned a wide range of tableware from artisans in Japan and dishes are decorated with seasonal leaves, fruits and flowers, just as you would experience in Japan. Watch our interview with chef Akira Shimizu, or read more about him in our Story. 

Click here to view AKIRA menus or to make a booking.


Contributions: Seisouka (Japanese cuisine), D&DEPARTMENT PROJECT (set meal ingredients), Kentarous Yasunaga (set meals), Toritama (yakitori) GarageYokotaBand (yakitori video and audio), Kimiko Hiyamizu (bento), chiho (kyaraben)