The food culture in Japan is like nowhere else

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Updated on: Educator Review By: Michelle Connolly

To better understand the origins of the food culture, it is crucial to understand the historical and geographical background of food. Food has always been essential to people; in prehistoric times (about 10.000 B.C.), it is thought that human lifespans ranged from 20 to 40 years on average. Extreme heat, food sickness, and general hunger were the leading causes of life reduction. The initial ways humans survived were through fishing and hunting. However, with the invention of fire, human longevity began to rise significantly.

Food gained more nutritional content and became more palatable thanks to heat’s assistance in releasing protein, breaking down fibre, and releasing carbs. Domestication of animals started in the Neolithic period, opening up new food sources in addition to staples. Cooking was one of the most significant aspects in transforming prehistoric humans into more advanced humans when the human species had the opportunity to experiment. Due to their proximity in terms of geography, Chinese and Korean culinary traditions have significantly impacted the food culture in Japan.

As a result, throughout the early ages, people came to Japan and brought tools and food that contributed to the development of the food culture in Japan. Chopsticks and bowls, for instance, originated in China. Traditional Japanese cuisine frequently includes rice, which is said to have its origins in northeast Asia and fully spread in the Yayoi period. Although the precise source of rice is uncertain, the first documented evidence of its cultivation comes from China, somewhere about 2800 B.C. Therefore, there is a good chance that rice will arrive in Japan from China. When moving fish between cities, fish were kept within fermented rice, which was thrown out.

This technique was initially developed in China and was known as narezushi, where zushi denoted fermented fish. The origin of sushi may be traced back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when Japanese traders began bringing raw fish with fermented rice. People at the time felt throwing the rice away would be a huge waste, so they started eating the rice and the fish. It is commonly known that China also impacted tofu and Japanese sweets. Tea was also introduced during the Nara era. In other words, migration, especially from China and Korea, throughout the ancient period contributed to the developing of a more sophisticated food culture in Japan.

Religion is another thing to take into account. Buddhism and Shinto have been practised and maintained in Japan, where both religions share the ideals of naturalism, cleanliness, and extravagant food offerings. Japan has developed various meals centred on freshness and balance due to this concept. It is common to practise in Japanese culture to adapt foreign cuisine to their own, creating a distinctive style. For instance, tempura originated in Portugal and was popularised in the late 16th century. Indonesian cuisine is also where tonkatsu (a Japanese pork cutlet) started. In Japan, eating two meals a day and eating fruits in between was traditional.

However, diverse foods like crushed grains or soybeans, salted and fried in oil (the founders of wagashi, Japanese sweets), were introduced during the Nara period (645-781), which marked the arrival of Buddhism in Japanese culture via China. The introduction of sugar to food culture in Japan is thought to have occurred about the same time, thanks to a Chinese Buddhist priest named Ganjin. But it was only accessible to the wealthy or for legitimate medical needs.

Balance, beauty, and the ingredients’ seasonality and freshness set traditional food culture in Japan apart. Depending on the season, different foods are provided. In the food culture in Japan, rice is a typical food, as are noodle dishes like soba and udon to a lesser extent.

Like many Asian nations, rice is served with one or two main meals and a variety of side dishes, such as miso soup and tsukemono (Japanese preserved vegetables). A traditional Japanese lunch is described as having “one soup, three sides” in the term ichiju-sansai.

The Kofun era saw a decline in meat consumption as Buddhism replaced Shinto as the country’s official religion. As a result, spices were used much less frequently in Japanese cooking and fish, and other seafood were increasingly used as the primary protein source.

In the ninth century, for food culture in Japan , fish was often consumed raw and grilled, and a novel method of preserving fish was developed. Sushi was first created using this Japanese technique of keeping uncooked fish by fermenting it in boiling rice.

The meat returned to the Japanese diet in the country began to open up to the west in the mid-to-late 19th century. Due to this, popular Japanese meat dishes like tonkatsu, wagyu, and yakiniku were born.

However, current food culture in Japan has also been impacted by western cuisines. As a result, western influences may be tasted and seen in foods like spaghetti, pizza, hamburgers, and Japanese curry.

Food culture in Japan 

The Chef and His Assistant Run Traditional Restaurants

Traditionally, trainee cooks are prohibited from touching meat or fish for years. While the assistant takes care of other duties like cleaning, setting up, and serving tables, the head chef prepares the cuisine. Since the assistant is in charge of serving customers, an authentic traditional restaurant won’t have one.

Miso Soup Must Be Considered a Drink

A typical meal in Japanese restaurants is miso soup. It features seaweed, a milky broth, and tiny tofu cubes. While most people often eat soup with a spoon, this type is best consumed straight from the bowl. Once the soup has been finished, the tofu and seaweed should be eaten at the bottom of the dish.

The Meals Are Important

In the food culture in Japan, the importance of the dishes is almost equal to that of the food they hold. The chefs pick the appropriate colors and designs for the dish they are cooking. Seasonal, hand-painted, and having a meaningful history, plates and bowls are common. The chefs and staff frequently anticipate that customers will inquire about the food before ordering.

It would be best if you didn’t dip sushi rice with soy sauce.

Sushi rice has a purpose for its sticky texture. Sushi rice loses its necessary firmness when dipped in soy sauce, making the roll excessively soft. Additionally, there should be no leftover rice in the soy sauce dish. Be careful to dip the fish portion of the roll in sauce rather than the rice if you want some.

Rude to Leave a Messy Plate

Your napkins should be kept from crumpling and placed on the dish after a meal. This is viewed as impolite and indicative of a lack of respect for the workers by many Japanese people. Instead, customers should carefully fold the napkins and place them next to their dish, or, if a trash can is available, they should toss them in the trash.

They Take Table Etiquette Very Seriously

Be mindful of table etiquette when dining in Japan. For example, never lay your chopsticks across your bowl of noodles or stick them straight up in a rice dish. Instead, use the chopsticks holder that is typically on the table in its place. If it isn’t, it’s advised to place your chopsticks on a napkin that has been folded into an upright triangle.

Tipping Is Not Advisable

Never give the wait staff a tip when eating out in Japan. This is frequently regarded as disrespectful. The majority of Japanese restaurants have well-trained, highly-paid employees. Professional sushi chefs may feel embarrassed by a tip.

Well-known dishes from the food culture in Japan


The most well-known Japanese meal and the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Japanese food is sushi. However, sushi is more than simply cuisine to experts. It is a form of art.

The term “sushi” describes a group of delectably plated foods made using fermented bean sushi rice and a range of components, primarily raw fish and other seafood. Any fresh raw fish can be used to make it; the most popular ones are maguro (tuna), shake (salmon), hamachi (yellowtail), saba (mackerel), and unagi (freshwater eel).

Sushi is frequently consumed with pickled ginger, and wasabi-soy sauce dipped in.

Sushi was created in Japan to ferment rice to preserve raw seafood. The name “narezushi” refers to an early variety of sushi that is still popular in Japan today.

Maki sushi, nigiri sushi, chirashizushi, and inari sushi are some of the most popular varieties of sushi in Japan. However, the most popular sushi among non-Japanese people is nigiri and maki.

The term “sushi rolls” is used to describe maki sushi, whereas “nigiri sushi” refers to oblong-shaped rice balls topped with a slice of fish and other kinds of seafood.

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Thinly sliced raw fish or seafood is referred to as sashimi. It may even be used to describe several kinds of uncooked meat. The vinegared rice makes it essentially sushi. Similar to sushi, it is typically eaten with soy sauce and wasabi.

The “blue foot chicken,” a particular Japanese chicken, is used to make chicken sashimi. Salmonella is less likely to spread from this type of chicken, but the raw chicken still has to be relatively fresh to be consumed without danger. In Japan, serving raw chicken requires a special permit due to obvious health risks.


Ramen is a famous Japanese cuisine and one of the most incredible things to eat in Japan, much like sushi. It describes a noodle soup prepared from four fundamental ingredients: wheat noodles, tare (seasoning), and broth.

The salty concentrated essence known as tare (or kaeshi) is put at the bottom of each bowl of ramen. It determines the ramen’s style, which may be divided into four primary categories: shoyu, miso, shio, and tonkotsu. Although the noodles and toppings make the meal more enjoyable, the flavorful broth is the real star of this well-known Japanese cuisine.

It’s crucial to realise that ramen may be made in many ways within each of the four widely accepted types. Every bowl of ramen fits into one of the four fundamental categories, although even within each category, there are many variants. 

Ramen has so many potential variations that many of them have been developed across Japan’s many areas. As a result, ramen alone might be the subject of an entire Japanese cuisine guide.

Thin wheat noodles are frequently used to make Hakata ramen, which is typically served with chashu pork, scallions, wood ear mushrooms, and ramen eggs on top. When visiting Fukuoka, it’s one of the most fantastic Japanese foods you can eat since it’s creamy and tasty.

Tsukemen is another type of ramen you can try in Japan. Any ramen known as tsukemen serves the broth and noodles separately. By doing this, you can be sure that your meal’s noodles will stay firm.

You eat the noodles by dipping them into the broth. To ensure the noodles are covered in as much flavour as possible, tsukemen broth has a stronger taste than traditional ramen soup.

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A light batter mixed with chilled water and cake flour is used for deep-frying fish or vegetables in the traditional Japanese cuisine technique known as tempura. To produce a crisp and fluffy texture when cooked, the thick tempura batter is barely stirred and kept cold.

A dipping sauce, most frequently tentsuyu, created with dashi (soup stock), mirin (rice wine), and shoyu, is usually given with most tempura, which is typically fried for only a few seconds (soy sauce). Alternatively, it can be topped with sea salt or a salt, salt, and yuzu combination before eating.


A freshwater eel is an unagi. It should not be confused with conger eel or saltwater anago.

The eel’s head and bones are taken out before it is sliced open and used to make unagi. The meat is then broiled, threaded onto skewers, and basted with kabayaki sauce (sweet soy sauce) before being gently cooked over charcoal.

In Japan, grilled unagi is frequently eaten as sushi or over a bed of rice in a meal known as unagi donburi or unadon.

Hitsumabushi is one of the greatest unagi meals you can have in Japan. It refers to grilled unagi served over rice, a delicacy of Nagoya consumed in three phases.

Unagi is offered as a dish with dashi and yakumi (sauces) in a bowl over rice. Eating the eel over plain rice is the first step.

The second stage is mixing the yakumi into your dish after you’ve had a few bites. While the exact ingredients in yakumi vary depending on the establishment, they frequently contain wasabi, pickled vegetables, nori (seaweed), and green onions.

As you approach your final few bites, pour the dashi (or occasionally the tea) into your bowl and finish the remaining food. Unagi sushi and unadon are the most popular ways to consume unagi in Japan, but this is a delightful alternative.

It’s smoky, savoury-sweet, and has a terrific texture; you must try it while you are in Japan.


Any of the four Japanese varieties of farm animals- Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled, and Japanese Shorthorn—are called wagyu.

Wagyu refers to any meat produced from these four cattle breeds; however, not all wagyu are created equal. For example, Japanese cattle make the most sought-after wagyu with a genetic propensity for dense marbling, such as the Tajima cattle reared in Hyogo. Therefore, it is most likely known to you as Kobe beef.

In Japan, wagyu is labelled according to the region where it was raised; therefore, Kobe Beef denotes Kobe origin, Aso Beef denotes Aso origin, and so on.

The most well-known wagyu brand in Japan is Kobe, while Matsusaka, Saga, Ohmi, and Hida are all among the best. You won’t ever think of beef the same way again after trying one of these wagyu brands. Because they are so soft, they almost melt on your tongue.

Kushiyaki / Yakitori

Although “yakitori” is a phrase many non-Japanese are likely familiar with, “kushiyaki” is not. Both terms allude to the grilled pork skewers served at izakayas or casual Japanese restaurants. It’s one of Japan’s most well-liked bar meals, similar to oden.

Although it’s frequently used to refer to skewered meat in general, including poultry and non-poultry, yakitori is technically only used to denote skewered and charcoal-grilled chicken.

Kushiyaki is the correct collective noun to refer to all varieties of grilled beef on skewers in Japan. Various cuts of meat and vegetables are skewered on bamboo or metal skewers before being barbecued over charcoal and seasoned with a sour sauce. This one is one of the most incredible Japanese meals to pair with beer.


One of Osaka’s favourite foods is takoyaki. It describes a ball-shaped snack consisting of wheat flour batter stuffed with tempura leftovers, green onions, pickled ginger, and minced or diced octopus. It typically has takoyaki sauce, Japanese mayo, green lettuce, and bonito fish flakes on top.

Takoyaki is one of the most incredible foods you can have when visiting Osaka, much like okonomiyaki.


A batter of flour, eggs, dashi, and shredded cabbage is combined with items like pork belly, veggies, shrimp, squid, and other seafood to create the sweet-savoury pancake meal known as okonomiyaki.

A variety of toppings, including a sweet and savoury brown sauce, Japanese mayo, dried seaweed, and bonito fish flakes, are added after the batter and contents are pan-fried on both sides.

One of the most well-liked Japanese meals is okonomiyaki. Although it is generally accessible across Japan, Osaka and Hiroshima are where it is most frequently found. In Osaka, the batter is combined with the contents before being grilled. In Hiroshima, the components are stacked individually as opposed to being connected.

Miso Soup

A standard optional ingredient list for miso soup includes vegetables, tofu, abura-age (deep-fried tofu pouches), fish, and seafood. However, Dashi and miso paste are the main components of this classic Japanese soup. It is a traditional Japanese cuisine with many of the country’s set dinners.

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