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Oishii: Japanese Food Culture

Japan is full of interesting people and interesting food. Flavors that you wouldn't expect to find in existence at all probably exist in Japan, wrapped up in adorable packaging inside individual pouches that you can take with you anywhere. This includes but is not limited to green tea flavored kit kats or corn soup flavored crackers. For Japan, food is not just a part of life, it is life. Nourishing the body is part of nourishing the soul.

In fact, Japan is only one of three national cuisines that is recognized by the UN for its cultural significance. Recognized by the UN's cultural organization UNESCO in 2013, Japanese cuisine, called washoku, is full of tradition and showcases a deep love for food that can only come with years of perfecting the art of consuming it. The most popular shows on Japanese television always have some sort of food aspect, and many food manufacturers sponsor television shows and events. Cooking shows are abundant, and celebrity chefs are just as popular in Japan as they are in other food-centric parts of the world.

Being an island nation helped Japan build a life around their locally sourced foods, which is evidenced in their predominantly seafood-based diet. To this day, most food comes from local sources, though some western food habits have begun spilling into Japanese culture. Fast food is slowly gaining tread in Japan, though the sizes tend to be much smaller in Japanese fast food chains than they would be in other countries like the United States for example.



Japanese Snacks

Snacks in Japan are a huge deal. Samurai were the first people in Japan to invent snacks, as they were looking for a way to carry food that wouldn't perish quickly into battle. Appearing more frequently on the scene in 1860 when grain and sugar became more widely available in Japan, snacks transformed from samurai food to casual munching goodies for the everyday consumer. Western snacks were popular at first, and then Japanese-style snacks were developed and took over.

The popularity of snacks continued to grow as office jobs took over and people began having longer school and work days. Today, snacks are a huge part of Japanese culture. As they are often seasonal, it is imperative to grab as many as you can before it is discontinued if you like something, but there are always the tried and true snacks that hold a part of Japanese hearts in their hands.

  • Pocky are a truly iconic Japanese snack. Not only are they popular in Japan, but they are also popular all over the world. Pocky day, 11/11, is celebrated every year. People enjoy these cookie sticks all year, but Pocky Day is truly an event, with competitions of all kinds leading to the winners receiving free boxes of Pocky. These cookie biscuit sticks are coated almost all the way in chocolate, save for a spot to hold the bottom of the biscuit without getting your fingers all sticky. There are dozens of different flavors of Pocky available, but the chocolate flavor is the classic, most identifiable type.
  • Arare is like chex mix in the way that it is a mish mash of delicious, crunchy bits, though unlike chex mix in that there are exactly zero chex to mix.
  • Pretz are the savory form of pocky. They have no chocolate, and are instead flavored with things like cheese, pizza, or soy sauce. "Salad flavor" was also an option in the past.
  • Kit Kats are an enormous deal in Japan. They come in a huge array of flavors, some of which are specially packaged deluxe Kit Kats. They come in flavors like apple, strawberry, chocolate, matcha, blueberry, or even baked potato. Kit Kats are a common gift for friends and family at holiday times, and limited-edition flavors are sometimes created for special events. Over 300 different varieties of Kit Kat have been introduced to the Japanese market.
  • Senebi are a type of rice cracker that are best eaten warm, straight from the grill. This is a common Japanese street food that is enjoyed at festivals.
  • Crepes which are widely available in Japan, are extremely popular. Crepe shops are all over the place, with upwards of 40 displays in each shop window, demonstrating the different types of crepes available at each location. These options range from savory to sweet and can act as a snack between meals or a sweet treat after a night out for dinner with friends.
  • Hello Panda, like Pocky, are another biscuit type cookie treat. Instead of having their chocolate or other flavor on the outside however, they have different flavored centers. These centers can be anything from chocolate, to strawberry, to green tea. The outside cracker is imprinted with a cute little panda. These snacks are bite sized, so you can pop them in your mouth all at once, but some people enjoy biting off the little panda heads and then eating the bottom half, which is said by some to have less filling than the head.


Japanese Condiments

Japanese cooks don't use many spices and seasonings, but they do have plenty of condiments in their arsenal. Many of the condiments are soy sauce based, though some are just mayonnaise! Depending on where you go in Japan, you will find that some regions favor one condiment over another. One thing is for sure, Japanese people genuinely love condiments on food, and you will never find a meal without one.

  • Kewpie mayonnaise is to Japan what Hellman's is to the United States. This mayo is an important condiment in Japan and in other Asian countries. It is made with only egg whites and rice vinegar and has a lot of MSG in it. This mayo is heralded for its easy to squeeze and spread consistency, and its tangy sweet flavor.
  • Soy Sauce goes on everything. Meat, seafood, vegetables, and rice all benefit from the flavor of soy sauce. Soy sauce is present at every restaurant, grocery store, convenience store, and in nearly every Japanese home.
  • Vinegar is usually a pale-yellow color in Japan. This condiment is used for dipping sushi or for meat marinades. Sometimes it is used in cooking vegetables. There is also a popular vinegar that is black in color, which is called kurozo. It is made from rice and is thought to be good for the body.
  • Wafu Dressing is a common salad dressing found in Japanese restaurants. It is soy sauce based and usually contains vegetable oil and a vinegar of some kind.


Drinking in Japan

Japan's love for alcohol has long been recorded, with some of the earliest records dating all the way back to 3rd century China. These records stated that the Japanese were very fond of China's alcohol, buying it frequently and in bulk.

Drinking parties in Japan are a huge deal. They can help strengthen bonds in office settings or they can bring friends closer together. It is customary in Japan to serve others their drinks before you serve yourself. The youngest person in the group will serve the oldest first, and then it will work its way down. In business settings, it is not necessarily about age and instead is about seniority. Whoever has been at the company longest will be served first. When it comes time to pay for the drinking party, it is polite for all parties to offer to pay their share, plus the share of the bill that belongs to their senior. Then the senior will refute the offer, instead pulling out their own money. When a person continues to insist on paying, this shows their dedication to the relationship and they will usually be the one to finally pay for the group. It is common for the senior to politely pay for their juniors. This custom survives because many Japanese people believe their jobs are the jobs they will hold for life. Coworkers are a huge part of your life in Japanese culture, so it is important to establish good, friendly relationships with the people you will spend a majority of your life with.

Sake and beer are the most popular alcoholic drinks available in Japan, but wine is gaining in popularity. Imported wines are popular, especially among women, but domestic wines are beginning to gain a little more footing in the country.

Alcohol can be purchased in grocery stores, at bars, and even in vending machines on the street. It is perfectly acceptable to drink in public in Japan and the legal drinking age is 20. You may find people hanging out in the park on a particularly nice weekend with their family or friends, enjoying a few beers or bottles of sake. The occasional person will even have a beer on the train ride home from work. As long as no one is being disruptive, public consumption of alcohol is not thought of as a problem in Japan.

In restaurants if you order sake, you will often find your server places the cup on a saucer and then fills the cup until it spills over the edge onto the saucer. This is to signify their wealth and generosity as a restaurant, and their appreciation for your patronage.

As a note, cup sizes in Japan are quite small. Some people don't drink with their meals at all, and others just drink a small bit of water or alcohol. If you are a foreigner, they will not be surprised if you ask for a container of water to keep refilling your glass, since waiters and waitresses are not likely to keep returning to your table as they would in the United States!



Umami and Kokumi

Umami and Kokumi are both taste concepts discovered and named by the Japanese. Umami is the flavor you taste when you eat something that is heavy in earthy flavors, like mushrooms for example. They are savory, yes, but there is also this other flavor you can't quite put your finger on. That flavor is umami. Typically, descriptions of umami call it the flavor you taste when your mouth encounters monosodium glutamate, or MSG.

Kokumi is the description of the taste sensation that you get from eating things like braised meat. This sensation would be considered another flavor, except that your body doesn't really taste it. Instead, this mouthfeel enhances flavors that are already present through the calcium channels on your tongue. The word koku means "rich" while mi translates to "taste."

Both flavor experiences are important in Japanese food culture because they describe two distinct ways that we interact with food that are only recently part of the food conversation. This is exciting because it means there may still be ways we enjoy food that we don't know about yet.



Popular Foods in Japan

  • Sushi is huge in Japan. There are fast food restaurants dedicated to getting sushi quickly to the customer, called conveyor belt sushi or rotating sushi. Sometimes, Japanese people will call it "kuru kuru sushi" which translates to "sushi-go-round." Sushi is such a huge deal and is so integral to the Japanese diet, that some of these sushi restaurants are actually 100 yen stores for sushi, meaning each plate of sushi is just $0.91USD. People can pop in, eat quickly, pay and be on their way in just a matter of minutes.
  • Ramen is another huge part of Japanese food culture, with some people eating ramen daily. There are restaurants of all price ranges that specialize in ramen. These ramen shops often produce chefs who go on to start their own ramen shops with unique elements. There are so many ramen shops across Japan that it is almost impossible to not see one on your commute to and from work. Ramen is very popular with the single, working crowd. It is a food that is typically eaten alone, quickly, and it is very filling. It is a dish that all ages can enjoy.
  • Tempura is basically fried food. Usually it is made of vegetables or seafood, but you will find fried chicken occasionally. Tempura is a street cart food that is usually bite-sized. Unlike American fried foods, it is carefully dried so it is not oily or overwhelmingly heavy in the stomach. Tempura is served with a condiment called Tetsuyu sauce, and a side of noodles or rice.
  • Okonomiyaki is a blend of flour, yam, and egg, but sometimes this staple is prepared by the chef at the table of a restaurant for the customers sitting there. Common add ins include onions, mushrooms, beef, miso paste, and cheese. When making this at home, it is prepared over a griddle. The same method of cooking is used at restaurants, with the customers contributing to the cooking by adding their own choice ingredients as the chef pays attention to how long it has cooked for.
  • Curry Rice is exactly what it sounds like- rice and curry. Japanese curry is very flavorfully made from meat and vegetables. Curry rice is considered a national dish because of its widespread popularity across the country.
  • Miso Soup is a side dish to almost every meal in Japan. It is made from miso paste, or fermented soybean paste, and dashi which is a broth made from bonito flakes. This dish is so popular that the famous Japanese singing duo TegoMass have a cute song called "Miso Soup" that is not only popular in Japan, but also in Sweden! Miso soup is never a main dish.
  • Onigiri is a simple staple in the Japanese diet. Sometimes these little rice balls are filled with a red bean paste, sometimes with fruit, other times it is something different entirely, but they are always quick and easy and available at conbini and food markets all over Japan.
  • Yakitori are basically meat skewers that are marinated perfectly and then served with teriyaki sauce. They are usually accompanied by roasted vegetables or a side dish of salad. These are a very common street food in Japan, but are also served restaurants.


Rice in Japan

Rice is huge in Japan. It is served with nearly every meal of the day, even breakfast. Rice is used in plenty of forms, too. You can find rice in everything from sushi to mochi balls, a delicious snack in Japan. Rice is also the culprit for making alcohol with sake coming from rice, too. It is Japan's most important crop, and it is a huge part of the cuisine. White rice is the most popular variety in Japan, but any kind of rice is suitable if white rice is unavailable.

When you are eating rice in Japan, it is considered extremely impolite to stick your chopsticks straight up in the rice. This is what is done at funerals when the living make offerings to the dead, so avoid this at the table at all costs. When eating with friends or family, you will discover there are tiny chopstick rests for your chopsticks at the table. If you are out at a restaurant, there may be no chopstick rest available. Fold your chopstick wrapper up until it forms a triangular tent where you can rest the tips of the chopsticks against.

The Japanese are a people whose culture is extremely dedicated to enjoying food every day. These are a people with a huge cultural identity that is very interwoven with the food they eat. Travel to Japan and taste for yourself the delicious things that you are missing out on!



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