Rooted in simplicity and seasonality, the traditional Japanese diet is regarded as one of the healthiest in the world. From oily fish to protein-packed tofu, traditional meals are full of fresh, unprocessed ingredients. Vegetables, grains, rice, fish, and fermented foods are all eaten in moderate amounts. And the result is a well-balanced diet that’s low in fat and high in nutrition.
Not only do the Japanese have one of the longest life expectancies in the world, but they also have some of the lowest rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease. This is due, in part, to what they eat on a daily basis. But it also has something to do with Japanese attitudes towards food. In Okinawa, for example, the phrase “hara hachi bu” translates roughly into English as “eat until you are 8 parts full”. Unlike many countries in the western world, avoiding overeating is part of the Okinawan way of life.
Although the traditional Japanese diet still exists, particularly among older generations, it has evolved over the years. Political, economic, and social changes have all influenced the type of food consumed in Japan. Wheat-based products are now eaten regularly, while rice consumption is declining. But the roots of the traditional diet are still apparent in Japanese restaurants and homes and much-loved staple ingredients are as important as ever.
Japanese Historical Food Traditions
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The traditional Japanese diet revolves around rice, fresh vegetables, pickled vegetables, fish, and miso. In its origins, Japanese cuisine was heavily influenced by Chinese cooking. But Japan is a fishing nation, consisting of 6, 582 islands. And so its citizens consume far more fish and seafood than other Asian countries. This is still true today – as well as grilled fish, the Japanese eat lots of raw fish in the form of sushi and sashimi.
Meanwhile, red meat was kept to a minimum in the traditional Japanese diet. With the arrival of Buddhism in Japan, eating red meat was seen as taboo and its popularity fell even further. But things changed significantly, starting in 1871, with the legalization of beef as a food item. Meat-based restaurants started to pop up around the country and meaty dishes gradually became more popular. Yakiniku, a dish from the late 1800s, is a Japanese-style barbecue that involves grilling bite-size pieces of meat alongside vegetables. Tonkatsu, another popular meat dish that’s been around for a century, consists of breaded and deep-fried cutlets of pork.
Staples of the Traditional Japanese Diet
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Soybeans, usually in the form of tofu or edamame, are a prominent staple of the Japanese diet. Fermented soybeans are basis of miso soup, an important part of most Japanese meals. Miso recipes vary according to the region, so you can expect to enjoy a few kinds if you travel around the country. Full of good bacteria, antioxidants, and amino acids, fermented soybeans are one reason why the Japanese diet offers so many health benefits.
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Green tea was, and still is, a daily elixir for many Japanese people. The tea is thought to lower blood pressure, help digestion, and prevent some cancers. So traditionally, Japanese people drank green tea for medicinal purposes. Meanwhile, matcha tea powder is a superior grade of green tea that’s whisked with hot water to create a frothy drink. Used for centuries in tea ceremonies, matcha is also an important part of Japanese cultural identity.
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Seaweed is everywhere in Japanese cuisine. Take yourself on a food tour of any Japanese city and you’ll notice seaweed salads sprinkled with sesame seeds, sushi wrapped in nori sheets, and kombu in bowls of miso soup. Flavorful and high in essential minerals, seaweed has been a Japanese staple for centuries. Today, you can wander into any Japanese convenience store and pick up packets of salted or spicy nori sheets to eat as a crispy snack.
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It would be difficult to travel around Japan and not eat a bowl of rice at some point. An everyday staple and a base for many traditional meals, rice holds a hugely significant place in Japanese food traditions. Once seen as the country’s main food source, rice is typically eate in small portions alongside other dishes. And although its popularity is declining, as people consume more wheat products, rice will always be an important part of Japanese cuisine.
Modern Food Innovation in Japan
art of Japan’s culinary culture. Over the course of history, the influence of Western cuisine on Japanese food traditions has resulted in deliciously unique dishes. Incorporating elements of Western cooking, the Japanese created new regional recipes that now hold an important place in Japanese cuisine.
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Okonomiyaki, for example, is a savoury pancake that typically consists of flour, eggs, and cabbage. Topped with meat, vegetables, and sauce, okonomiyaki is sometimes called “Japanese Pizza”. Curry also became part of Japanese cuisine, when the British introduced it to the nation after the Meiji Period. Curries with a Japanese twist, such as udon curry and katsukarē, are now popular throughout the country.
Japanese chefs are continuously adapting and creating recipes in creative ways. This is particularly apparent in the cutting-edge capital of Tokyo. For the past 11 years, Tokyo has had more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world. Using the highest-quality ingredients in a thoughtful way, while drawing on an impressive culinary tradition, allows Japanese chefs to stay ahead of the game.
Dining at the new Kigi restaurant in Tokyo is a wonderful opportunity to experience this fusion of tradition and innovation for yourself. With a major emphasis on seasonality, Kigi takes inspiration from the ways in which ingredients were used by previous generations. By focusing on locally-sourced ingredients, Kigi ensures that every dish is as fresh and flavorful as possible.
At Kigi, the team combines fresh ingredients in creative ways, but with as little interference as possible. This ensures that the nutritional value remains high, harking back to the unprocessed nature of traditional Japanese cooking. A stylishly minimalist Japanese restaurant, Kigi is all about beautifully presentation and high-quality food.
Strong traditions, simple ingredients, and an emphasis on nutrition are what make the traditional Japanese diet so special. Although Japanese cuisine has changed significantly over the years, the original diet is still highly valued both in Japan and abroad. Home to many varieties of meal preparation and the highest-quality ingredients, there’s no better place to immerse yourself in Japanese cuisine than in Japan itself.