Seasonal ingredients, traditional cooking techniques and unique eating etiquette all contribute to the diverse dishes characteristic of Japanese cuisine.
As an island nation, Japan has developed its own original cuisine, but one can see influences from Portugal, China, and even the United States in some modern Japanese dishes.
The fundamentals of Japanese cuisine include fresh, high-quality seasonal ingredients and the artistic presentation of dishes. Most Japanese dishes are created by combining regional staples, such as rice or noodles, with soup, fish, meat, flavorings and vegetables.
The Japanese consume fresh fish and seafood on a daily basis, but the consumption of other meats is fairly limited. Shellfish, such as squid, octopus and sea urchin, as well as varieties of crab, tuna, and other finned fish are popular ingredients in numerous Japanese dishes - especially sushi and sashimi. (Read more on sushi & sashimi)
Many Japanese dishes are vegetarian due in part to the large Buddhist influence. Consequently, Japanese vegetarians commonly eat soy products, such as miso, edamame, tofu and seaweed in its various forms. Common Japanese vegetables include daikon, sweet potato, cucumber, eggplant, mushrooms, and pickled gourds and roots.
Traditionalists say that authentic Japanese food is not complete without three essential flavorings: soy sauce, miso and dashi. Dashi is a fish stock made from dried kelp and flakes of tuna, called bonito. Although not essential, sesame seeds and oil, as well as ginger, wasabi and mirin are important flavor elements.
Japanese rice is a short-grain variety and a staple for every meal. Rice can be served in a myriad of different ways, but white rice, brown rice and sticky rice are very commonplace. Congee is another Japanese staple, and it is quite similar to porridge. Donburi is frequently served as a one-dish lunch: a large bowl of steamed white rice topped with vegetables, fish or meat.
If a Japanese meal doesn't include rice, a variety of noodles generally take its place. Soba, udon and somen noodles are traditional Japanese noodles, served with a broth or a dipping sauce.
Grilled and deep-fried dishes are equally popular in Japanese cuisine. Tempura batter is a light and flavorful way to deep-fry vegetables, meat, seafood or tofu. Teriyaki, yakitori, and unagi (eel) are served hot off the grill.
Naturally, every region in Japan can lay claim to certain delicacies. However, there are some universal dishes that are traditionally served in conjunction with major festivals or events. For example, the Japanese serve soba on New Year's Eve and a sticky rice dumpling for the spring equinox.
Green tea is a centuries-old beverage in Japan. In fact, green tea holds an almost sacred role in Japanese society, dating back to the origins of tea ceremonies in Taoism and Zen Buddhism. Sake, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice, is served cold, warm or hot at meals and during certain rituals.
The Japanese are very committed to tradition and ritual; as such, eating etiquette is very important in Japan. Prior to each meal, a diner will be given a hot, damp towel to cleanse the hands before eating. Chopsticks should be used delicately: they should not be left sticking into food, and one should not bite on them. Furthermore, one should eat whatever he is served. According to Japanese etiquette, one should not make special requests of the host and should raise a glass in toast before consuming any alcohol.
Every season brings fresh ingredients and different dishes to the Japanese table. Whether you are a vegetarian, a seafood lover or someone who simply likes to try new things, traditional Japanese cuisine is certainly worth trying.