Tenets of Japanese Cooking

Tenets of Japanese Cooking

The preparation and serving of fine as well as routine Japanese food is obviously mixed with things other than hunger.

MFK Fisher

Since my first visit to Japan in 1978, I have been drawn back again and again. On a recent trip in November, I dined on courses served in elegant processions at formal kaiseki restaurants, lingered in smoky drinking spots that served a variety of grilled skewers, sat at counters where tempura chefs fried baskets of seasonal ingredients to crisp perfection, experienced the ritual and flavors of traditional sukiyaki diners, slurped noodles at ramen, soba and udon shops.

  • Umiboshi
    Japanese pickled plums, Nishiki Market Kyoto
  • Tofu
    Tofu restaurant, Kyoto
  • Sashimi
    Osaka-style sashimi
  • Sashimi
    Osaka-style sashimi
  • Red Fish
    Fresh fish, Nishiki Market Kyoto
  • Pickles
    Pickled radish, Nishiki Market Kyoto
  • Izakaya
    Yakitori restaurant, Tokyo
  • Breakfast Tokyo
    Breakfast, Tokyo
  • Bento Lunch
    Bento box lunch, Tokyo
  • Aji with frame
    Aji sashimi with fried bones, Kuni Restaurant Chicago

How can such varied experiences all be quintessentially Japanese? I started looking for a framework to organize these different meals. Rather than try and find recipes to replicate what I’d eaten, I sought some underlying principles to make sense of what I had encountered on my travels.

An important guide has been Elizabeth Andoh, through her excellent books, Washoku and Kansha, 10-Speed Press. “Washoku” is a term often used to define Japanese food. It is used to describe both the culinary philosophy and the dishes prepared in that spirit. It is both practice and goal.

Selecting ingredients at their peak of seasonal flavor, choosing locally available foods from both the land and the sea, appealing to and engaging all the senses, using a collage of colors, employing a variety of food preparations and assembling an assortment of flavors, this is the washoku approach…it is the rhythm and flow in the kitchen

Washoku, Elizabeth Andoh

On the wall in my kitchen at home I have pinned up the five tenets or guiding principles of washoku. They are relevant to whatever I am preparing. I whisper them like an incantation before I start to cook.

Go Kan Mon

Hans Georg Berger's Flower Ritual

Photo above by Hans Georg Berger, www.hansgeorgberger.de

Five Tenets
Meals should be prepared and enjoyed in harmony with Buddha’s teachings.

  • Respect the efforts of all those who have worked to grow and prepare the food you are eating.
  • Strive through your deeds to be worthy of the gift of a good meal.
  • Come to the table without anger.
  • Pursue spiritual as well as secular well-being.
  • Be engaged in the struggle for enlightenment

Go Shiki

Five Colors
The cook should try to include foods that are red, yellow, green, black, and white in every meal. If you follow this visual guideline, nutrition comes naturally into balance.

Go Mi

Five Tastes
The cook aims to create a harmonious balance of flavors- salty, sweet, sour, bitter and spicy. The goal is to stimulate but not overwhelm equilibrium.

Go Ho

Five Ways
The cook should incorporate different cooking methods- simmering, broiling or grilling, steaming, frying, and using raw foods in the same meal. This creates a structure for the meal.

Go Kan

Five Senses
The cook needs to be mindful not only of taste but also of all the senses-sight, sound, smell and touch.


  • Marcia says:

    The 5 tenets are amazing…thank you for sharing!

  • John Chavez says:

    Everyday, in every way, I see these tenets alive in our kitchen.

  • Jan Gulley Gerdin says:

    This is beautiful, Lisa! What a mantra!

  • pamela taylor says:

    i will start to use these in my everyday life as well. Thank you for enlightening me. You are an amazing woman and a great teacher.

  • Roy Wesley says:

    Thank you, Lisa, for the brief introduction to Washoku which leaves me hungry to learn more and in depth. Your photos from your Japan visit are perfect accompaniments to the text.

  • claudia laupmanis says:

    So lovely and so reminiscent of my visit to Japan . . thank you!

  • Eric and Angie Gershenson says:

    At the risk of messing up the unity of the Five, we just wanted to say that this is beautiful in word and image. In conveying the ethos and aesthetic of Japan you also express the spirit that animates your life’s work. With appreciation and love, Angie and Eric

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *