The preparation and serving of fine as well as routine Japanese food is obviously mixed with things other than hunger.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
The cook needs to be mindful not only of taste but also of all the senses-sight, sound, smell and touch.