The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (or, UNESCO) has added a new item to their Intangible Cultural Heritage list: traditional Japanese cuisine, or washoku. UNESCO defines washoku as “a social practice based on a set of skills, knowledge, practice, and traditions related to the production, processing, preparation, and consumption of food.” The washoku mindset is one of respect for sustainability and locally produced ingredients.
Various groups and official organizations have long been lobbying for UNESCO status, and the desired outcome, according to Farm Ministry Official Tsutomu Hashimoto, is support of efforts to keep cultural tradition alive domestically more than to promote it overseas. Japanese cuisine has been seeing a boom outside the country; according to Japan Times, a survey by the ministry shows that as of March 2013, there were more than 55,000 washoku restaurants worldwide. At home in Japan, however, Shizuoka University of Art and Culture President Isao Kumakura says that washoku is slipping from the population’s psyche in favor of foreign cuisines. The hope is that this newly focused attention on washoku will prompt a resurgence in nationalism and pride around the culture of the cuisine.
So how should you celebrate and honor the centuries of traditional Japanese food? Make the following recipes, read the cookbooks, watch the movies, and visit the restaurants.
For better or for worse, we can’t see a better way to start than with sushi. Being an island nation, fish has always been hugely important to Japanese cuisine. Historically, the first iteration of sushi dates back to the 4th century BC. As we know it, sushi was served as a street food in Japan as early as the 8th century CE. To top all that, it’s delicious and, these days, we all know what it is; therefore, we’re starting here.
To find out more about the history of sushi in Japan, read this article from PBS. To read more about how sushi became popular in the U.S., read this article from Food52. To learn how to make your own sushi, check out this great website, makemysushi.com. You should definitely get some of the skills down and then throw a sushi-making party like they did over at Foodhoe’s Foraging. Do you like your fish cooked? Try this recipe for Easily-Broiled Miso-Marinated Black Cod from Serious Eats.
Soup is an important part of traditional Japanese meals. Very popular is misoshiru; miso soup made from dashi broth and miso paste. Dashi forms the base for many Japanese soups and is worth committing to memory. Miso is the delicious result of fermenting rice with soybeans and salt. Food.com has an easy-to-follow recipe for Miso Shiru.
Another popular traditional soup is called oden, which is a long-simmering stew of winter vegetables historically cooked in a clay pot called a donabe, but can even be made in a crockpot. You can get the recipe from Just Hungry. A really traditional soup, though, is Kenchinjiro, first made by Zen Buddhist Monks and named for the monastery. For this, you’ll need burdock root, which you can pick up at most Asian markets. The recipe for Kenchinjiro is also from Just Hungry.
To practice julienning skills, make these shredded vegetable salads from Foodhoe’s Files. First is a fiery parsnips side dish. The heat comes from a spice mixture called shichimi togarashi, which you can either buy or make. The next is this daikon and carrot New Year’s Salad accented with citrus and dried fruit.
We can’t talk about Japanese cuisine without talking about something that’s all the rage these days: bento boxes. Bento is a single-portion lunchbox that contains rice, protein, and vegetables. Though these days, some people go all out and make beautiful designs, even forming the food into the shape of Japanese anime characters, bento began in the tenth century as rice in bags (so really, no pressure). For various bento recipes like this Classic Cold Weather Mixed Vegetable Rice Bento, visit Just Bento.
Green tea is a staple of Japanese cuisine. Three particularly notable teas are match, genmaicha, and gyokuro. Matcha is a powdered green tea thoroughly steeped in the tradition of Japanese tea ceremonies. It’s made and served in a bowl with a bamboo whisk and has been adopted through other parts of Japanese cuisine, all the way to ice cream. Genmaicha is a green tea mixed with roasted, puffed brown rice. Since it often smells like popcorn, it’s nicknamed popcorn tea. Gyokuro is the highest grade of shaded green tea coming out of Japan. It can be incredibly expensive, but it’s very good.
Yuzu juice is a common drink in Japan. Yuzu is a citrus fruit that looks like a big clementine but tastes like a cross between a grapefruit and a mandarin orange. Want to step up your game? Muddle it to make a cocktail or reduce yuzu juice with honey to make a cocktail syrup.
Sake is, of course, Japanese rice wine. Dating back to at least 713 AD, it is a beverage seriously entrenched in tradition. At Japanese Shinto-style weddings, the bride and groom take turns sipping sake from three bowls, signifying the joys and sorrows of life. To learn more about the traditional way to drink sake, check out this article from The Telegraph.
New York City: The Michelin-starred restaurants Brushstroke, known for being a collaboration with Japan’s top culinary school and featuring kiaseki, traditional multi-course dinners, and Ichimura at Brushstroke, Chef Ichimura’s sushi bar. For something a little less extravagant, try Blue Ribbon Sushi in SOHO.
Boston: O Ya, run by Chef Tim Cushman, who won a James Beard Award in 2012 as the best chef in the Northeast, or Douzo, which Boston.com has rated one of Boston’s best Japanese restaurants that won’t break the bank.
Atlanta: Nakato serves both traditional fare and hibachi-style meals, and the Daily Meal has it on a shortlist of places to go for Japanese food in a state not exactly known for its sushi. It breaks its reservations down into washoku, sushi bar, and hibatchi — so know what you’re going in for before you call ahead. Tip: considering the occasion, try the washoku menu.
Chicago: Michelin-starred restaurant Takashi and Bib Gourmand restaurant Slurping Turtle, meant to re-imagine and share Chef Takashi’s childhood in Japan (they have bento brunches). You should visit the Slurping Turtle’s website just to watch the adorable animated turtle bounce around the screen.
Austin: The chef of Uchi, Tyson Cole, won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southwest. Uchi also has a cookbook. It’s breaking with tradition by being a little more contemporary, but Austin is just so hip.
Seattle: Voted one of Seattle’s best Japanese restaurants by Seattle Mag is Nishino, which not only has beautiful food but a currently free eCookbook called Autumn Omakase. The top-voted sushi bar in the city is Shiro’s, which also offers a cookbook and memoir from the chef.
San Francisco: Zagat calls Zushi Puzzle one of this city’s best Japanese restaurants, and you can either sit in the dining room or take your chances at the sushi bar, where the chef chooses for you. Otherwise, visit Japantown twelve-seater Kiss Seafood for traditional fare served by the husband-and-wife pair.
Mark Bittman spoke well of Elizabeth Andoh’s cookbook, Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese home kitchen, saying it is a step forward in instructional Japanese cookbooks and that it seems to say, “Please. It’s not as hard as you think. Let me explain it to you so you can give it a shot.”
Andoh is not from Japan, but she has spent 40 plus years in the country and all the knowledge she passes onto the reader is hard won. We think it’s a great place to start.
Learn how to put together a bento box with The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday lunches to go by Makiko Ito. It’s a healthy, balanced lunch and a stylish one, too! Chef Taro Arai wrote a memoir called Abundance: Finding the American Dream in a Japanese Kitchen about his early childhood in Japan and his pursuit of the American Dream. Chef Arai is now one of the most renowned sushi chefs in America and owns 8 award-winning restaurants in the U.S. There are also recipes in the book.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is an American documentary about a sushi master named Jiro Ono. Jiro, 85 at the time of filming (2011) and still working every day, is the owner of Subiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is the story of Jiro’s life, his restaurant, his sons, and the beautiful sushi they make. It’s available on Netflix.
Also is Tampopo, a “ramen western” about a woman who tries to save her ramen shop. Ramen, although traditionally Chinese, is an important part of modern Japanese food culture and this movie is raved about as the best Japanese food movie ever, so you should probably watch it. It’s not available for streaming on Netflix, but it is available by DVD on Netflix.