Japan’s most famous culinary exports may well be sushi, soy sauce and green tea, but the Japanese diet is much more nuanced than these well known aspects. In fact, a well-balanced diet is really important to the Japanese – and it’s perhaps why the country has such a healthy reputation.
According to the BBC, those who eat meals adhering to Japanese dietary guidelines have a reduced risk of dying early from strokes or heart disease. So what does a typical Japanese diet look like?
In actuality, the foods involved in Japanese cuisine are usually so healthy because they’re either whole or minimally processed, and the Japanese are well-versed in utilizing the food that’s most readily available. That means we’re talking fish and seafood, rice and noodles, various soy-based foods, and plenty of vegetables, along with the fruits that grow on the island like peaches, mandarines, melons, persimmons, pears and strawberries.
When meals are served in Japan, there are usually lots of different dishes placed on the table. It keeps the diner interested in trying a variety of foods, and probably has the knock on effect of eating slower and feeling full quicker too.
Presentation of food is also really important in Japan. This means that Japanese people are consciously respectful of said presentation, and aren’t likely to dive in and eat overly fast. The use of chopsticks for all their meals also encourages a slower pace of eating!
As a result, it’s often suggested that those who incorporate more Japanese-style food into their diets in hopes of living a longer life. Why not try the same for yourself?
What do Japanese People Eat?
At home, Japanese people cook and eat a range of foods and dishes. For most meals, you’ll be served rice, miso soup and two or three other dishes too. That means that, as a Western visitor, you might well be served breakfast dishes that seem similar to those eaten at dinner!
Breakfast in Japan
A traditional breakfast in Japan can include dozens of small dishes all placed on the table together. It will usually include steamed rice and miso soup, along with a source of protein like grilled fish, eel or a Japanese omelet. Added to the rice bowl, you might enjoy some seaweed or natto (fermented soy beans).
Lunch in Japan
As this is often a speedy meal at work or school during the week, people may enjoy a pre-prepared bento box brought from home with cooked food inside. Other popular lunchtime options are ramen (which can be slurped up quickly), or a seaweed-wrapped onigiri rice ball.
Dinner in Japan
Typical dinners at home in Japan will include rice and soup, protein and vegetable based dishes, and probably pickles and salad – a bit like breakfast. However, unlike the first meal of the day (which includes small portion sizes and lightly flavored ingredients), dinner is where the strong umami flavors are brought to the fore. Dinner can also include more fried foods which wouldn’t be as appealing early in the morning. For instance, tonkatsu, tempura and okonomiyaki can all be enjoyed in the evening.
As a cornerstone of Japanese cuisine, rice can be a part of pretty much any meal, at any time of day. Steamed rice can also suffice as a meal in its own right: when topped with strips of nori, furikake seasoning, or a more varied mix of vegetables and eggs. There are also dishes that use rice as a main ingredient, like donburi, sushi, nigiri, onigiri and fried rice (chahan).
Miso soup is a popular Japanese export, but did you know it’s eaten at almost every Japanese meal? This flavorful broth is made using dashi stock and has a range of added ingredients like tofu, vegetables and seaweed.
Fish and seafood is the popular protein choice in Japan, preferred to other meats like chicken or beef. Japanese fish is usually steamed, grilled or boiled, and you’re most likely to see salmon, tuna, mackerel and eel on your plate.
Many of Japan’s root vegetables have a place in regular meals, particularly onions, sweet potatoes, white radish and carrots, which may be boiled, sauteed or steamed. Mushrooms are exceedingly popular in Japanese cuisine thanks to their rich umami content, and aromatics are also really important, like ginger, wasabi, green onions and seaweed.
Fermented and pickled vegetables (tsukemono) are a classic addition to a Japanese dish. You’ll often see white radish, okra, plum and cabbage in pickled form alongside a meal in Japan – both at home and in restaurants too.
Condiments and Sauces
Japan is a country of condiments, used both in the cooking process and to season a meal at the table. Soy sauce, mirin, rice wine, sake, and rice vinegar are essential ingredients in a Japanese kitchen, along with furikake seasoning, bonito flakes and miso paste. There’s also a predilection for Japanese mayonnaise, tonkatsu sauce and yuzu peel.
Snacks and Desserts
- Sweetened bean paste: this exceedingly popular filling is used in many different Japanese snack foods.
- Taiyaki: a popular fish-shaped street food on a stick that’s often prevalent at festivals, and filled with either red bean paste, custard or chocolate.
- Anmitsu: made from sweet gelatin and red bean paste, this is a popular dessert in Japan.
- Manju: a soft, chewy bun filled with custard or bean paste.
- Matcha: flavors plenty of different snacks and sweets, including cookies and ice cream.
- Mochi: deliciously squishy mochi are a quintessential Japanese sweet. They have the same chewy texture as mochi rice cakes (which are actually savory in Japan) but the candy version comes in various sweet flavors.
Popular Japanese Meals
When going out to eat at Japanese restaurants, people are extremely likely to order skewers of yakitori, platters of sushi or sashimi, deep fried tonkatsu, and bowls of ramen, soba or udon noodles. These can all be quick and casual meals but also allow for a sit down dinner.
Sharing-style meals like shabu-shabu or Nabe hot pot (both cooked at the table) are popular restaurant options too, and these are a great way for groups of friends or family to catch up while enjoying dinner together.
If enjoying a kaiseki meal, which is considered to be haute cuisine in Japan, this would likely be a fine dining experience which follows many of the etiquette rules laid out below.
Japanese Dining Etiquette
There are plenty of dining etiquette behaviors that people adhere to when eating in Japan. The most common of these behaviors is seen when using chopsticks: diners are discouraged from resting chopsticks on the edge of their bowl, and should never pass food with their chopsticks to someone else’s. It’s also good manners to move your bowl close towards your mouth when eating from it – but don’t raise food above your mouth as that’s impolite. Emptying your plate or bowl of all remnants of food shows respect towards the chef too.
The places you’re seated at around the table are also dictated by tradition. Typically the guest of honor will be seated in the middle of the table, in a spot that’s the furthest away from the entrance door.
Where to Try Japanese Food
Are your taste buds tingling at the thought of all these delicious Japanese meals? If you can’t plan a visit to Japan for dinner just yet, why not have a look at the Bokksu Boutique, where you’ll find plenty of great snacks like these senbei rice crackers.
You can also sign up for a Japanese subscription box, which takes the pressure off choosing your own snacks. Instead, you’ll receive a box of 22 snacks and teas that all adhere to that month’s theme, which changes every month!