Are We Talking about the Same Thing? – 5 Biggest Japanese Food-related Cultural Differences
If you’ve never been to Japan and are not familiar with its cuisine, you may find yourself in a slight confusion now and then once you set foot on the archipelago. When I landed in the country as an exchange student for the first time, I was probably just about skilled enough to manage my chopsticks and recognize sushi. But somehow leaving my worries about my rather thin wallet behind, I ventured into the unknown world of local cuisine. Since that day I have been learning about dishes, food-related customs and names of ingredients I would have never even guessed existed. It is a never-ending gastronomical journey.
Here I will introduce 5 of the first few things that puzzled me in this country.
No. 1: What’s the Order?
Having been raised in a European country, I got used to the fact that lunch begins with a steaming bowl of soup, followed by the main course and, when I’m lucky enough, some dessert as the last dish at the table. However, in Japan people go about it in a different way. Soup and what we would call the main dish are generally served together and are consumed in no particular order. There is no need even to focus on finishing one dish before the other – they are all eaten together and are often there to complement each other.
No. 2: Soup with Chopsticks?!
Yes. That’s right. Just like that.
Japan’s world-renowned miso soup – a soup made by mixing miso paste and soup stock – is eaten with chopsticks. To be precise, you first eat the dark green seaweed and any other solid matter, and once they are all gone, you lift your bowl up to your mouth and politely drink it.
No. 3: Soup or Noodles?
Which one indeed…
You may have heard of ramen, udon and soba before. They are different types of noodles you can easily come across in Japan. While they are all said to have originated in China, according to some theories, soba is estimated to have been around on the archipelago for more than 2000 years and udon for around a 1000 or so. Ramen would be regarded as the youngest child in the family having been introduced to Japan in 1859.
These three types of noodles are often served as a soup dish leading some first-time visitors to call them soup without a second thought. And while this definition may not be completely mistaken, there is a slight difference in how people brought up in certain Western cultures and the locals see these dishes. For example, although in my home country, noodles are mostly there as something you eat as part of a soup, in Japan the emphasis is undoubtedly on the noodles with the soup being solely an accompanying friend.
If you get a chance to eat out with Japanese people or just take a polite look at a stranger’s bowl after they stand up from their table at the end of a meal, you may often notice that while the noodles are all gone, there may still be some soup left behind. Although it is not unlikely that they just simply don’t like the food or are too full to finish it, I often felt puzzled evidencing this scene. On numerous occasions I noticed a sign in the restaurant saying, 'Tabenokoshi wa dame'. This could roughly be translated as ‘Don’t leave any food uneaten’. Okay. Maybe our disobedient customers were just exceptions. But if you dive a bit further into the Japanese language, you will quickly learn that while solid food is ‘eaten’, in the case of a soup the verb ‘to drink’ is used. The fact that there are rules about having to finish the noodles but no rules regarding the liquid itself suggests that the noodles are the real attraction.
If you just try to ask Japanese people, some may tell you that they rarely consume the soup itself giving you reasons such as ‘it is unhealthy’, ‘the taste is too strong’ or ‘I just don’t really eat it’. They choose solid over liquid.
No 4: The Main-dish, Side-dish Confusion
Another thing that kept bothering me and took me quite some time to grasp was how different my perception of the concepts ‘main dish’ and ‘side dish’ was from that of the Japanese people living around me.
First of all, if you are from a place where wheat is grown, it is not completely unlikely that a Japanese person will ask you this question one day: 'So, is bread a main dish in your country?'
I got this question over and over again and was just baffled. ‘What do you mean by that? Why would bread be…?’
But the root of the problem, as I realized later, was hidden in the words themselves. Whenever this question was posed to me, the Japanese word ‘shushoku’ was used. Shushoku literally means ‘main food’ referring to something that is a key part of meals. It is often translated as ‘staple food’ but as a concept it is also very close to ‘main dish’ in relation to ‘side dish’.
Since bread is definitely a staple food in my country the case may seem solved.
I often got this question in a certain context: many restaurants and cafés in Japan present you with the option to choose rice or bread as a side dish to your order. (Side dish in the Western sense, that is…)
And here comes the surprise…
In Japan the true and most significant shushoku is nothing else but rice. Generally everything that comes together with it during a meal would be classified as a 'side dish' (fukushoku). Yes. Even meat. No wonder that anyone brought up with these concepts would look at a European person and politely inquire if bread plays the same important role. And while bread indeed fits the definition of a staple food being a prominent figure in Western diet, it probably still fades in comparison to the respect rice is given in Japanese culture.
In a certain sense, both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are correct answers to the big question that used to give me so much headache. It is just that we all use our own concepts to interpret other cultures through the lenses we were taught to wear.
No 5: The Importance of Appearance
When you go to a fancy restaurant, you would expect to be served wonderfully-looking and appetizing dishes, wouldn’t you? But if you think of any traditional food in your country or things you cook at home, which one is given more importance, taste or appearance?
In Japan appearance is often key to the point that it can even override taste. You may frequently find that beautiful little sweets created with a great attention to detail may taste slightly bland.
If you ever get a chance to attend a tea ceremony, you’ll be given a tiny sweet to have with your tea. While you may not find the taste outstanding, you’ll definitely be able to admire it. The reason for this is that tea sweets are generally selected carefully to fit the occasion and are presented more like symbols rather than simple items to consume.
The same goes for osechi ryori, the traditional New Year’s Feast. It is typically served in a box with different types of colourful and exquisite-looking dishes carefully put together in an aim to bring good fortune for the coming year. Each item, including its shape and colour, has a symbolic and auspicious meaning.
Of course, even though appearance may in general be considered quite important, it is not everything.
Stay reassured – there are plenty of amazing dishes out there.