Mark Brazil developed his fascination with the natural world, especially birds and mammals, during his boyhood in the landlocked English county of Worcestershire. He pursued academic interests in biology during studies in England and Scotland, while exploring the coasts and mountains of Britain in search of birds. Mark earned his PhD from Stirling University, Scotland, for his work on avian behavioral-ecology in Iceland and Scotland.
In Japan there is a set way of doing things which I call, “The Way of the Way.” Come with me and you will soon understand what I mean. The Japanese like patterns and predictability, and they find security in following the “rules.” In Japan, rules are good. Every aspect of Japanese culture differs from the west; most particularly, food culture.
A Japanese meal begins when all have been served, and each guest bows with a polite thank you, sharing how grateful they are to receive the gift of food, for the work that went in to growing it, and for the preparation of the meal.
While lunch at a roadside restaurant may be as simple as a bowl of noodles, curry-rice, or meat-sauce-spaghetti, at a fancier restaurant, lodge, or hotel, it is more likely to consist of multiple traditional dishes. Dinner, especially, will be a multi-dish or even multi-course banquet. It is common for a guest’s meal to be served on a large tray, with each dish being carefully placed.
Rice is the key ingredient of the Japanese diet, followed by vegetables, fish, and seafood, with chicken, pork, and beef taking lesser roles, each served in its own special dish. To one side is a covered bowl; a gentle squeeze to the sides of the lid helps to pop the vacuum that has developed within; then, removing the lid, the soup is revealed. This is typically a miso-based soup, miso being made from fermented soybeans. This rich soup may contain a range of other ingredients, but for Japanese people, it is as important as America’s chicken noodle soup. And of course, the mother of each family prepares the very best miso soup—much better than any other mother’s soup.
Presentation is paramount, and the feast begins visually with an appreciation of the appearance of the meal. The food items are prepared with extreme care and so delicately, and the dishes on which they rest are chosen especially for them, the shape, texture, color, and pattern, all being important, and are typically influenced by the season. Food presentation is an art form, the chef an artist, and for this reason meals at a traditional lodge or inn are served to a set menu chosen by the chef, not by the guest. The guest’s choice is to eat as much, or as little, of each dish as they wish, but not to ask for alternatives.
Whereas a western dinner service consists of matching plates, bowls, cups, and saucers for each guest, in Japan each food item is served in a separately chosen dish. While the dishes for the fish may match around the table, the dish for fish and the one for rice, for pickles, and so on will each differ from the next. The meal itself becomes an artistic presentation, both in the tableware and in the food.
Having appreciated the visual feast, we then begin to eat. There is no order, but unlike in a western meal one does not finish up one dish then move on to the next. With rice serving as a relatively neutral flavor, the protocol is to take a mouthful from one of the dishes, then take a mouthful of rice. The meal proceeds through a series of alternating flavors: rice, fish, rice, vegetables, rice, crab, rice, seaweed...
Bear in mind that there is also ancient history and culture behind the use of white rice; the Japanese peasantry used to dream of eating rice. If they were lucky they would have had millet, and while the upper ranks could eat rice, only the nobility could afford the finely milled whitest of rice. With Japan having achieved economic success during the 20th century, white rice is now the norm for everyone. For that reason, guests are always served the finest of white rice, for guests are honored.
There are two things one never does with rice: First, one never pours soy sauce onto it. Though this habit is seemingly popular in some so-called Japanese restaurants overseas, such restaurants are not typically run by Japanese chefs nor visited by clients who know Japanese food. In Japan, such behavior is considered very bad manners. Second, one never stands one’s chopsticks in their bowl of rice, as that “way” is more akin to part of the ritual of the human cremation ceremony, when chopsticks are left standing in the urn of ashes.
And, while on the subject of chopsticks, not only are they not left standing in the bowl of rice, they are not left standing anywhere, except on the chopstick rest, or neatly aligned across a dish of food. They are not used to wave, gesticulate, or point. (Chopstick etiquette is an entirely different subject, and perhaps best saved for another time.)
The careful preparation of a Japanese meal, the delightful presentation, and the subtle flavors, all cater to the Japanese client’s appreciation for things done with care and attention, for things done by following “the way.” Not surprisingly, training to become an accepted chef takes many years, while becoming a chef specializing in the preparation of sushi takes even longer—sometimes up to 10 years!
As Japanese food culture spreads around the world, hastened now on the wings of its UNESCO listing, we are becoming increasingly familiar with the names of traditional Japanese dishes or condiments—teishoku, sukiyaki, shabu-shabu , teppanyaki, sashimi, sushi , shoyu, wasabi. The most recent Japanese term to penetrate the English lexicon is the term umami , literally “pleasant savory taste,” which is now recognized as one of our five basic tastes, alongside sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness.
Perhaps it is now time for us to learn two new Japanese phrases: Itadakimasu shows appreciation at the beginning of a meal, while Gochiso sama deshita shows appreciation at the end.
For more information on Japanese etiquette, please visit more of Mark’s writings.