The Japanese Table
The Japanese-Style Meal: Menus and Mannersby Ayako Ehara
The Japanese-style meal of the 1970s is receiving renewed attention as a way of maintaining a balanced diet. For our Feature series in 2010, we look at the subject of the Japanese-style meal from the perspectives of composition and nutritional value. In this first installment, we examine the subject from the standpoint of what the Japanese-style meal consists of, and how it is eaten.
The Japanese-Style Diet
The composition of the Japanese meal, which comprises four types of dishes—rice, soup, side dishes and pickles—is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. Rice, including rice mixed with barley or cereal grains, was generally the main dish, particularly in daily fare, and in some eras people drew more than 80 percent of their calories from rice.
From around the 1970s, however, although basic eating patterns continued, the proportion of rice consumed decreased and the proportion of side dishes increased—particularly those foods containing the animal protein and fats that had been in somewhat short supply in the traditional diet. As a result, the balance of calories obtained from carbohydrates, proteins and fats was at a healthy level, and the total intake of calories was appropriate at a daily average ranging from 2,100kcal to 2,200kcal.
Data from the 1980 National Nutrition Survey in Japan indicates that the average intake of calories was 15 percent for proteins, 24 percent for fats and 61 percent for carbohydrates. In nutritional terms, the appropriate rates are said to be 12 percent to 15 percent for proteins, 20 percent to 25 percent for fats, and 60 percent to 68 percent for carbohydrates, which tells us that the Japanese diet in 1980 had achieved an ideal balance.
Around 1980, however, consumption of rice had begun to drop off because of the Westernization of popular eating patterns, and concerns were rising about how these changes in eating patterns would affect national health. Public health officials then set out to encourage a return to the traditional Japanese diet, which was described as consisting of traditional side dishes (vegetables, fish, soybeans, processed soybean products, etc.) with rice as the staple, to be supplemented by appropriate amounts of meat, dairy products, eggs, oils and fruit.
In 1980, the Agricultural Policy Council dubbed this traditional meal as "the Japanese-style diet." The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries began to recommend this way of eating as the ideal diet for the nation.
What did the everyday Japanese meal consist of around 1980, when the agriculture ministry began to advocate the return to the Japanese-style diet? We can get some idea by looking at the findings of another national survey on dietary habits conducted in 1981 by NHK, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation.
More than 90 percent of people ate breakfast at home, and for some 70 percent of these, the morning meal comprised rice, miso soup, egg dishes such as layered omelet (atsuyaki-tamago), raw or cooked vegetables and pickles.
For the midday meal, one in five people who ate lunch outside the home ate a packed Japanese-style lunch (bento). A bento typically is a lunchbox filled about halfway with rice that includes a variety of other foods such as fish, meat, vegetables and fruit for a diverse, flavorful, and often very attractive as well as nutritionally balanced meal.
The evening meal, according to the NHK survey, was consumed at home by 90 percent of respondents, and centered around rice complemented by grilled fish or meat, simmered fish or vegetables, sashimi, salads and fruit. Japanese-style curry with rice and udon noodles, which are a frequent part of today's diet, were not eaten very often, and most people continued to eat in the traditional manner.
The top favorite dishes in 1981 were sashimi, yaki-niku grilled meat, nimono simmered vegetables, sushi, grilled fish and tempura.
The Japanese Manner of Eating
The main ingredients of traditional Japanese home cooking are fish, tofu and vegetables. Tofu is a healthy source of protein, and numerous tasty tofu-based dishes—both hot and cold—have been developed over the centuries.
One of the simplest of these is hiya-yakko, or chilled tofu, which is eaten together with such condiments as chopped green onions, grated ginger and soy sauce. Another very simple tofu dish is yudofu, or tofu warmed in a pot of water flavored with a sheet of kelp (konbu) and eaten, again, with green onions, grated ginger and soy sauce. Sashimi is fresh fish, sliced and eaten raw with soy sauce and wasabi; in recent years, sashimi has been widely sold pre-packaged with condiments and soy sauce included for quick and easy eating.
One of the features of the Japanese-style meal that is somewhat distinct from those of other countries is the way in which dishes are consumed. Chopsticks are the chief table utensils, and soups, for example, are sipped directly from the bowl. The standard soup bowl, therefore, is small in size and made of wood or lacquer, making it comfortable to hold in the hand and drink from, even when full of hot soup.
According to standard Japanese table manners, the rice bowl is also to be picked up while eating from it, but individual dishes upon which sashimi, nimono or other foods are served are not generally held in the hand while eating from them. Chopsticks are used to grasp bite-size amounts of food, and it is customary to eat a bite of rice first, then bites of the side dishes a little at a time, interchangeably with the rice.
It is taboo to stick chopsticks into ingredients the way a fork is used. This custom derives from a traditional appreciation of eating in a way that is tidy and pleasant in the eyes of all who are enjoying the meal.
Ayako Ehara was born in Shimane Prefecture in 1943. She graduated from the Faculty of Home Economics (currently, Department of Human Life and Environmental Sciences) at Ochanomizu University. She holds a Ph.D. in Education and taught for many years at Tokyo Kasei-Gakuin University, where she is currently professor emeritus and guest professor. She is also chairman of the Japan Society of Home Economics, Division of Food Culture. A specialist in food culture, the history of food education and cookery science, Dr. Ehara is the author and editor of many publications, the most recent of which is Nihon Shokumotsu-shi (The history of food in Japan).