Impact of geographical location and environment
Japan is an archipelago (chain of islands) consisting of about 3000 islands. About two thirds of the land is occupied by mountains and is uninhabitable, so almost all people live in cities, most of which were built on the flat territory of the country. Natural disasters such as typhoons (huge storms raging over the ocean) and earthquakes sometimes occur in the country.
Some mountainous areas have been terraced (stepped areas have been sliced) to allow farmers to grow rice and other crops. The climate is good for agriculture, where rice is the main crop. About half of Japan’s arable land is used for rice cultivation. Between 1970 and 1990, the number of pastoralists in Japan doubled.
Japan accounts for about 8% of all fish caught in the world. Every person in Japan eats more than 68 kg of fish per year, or about 1.3 kg of fish per week.
History of the phenomenon of “Japanese cuisine”
Japanese cuisine has evolved under the influence of the food customs of other nations, but has adopted and improved them to create its own unique cooking style and eating habits.
The initial influence on Japanese cuisine was made by China around 300 BC. At that time, along with immigrants from Southeast Asia, rice with its culture was brought to Japan through the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan.
Before this period, in the Jomon era, the Japanese were still hunters and gatherers. The ancestors (Ainu) were Caucasians (ancient European race); they had long beards and very blond hair. Their descendants actually still exist in very small numbers, and probably most of them are of mixed origin, but some Ainu people still live in the mountains and say they eat bears.
Asian peoples came later from the continent and brought metal tools in addition to rice; and then suddenly, as everywhere else, the population increased dramatically.
The use of chopsticks and the consumption of soy sauce and tofu soy curd also came from China.
The Buddhist religion, one of the two major religions in Japan today (the other, originally local Shintoism), was another important factor affecting Japanese food.
In 700 A.D., the growing popularity of Buddhism led to the ban on the consumption of meat. This ban resulted in the popular dish of sushi (raw fish with rice). Since 1800, the process of cooking was simplified. A wide range of vegetarian dishes began to be served in small portions, using one of the five standard methods of cooking.
All products were divided into five colour groups: green, red, yellow, white and black and purple. And five flavours: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and mindy. The Japanese continue to use this culinary system to this day.
In the 1200s, Japan began trade relations with other countries, which brought elements of Western style. The Dutch brought corn, potatoes and yam, and the Portuguese brought tempura.
During the Meiji period (1868-1912) the ban on beef was lifted (almost 1000 years after the ban). Western products such as bread, coffee and ice cream became popular in the late twentieth century.
Traditional Japanese products
The two main pillars of Japanese cuisine are rice and noodles. Rice, boiled or steamed, is served every time you eat it. And in Japan, only short-grain rice varieties are used, which have a sweet taste and sticky structure. This fact allows it to stick together in lumps, which can be taken with sticks.
Noodles were brought to Japan, as well as rice from China, but much later, in the 8th century. There are 3 main types of noodles: udon – thick white noodles made of wheat flour (popular in Western Japan); dog, thin brown noodles made of buckwheat flour (appeared in the 14-15 centuries); and ramen, thin noodles, also made of wheat flour (a more modern invention that came also from China).
Soy sauce and other soy products are also important products in Japan. These include miso (fermented soy paste) and tofu (soy curd). Other common ingredients in Japanese cuisine include bamboo shoots, daikon (large white radish), ginger, seaweed and sesame products.
Japanese vegetable marinades are called zukemono and are served at every meal, as is rice. Seafood is abundant in the menu of this island country. Green tea is the national drink of Japan, although black tea is also available. Sake (rice wine) and beer are also very popular.
Two unique Japanese dishes are sushi (fresh raw seafood with rice) and sashimi (fresh raw seafood with soy sauce), both made from freshly caught fish or seafood. Sushi in its original form (nare-zushi) was very different from what we know today. Originally, it was a way to store fish for a long time.
Other unique and very popular dishes in Japan are Nabemono (potted fondue dishes), sukiyaki (a dish made from thin slices of beef or sometimes chicken, vegetables and tofu cubes cooked in broth), shabu-shabu (beef and vegetables cooked in broth on their own and immediately eaten).
Each region has its own set of unique dishes. People living on the cold northern island of Hokkaido prefer dishes based on potatoes, corn and grilled meat. The food in western Japan tends to be more refined than in the east.
Japanese people are known to use only very fresh ingredients when cooking, which are bought the same day they are cooked. The longevity of the Japanese population and the low level of cardiovascular disease are also associated with a healthy diet.