What is Washoku and why is it so integral to the Japanese way of life?

November 26, 2015 9:18 am

Those who visit, or simply have an interest in, Japan will have an understanding of the intricate and complex values that make up the country’s cultural identity. This theme comes through clearly in their relationship with food, and nowhere more so than in “Washoku”.

Washoku is a term covering the tradition of food in Japan, but is more than just the ingredients. It covers the historical manner of selecting, cooking, serving and enjoying a range of traditional Japanese dishes. This elaborate style has now been placed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. UNESCO set this list up to capture and safeguard important elements of societies that might, if we’re not careful, be forgotten. This includes languages, practices and methodologies – ways of doing things.

Not that Washoku is currently in any danger of being forgotten: top calibre chefs from all over the world are seeing the incredible gastronomic results that can be had from Washoku. Sat Bains, Jozef Youssef, Valentine Warner and Heston Blumenthal among others have all taken Washoku to heart and are using elements of it in their cooking. Jozef Youssef of pop-up restaurant Kitchen Theory said to the Guardian recently, “They [the Japanese who use Washoku] are taught to bring out the essence of an ingredient. It seems very simple, but some of the methods are quite complicated. They use colour, texture, scent and presentation to enhance the diner’s sense of seasonality and transience.” More about ingredients used in Washoku can be found here.

The four elements

From a western perspective, part of the fascination with Washoku is that it encompasses the whole realm of food, not just the ingredients and recipe as in most western cooking.

Washoku is based around four elements, and takes in concepts such as how much work and care goes into the gathering of the raw ingredients, what the season is and the decoration of the room in which you eat. It is, like many things Japanese, a recognition of the universal while also being mindful of our own soul.


Covering the staples of Japanese food such as rice, vegetables, mushrooms, fish, seaweed and grains. Washoku is not set in stone and recent additions such as cuts of beef have been added alongside the traditional elements.

Gastronomic approach

This brings together not just what to cook, but how to cook and prepare the ingredients. Steaming, stewing and boiling are included alongside the utensils that should be used and how to use them. Well-developed knife skills are required for some techniques. At the basic end of Washoku is the philosophy of “one soup, three vegetables”. Using a balanced approach and carefully applied methods, delicious and visually delightful meals are made.

Nutritionally balanced

Washoku takes careful consideration of what is in season and what is readily available. By combining staples such as rice with pickles and side dishes, meals are created that allow for an energy filled and healthy lifestyle. The juxtaposition of staples and side dishes creates a balance of flavour and nutrients.


An important element of Washoku is the experience surrounding both hosting a meal and being a guest at a meal. The layout of the room, the decoration, the theme of the meal and how the host greets guests (and how guests offer thanks) are all important parts of Washoku. These overarching components of giving and receiving thanks show how important Washoku is to Japanese society.

In placing food at the centre of their culture, the Japanese are mindful of the cycle that allowed that food to come to their bowl. Not just the work in producing it, but of the social fabric that is held together by the sharing of food.

At Cafe Asia we’re mindful of this careful approach when we create our range of delicious Asian inspired street foods. You can now find our range in branded freezers in 500 branches of Iceland across the UK.


Featured image credit:

Japanese cuisine, washoku by Nullumayulife on Flickr under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence