Few countries respect their food as much as Japan.
Splendour and ceremony feature in every aspect of Japanese dining, from vegetables and fish cut with razor-sharp precision, to the dignified use of chopsticks to consume the feast. As well as being an aesthetic delight, Japanese food is among the healthiest in the world and is widely associated with longevity and youthfulness.
Take a look at how to dine like the Japanese...
More than just a buzzword that’s fun to say, umami is Japanese for “delicious savoury taste” and is known as “the fifth taste” after sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Fish sauces, seafood, shitake mushroom and seaweed are among the popular Japanese foods rich in umami.
Monell University scientist Paul Breslin believes our bodies seek out the flavour, as umami-packed foods are generally full of protein. “Part of the great digestion formula," he told The Guardian, "is not only the ability to procure nutrients, but it's to protect yourself from getting sick while you do that.”
Science of sushi
“Heaven has no taste."
"And not one single sushi restaurant."
A look of pain crossed the angel's suddenly very serious face.” ―
The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch', Terry Pratchett
Sushi lovers will identify with Pratchett’s tribute to the Japanese food, a staple in the country for more than 2,000 years.
"Sushi is a food that nourishes the body, enriches the brain, and is a delight for the eye,” Biophysics professor and dedicated foodie Ole Mouritsen says. “Sushi is a food where the pleasure taken in its preparation and the artistry of the presentation are just as important to the whole experience as the meal itself. Sushi encompasses passion, science, and well-being. Sushi is Zen."
DON'T WIMP OUT ON WASABI
The fiery paste accompanying sushi dishes not only helps eliminate bacteria from raw fish, scientists have found that pairing it with certain vegetables, such as cabbage and broccoli, can help the liver process toxic substances.
Rice is nice
“I grew up in Japan, where rice was the biggest part of my diet. It still is. You could say that the cells of my body are made mostly from rice.” Artist Saeri Kiritani loves rice so much she made a mould of her own body from the stuff (left).
Low in fat, high in carbs and packed with vitamins and fibre, rice has been Japan’s most popular food for thousands of years.
“I just drink tea. I used to drink coffee until a follower of Eastern medicine in Tokyo, sort of like a doctor, told me drinking coffee wasn’t very good.” Singer-songwriter Hikaru
Modern Japan may have a significant coffee culture but it’s also the home to green tea, a health staple in the country since the 13th century that’s credited with everything from fighting cancer to boosting metabolism.
ALL IN THE PRESENTATION
Japanese culture places heavy emphasis on aesthetics in dining, believing that people first “eat with their eyes.”
Calculated minimalism is key when it comes to food presentation. Sushi expert Masa Takayama maintains that the perfect dish should not only look appetising, but "visually beautiful”.
"Would I drink the milk from the breast of a woman I don't know? No. So I think, why would I drink it from a cow?" While Japanese-American model Devon Aoki’s veganism is not representative of either country, dairy products are not prominent in traditional Japanese dishes.
Earlier this year, Japan's National Cancer Center and other scientific bodies conducted a large scale study on the link between saturated fats found in dairy and cancer rates and advised: “It is good to eat meat and milk products moderately."
CROCKERY IS KEY
"A typical Japanese meal has four or five different dishes, instead of the food being combined on a big plate,” says Naomi Moriyama, author of Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat. “You might go back for seconds or thirds, but you are pacing yourself."
The 80% rule
"I don’t eat quantity. I don’t crave for big fat steak, for instance... I eat mostly vegetables." Yoko Ono
It's common in Japanese culture to practice Hara hachi bu - eating until the stomach is 80% full. Hara hachi bu is popular in Japan's Okinawa Prefecture, which has the world's highest number of centenarians, and the world's oldest man, supercentenarian Jiroemon Kimura who died earlier this year aged 116 ,was also reportedly a fan.
ROOT FOR GINGER
As well as eating light, Yoko Ono drinks smart: “I drink orange juice with grated ginger and garlic mixed. That just revives you."
Ginger has been used as a medicine in Japan for thousands of years and is credited with aiding digestion, stomach problems, arthritis, cold symptoms and period pains.
“So many women eat with weight on their minds, not skin, and to be healthy you need good fats,” says Tokyo-based nutritionist Erica Angyal.
A typical Japanese diet is dominated by seafood and omega-3-rich fish, which contain the fatty acids that help prevent collagen depletion, as well as repair skin cells.
PUT DOWN THE FORK
Ever tried jabbing away at sushi with a fork? The delicacy and precision required when using chopsticks forces us to respect our food that bit more. And how else could we practise that fly catching scene from Karate Kid?
Brush up on your technique with this how-to video.
A study of cancer rates among the population of Nagano in Japan revealed that enoki mushrooms were responsible for surprisingly low instances of the disease in the area. The funghi was eaten widely in the area because farmers gave the unusual looking plant to local families, as their shape made them unpopular with shoppers.
They're available in Waitrose, naturally.
SCOTCH, IRISH, OR JAPANESE?
Blind taste tests have proven that Japan's single malts can hold their own against Scotch and Irish rivals. Rather than an after-dinner tipple, the Japanese often enjoy it with food and drink it with hot or cold water. A Tokyo trend for whisky highballs has also seen sales of the domestic product shoot up among the younger Japanese population.
Full of beans
Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest, says Japanese dishes treat meat as a condiment. He suggests substituting meat for legumes that are filled with antioxidants and contain fewer calories.
Adzuki beans have an surprisingly sweet flavour and are packed full of beneficial vitamins and minerals. Try them in chili and soup, or oats to make a healthy breakfast porridge.
IT'S OK TO CHEAT
Harumi Kurihara is Japan's answer to Martha Stewart and wants to demystify the cuisine. She advocates taking short cuts, such as using microwaves and tinned foods, and reveals easy substitutes for hard-to-get items.
The author of Harumi's Japanese Cooking says, "You can't get shiso leaves over here very easily, so use a mixture of fresh mint and basil instead and you get something similar with a Japanese flavour."
Soy is behind many popular Japanese ingredients, including tofu and edamame, and can be used as a substitute for dairy products. Thanks to its ability to lower cholesterol , soy products "side-step the problems that animal products can cause," according to Doctor Neal Barnard, President of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. It has even been suggested to have a positive effect on breast cancer.
Olympic gold medal marathon champion Naoko Takahashi revealed the secret to her 2000 success was drinking the stomach juice of giant hornets.
"This drink is very effective in sustaining stamina and energy," Takahashi's coach Yoshio Koide told reporters at the time. "I had tried everything before - tea, lemon tea, honey - but nothing worked very well."
ANYONE FOR SQUASH?
Soup, pie, cake... Japan loves to make a wide variety of dishes from squash - which also happens to be something of a superfood.
It's loaded with antioxidant carotenoids and studies have suggested regular consumption could improve vision, as well as lower the chance of developing arthritis.
Anyone who's seen Kill Bill will know the Japanese have serious samurai skills and it's the same with their kitchen knives. Global, widely regarded as one of the world's best knife makers are Japanese.
Tim Hughes, Chef Director of the Caprice group of restaurants, said: "If you look at the way the Japanese cook, their knives are like razors, everything is very finely sliced. They take years in mastering the craft of knife skills."
Get a head start with a Japanese cookery course - Yuki's Kitchen, based in London, covers Bento boxes, sushi, Japanese home cooking and more.