To understand Japanese cuisine, it is helpful to understand the elements of a meal. A typical Japanese dinner at home involves a single course with several dishes presented all at once.
A Japanese meal differs slightly from the multiple courses that are traditionally found in Western and European cuisine. For example, a Western-style multiple four-course meal might include a first course of a light appetizer, soup or salad. The second course might include a protein or a combination of meat, vegetables, and carbohydrate (rice, potatoes or other starch). The third course might include a light course of salad, followed by the fourth course of dessert.
While many Japanese restaurants in America and Europe advertise smaller plates as appetizers separate from the second (main) and third courses, a typical Japanese meal combines all of these courses into one course and is considered dinner, or referred to in Japanese as “gohan,” which translates to rice or meal. Following the meal or dinner, dessert might be served as the second course.
The Components of a Typical Homemade Japanese Dinner
- Seaweed (nori), furikake (rice seasoning), or tsukudani (topping for rice)
- Mixed protein and vegetable dish
Every Japanese meal includes steamed rice. However, there are a variety of rice dishes that might be included in the meal, such as steamed white rice (hakumai), brown rice (genmai), or the steamed rice might also be mixed with barley (mugi). There are also numerous seasoned rice dishes where the rice is steamed with vegetables or with the addition of seafood or proteins known as “takikomi gohan.”
Seaweed (nori), rice seasonings (furikake) and rice toppings (tsukudani)
Plain rice is often enjoyed at home with seasoned seaweed (nori) or rice seasonings known as furikake which is often a mix of dried vegetables, egg, seaweed, bonito flakes, or sesame seeds. Another type of topping for rice is known as tsukudani, which is a wet seasoning (as opposed to dried seasonings) often made of seaweed or kelp, and might be mixed with dried fish or other seafood.
In addition to rice, every Japanese meal includes soup. The first, and most common type of soup is a miso based soup (miso shiru), and the variety of ingredients that are included in the miso soup is only limited to the creativity of the chef. The second type of soup is a clear dashi based soup (sumashi jiru) that can include numerous combinations of vegetables, protein, and seafood. A third, and slightly less common type, of soup, is called consommé, which is more westernized and based on a protein and mirepoix broth. The soup in a Japanese meal is almost always served hot. The concept of chilled soup such as gazpacho is less common.
Pickles, also known as tsukemono in Japanese, are comprised of pickled vegetables or fruit. There are countless varieties of tsukemono that are almost always served alongside rice.
In Japanese cuisine, salads might include Western-style fresh lettuce salads, but it will also include vinegar marinated vegetables such as sunomono or even cooked vegetable salads such as ohitashi.
A Japanese meal often involves seafood, given the country’s close proximity to the sea. A piece of grilled or fried fish, sashimi (raw fish), or other seafood might be portrayed as the main course of the meal in Western terms. Today, however, this dish is not limited to seafood and includes many other proteins such as chicken, pork, or beef. It is not uncommon for seafood, and other proteins to be mixed with vegetables and served family-style as the main protein dish.
Mixed protein and vegetable dish
Aside from the main protein dish, there may be a secondary dish of mixed protein and vegetables that are simmered, sautéed, baked or fried. This dish might also be served family-style.
In addition to the predominance of seafood in Japanese cuisine, it is also heavily dominated by vegetables. Often, these vegetables are simmered in a dashi broth, sautéed or simply boiled or steamed in water and served with soy sauce and mayonnaise.
Hot green tea or other Japanese tea will be served along with a meal. Cold barley tea (mugicha) is often served during warmer months. Alcohol such as beer and sake are also typical beverages enjoyed with dinner.
There are a number of Japanese desserts that range from sweet rice cakes (, cakes, sweet beans, gelatins, and frozen treats. Other desserts include fruit and cookies.