What Is a Typical Japanese Meal?

Common Components of Dinner in Japan

A Japanese Meal

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A typical Japanese dinner includes rice, soup, pickles, salad, and protein and vegetable dishes. Beverages, such as tea, beer, and sake, are served alongside, and the meal may be followed by dessert. The dishes include classic Japanese foods, and other Asian and Western cuisines influence many modern recipes.

The meal structure in Japan differs slightly from the multiple courses traditionally found in Western and European cuisine, where each course is served separately. The average homemade Japanese meal (or gohan) involves a single course with several dishes presented at once, while dessert serves as the second course.

Rice

Nearly every Japanese meal includes rice. This could be a variety of rice dishes, such as steamed white rice (hakumai), sometimes mixed with barley (mugi), or brown rice (genmai). Takikomi gohan, such as katsudon pork cutlet rice bowl, are seasoned rice dishes that steam rice with vegetables, seafood, or other proteins.

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Nori, Furikake, or Tsukudani

Plain rice is often enjoyed at home with seasoned seaweed (nori) or rice seasoning (furikake), a mix of dried vegetables, egg, seaweed, bonito flakes, or sesame seeds. Tsukudani is another popular topping for rice. This wet seasoning is often made of seaweed or kelp and might be mixed with dried fish or another seafood.

Soup

In addition to rice, every Japanese meal includes soup. It's almost always served hot. A miso-based soup (miso shiru) is the most common, and the ingredients are only limited by the chef's creativity. Dashi-based soup (sumashi jiru) is also popular and can include numerous vegetable, protein, and seafood combinations. A third and slightly less common soup is consommé, which is more Westernized and based on a protein and mirepoix broth.

Pickles

Frequently served alongside rice, pickles on the Japanese dinner table are called tsukemono. There are countless varieties, from the vegetable and fruit medley of sanbaizu tsukemono to pickled ginger (gari), plums (umeboshi), and the more familiar cucumbers.

Salad

In Japanese cuisine, a salad can be a Western-style fresh lettuce salad. However, it will also include vinegar-marinated vegetables such as sunomono (seaweed, cucumber, and ginger). There are cooked vegetable salads like ohitashi, which often features spinach. You may also find kinpira gobo (braised burdock root), a simple Japanese okra salad, and hijiki (seaweed) salad.

Protein

The primary protein dish of a Japanese meal is typically served family-style and includes vegetables. Considering the country's proximity to the sea, it traditionally involves seafood. A piece of grilled or fried fish, sashimi (raw fish), or other seafood might be the main course of Western meals, but dishes like sakana no nitsuke (fish simmered in a sake-based sauce) and kamaboko (fish cakes) are just one part of a Japanese meal. Today, many other proteins such as chicken, beef, and pork are common as well.

Mixed Protein and Vegetable Dish

Aside from the main protein, there may be a secondary dish that mixes a protein with vegetables, such as nikujaga (a stew of beef and potatoes) or yakiniku donburi (beef with vegetables). These are also served family-style and might be simmered, sautéed, baked, or fried.

Vegetables

Japanese cuisine is heavily dominated by vegetables. The vegetables are simmered in a dashi broth, sautéed, boiled, or steamed and served with soy sauce and mayonnaise. For example, yaki nasu is a popular dish of grilled Japanese eggplant topped with ginger, bonito flakes, green onions, and a drizzle of soy sauce.

Beverages

Along with the meal, diners are offered hot green tea or another Japanese tea, and cold barley tea (mugicha) is popular during warmer months. Alcohol such as beer and sake are also typical dinner beverages.

Desserts

Japanese desserts are deliciously diverse. They range from sweet rice cakes to cakes and cookies, and sweet beans to gelatin (such as mizu yokan). Frozen treats, cream puffs, and other fruit desserts are common, too.