Washoku—literally ‘Japanese food’—is a three-syllable word that sounds simple and all-encompassing, yet holds incredible significance to the tradition of Japanese cuisine culture, and the journey it takes you on.
For chefs, washoku means plucking a ripe, red strawberry straight from a garden, filleting a freshly caught fish from the stream and savoring the smell of woody mushrooms in the damp summer soil. These optimal ingredients make up a kaiseki, or multi-course meal often associated with the term washoku. At its core, the culinary custom is about a deep respect for nature, its changing seasons and the ingredients that come with it.
Experts say the techniques of washoku date back more than 400 years, while the term itself emerged during the 1800s in the Meiji era to differentiate foreign foods that travelers were introducing. Today, these foods like sushi, ramen and katsu curry are most closely associated with modern Japanese dining. But washoku’s cultural significance is so key to Japanese cuisine that UNESCO included it in its “List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” in 2013.
Scholars and food lovers alike find four main characteristics appear in washoku cuisine. First and maybe foremost is the chef’s utmost respect for ripe ingredients and their untouched flavors. The harmony of the seasons, the beauty of the natural world and a connection to important yearly rituals and events, are also key. Finally, the well-thought-out balance of foods that has helped earn Japan its reputation for healthy eating is critical.
To achieve these four characteristics, the ingredients need to be in shun or peak season. During the summertime, fruits like peaches and grapes are hot commodities, while ingredients like yellowtail, tuna and oysters shine during the winter.
The foundation for every washoku meal dates back to samurai times and is known as ichiju-sansai, which translates literally to one bowl, three dishes. Today, it’s a standard meal in Japan, including a bowl of steamed rice, soup and pickled vegetables, while the other dishes vary significantly from region to season. One dish might have grilled fish, and the other steamed tofu.
During kaiseki meals, diners can expect a lot more than three bowls to grace the table. But no matter the time of year, each dish will balance each other, every ingredient will taste fresher than you’ve ever experienced, and will be a bonafide work of art on a plate.
For chef Kyle Connaughton, it’s about more than the food. “Washoku encompasses so many different things. At the top, it’s really about seasonality and the quality of the produce, or the fish or whatever the chef is using,” he says. “But it’s also to tell a narrative through the artistry of their techniques or the mastery of their craft. And that all comes together in very seasonal dishware, setting, floral and even scrolls on the wall. All of these tell the washoku story.”