QT 73 – Washoku, and how to eat well

QT 73 – Washoku, and how to eat well

“Give us this day our daily bread.” It is a phrase spoken by billions of people around the world. And it means more than it seems to. Bread, here, is more than just flour, salt, and water. It is nourishment, it is sustenance. Bread is, to the west, THE food. “Man cannot live on bread alone”. “The people are content so long as they have their bread and circuses.” This was made explicit in Medieval France, where, apocryphally, they said “The bread is the meal. The rest is just sauce.”

Hello. I’m Jon O’Guin, and if you feel off-put by today’s strange intro, that was its intention. Today, we are to immerse ourselves into another culture’s unspoken rules, to learn of the ideas that shape their meals. And the best way to find oneself in a new place is to first lose oneself from an old one. I must drive from you the unspoken rules of your own land, so I can give to you those of another. As Lao-tse teaches, “A bowl is most useful when it is empty.”


Emptiness is possibility. Fullness is restriction.

Alright, that’s probably enough of that tone for a while. (Though, if you get me in the right mood, I will go OFF on that. I minored in Philosophy in college, with a personal interest in Zen teachings and lessons. I have DOZENS of them.) But, yes, today’s post is going to be…Not strictly ‘solemn’, of course, but a little more restrained than my usual approach. This topic, namely, the semi-secret structures of a given society, is one of my great interests in life, and one of the reasons for my constant exploration of foreign foods: I love to learn the rules for a time and place. I don’t necessarily choose to FOLLOW them, but I love knowing them.

Today’s topic is somewhat dense territory, even just to the point of what to CALL it, so I have chosen to walk down the paths carved by others, and refer to it as washoku. A word that might be SLIGHTLY familiar if you read our Spaghetti Napolitan post, where I described the food known as yoshoku. Yoshoku refers to the foods of the West, while Washoku is broken down into shoku meaning, generally, “food/to eat”, and Wa, the symbol for “Japanese/harmony”. Thus, the term means not only “Japanese food” or “eating the Japanese way”, but also “eating harmoniously”. We’ll be using it primarily in the second meaning today, but it’s worth remembering the third meaning, since it speaks to a cultural value, and implicit message: to eat the Japanese Way is to eat Harmoniously.

feel the beat.png

I was going to put a picture of people playing chicken/turkey drumsticks as air guitars, but apparently that’s not nearly as common as I thought. Enjoy this rather simple and subtle music joke in its place.

So what are the implicit guidelines and rules of Japanese cuisine? How do we eat “harmoniously”? These are the questions we are here to explore. Let us begin.


Gohan’s Fine, but I prefer Goten.

The first thing to mention about Japanese food is the reason I threw in my opening paragraph about bread. And that’s that it is IMPOSSIBLE to overstate the cultural weight of Rice in Japanese culinary traditions. The Japanese word for cooked rice, “Gohan” is also one of their words for “a meal”. Rice IS the meal, as I referenced with France and bread earlier. This connection is at the heart of a lot of Japanese culinary rules, and patterns. One of the core rules of a balanced Japanese meal is ichiju-sensai (by the way, we’re going to have a LOT of italics this episode, so I hope y’all are ready for reading slanty shit! A statement I realized only after writing it could have unfortunate interpretations. But I refuse to back down. You know I meant letters. I use much WORSE words when pretending to be racist.)  which translates to “one broth, three sides.” As in “a meal is rice, one broth, and three sides.”  And, not to belabor the point, the MEAT in a meal falls in those three ‘sides’: it’s not the main event, the rice is.

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This is the cover of a very nice book TITLED Washoku, depicting an ichiju-sansei meal.
That salmon filet is ranked lower than the bowl of rice.

Now, that saying also gives us a nice parallel, and an “in” on the next important part of Washoku cooking: the five principles. The Five Principles are the core rules that determine if a meal is ‘correctly’ made to washoku standards. And, somewhat interestingly and irritatingly, the five principles each have FIVE points, because Japan has a thing about the number 5. Most cultures do, and this is where Japan leans into it. Heck, it’s even in the previous rule. Remember? It’s one soup, three sides, and RICE. 5 components to a proper meal.

So let’s talk about these five principles, and break down what they are, how they work, and what makes them valuable. But before we do, a quick word: as I mentioned before, these are somewhat unspoken rules. By which, in this case, I don’t mean that you’re not supposed to talk about them, so much as few people THINK to talk about them, because they’re so ingrained into the lessons and meals handed down over generations, and presented through cultural touchstones like film, television, and literature. Thus, if you brought up a lot of these ideas to your average Japanese person, they might find it hard to precisely explain why they’re doing it this way, or they might scoff at the idea that there’s a set of “rules” they’re unconsciously following.

The only thing I can relate it to is my own family’s dinner arrangements: A ‘proper’ dinner at the O’Guin home almost always includes a protein, a vegetable, a starch, and an additional starch or vegetable. Spaghetti and Meatballs (starch, protein) is served with Caesar Salad (veg) and Garlic Bread. Chicken Parmesan (protein) comes with garlic bread (starch), asparagus (veg) and salad (veg). Chicken enchiladas come with rice, salad, and veggies. Pot roast, roasted veggies, green beans, potatoes. Etc etc. The only times we really break it are for things like chili (which we serve with cornbread, TECHNICALLY fulfilling it, but I don’t count the veggies in chili as ‘veggies’, do you?), and things that are meant to be fast, last-minute meals.

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Protein, two starches, and a veggie. Looks right.

Moving on to the five principles of five poorly pronounced points!


Point 1: Go ME! Wait, no, sorry, Go Mi, misread

We’re going to see a lot of “go” in the next couple titles, because go is “five” in Japanese, and, as I noted, all of these five principles are themselves connected to five parts. Also, most of them except the last are going to be pretty short. In fact, “this one goes last” is the ONLY organization I did of these points: they’re not in any particular order, except “go kan mon has to wait”. Moving on again.

Go Mi refers to the 5 flavors: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. In washoku cooking, a proper meal includes all 5 flavors, balancing them in harmony so as to not overwhelm the palette. This is…the easiest, really, to get a hold on.  “mix up your flavors” isn’t culinary rocket science, after all. The hardest part is explaining umami, if you don’t know what it is, which we covered a couple weeks ago, and is basically the Japanese name for “savory-ness”.


It’s also sometimes called “meatiness”, hence the Bone Marrow here. Which is what these shadowed tree stumps represent.

Nothing too hard here, so let’s hit up the next principle.


Point 2: Go Shiki, a phrase potentially heard in Death Note Spirited Away

I don’t actually know if people call the shikigami in Death Note…I’m sorry, I’ve just been informed that I misremembered, and those are SHINIgami. Fuck.  Shikigami are the little paper dudes in Spirited Away.

everyone knows.png

I didn’t even know those guys HAD a name.

Anyway, in this context, shiki means “colors” (trust me, it’s a Japanese word in Romanized letters, there are at least 6 other possible meanings, from “seasons” to “ceremonies” to “land rights”.) and refers to, of course, the number of COLORS that a meal should include. Specifically, a meal should include white, black, yellow, green, and red. White’s easy, since, again, rice is always assumed to be there, while Black is a little harder (indeed, dark purples and browns are often treated as “black” for matching this.), but green, yellow, and red are all easy enough to find foods for.

This colorization trick is actually subtly quite smart, as food scientists will tell you that most food coloration comes from the minerals in the food, and therefore a diversity of colors represents a diversity of minerals. Thus, this rule has been a quiet way for traditional Japanese food to maintain a healthy diet


Point 3: Go ho-me, losers

This refers to the five ways of cooking food in Japanese cuisine: steamed, “grilled”, fried, simmered, and raw. Two of these words are a little broader than they normally appear in English, so let’s expand on them. “Raw” is pretty close, meaning simply anything not cooked by heat. This mainly allows them to include pickles in the ‘raw’ category, which, I mean, technically they are in English, we just don’t think about them that way. This is relatively important, because Japanese pickles are quite important to their cuisine. Some argue that pickles, like rice, aren’t counted in the ichiju-sansai breakdown, so common and important are they to a meal. Others disagree, and I sure as shit don’t have the chops to weigh in on that argument beyond acknowledging it exists.

The more complicated word is “grilled”, or yaki, which is a word you’ve probably seen A LOT in Japanese food. You know, like teri-YAKI? Or YAKI-soba? Okonomi-YAKI, to go for a slight stretch? Suki-YAKI for a weird movie with Quentin Taratino?

full on crazy.png

Why yes, that is a Japanese cowboy blocking a Katana chop with his revolver.
You think this is crazy, let me tell you, you have yet to see Time-Traveling Tarantino, or the extended bit of Japanese Cowboys discussing Shakespeare.
I didn’t make those up. I COULDN’T make those up.

That’s because yaki means, basically ‘high-heat-cooked’, standing in for grilling, sure, but also roasting, searing, broiling, and pan-braising.

These different cooking methods reinforce our next point (spoilers) by allowing for a range of textures in the dishes, as well as allowing cooks to get certain effects and flavors without relying on certain ingredients that are harmful in higher quantities. Namely, you can more easily control the amount of salt, fat, and sugar involved, by just having another dish use those in a more suited cooking method. (you don’t have to baste your fish in fat, for instance, if you’re going to have a rich soup with it.)

So we’ve got the colors, the tastes, and the ways to cook them, what can be left?


Point 3b: The Five Senses kan go Fuck Themselves

IN honor of our Japanese themed post, I have excluded the number between 3 and 5 here, because that number is considered somewhat unlucky in their culture, as it’s pronounced very close to the word for “death”. They often avoid having that number as a floor in hospitals or hotels, much as we do the number 13.  Anyway, this point is about the five senses. As you might have guessed from their inclusion of the 5 colors earlier, and my reference to textures a moment ago, a proper Japanese meal should appease ALL the senses when put together correctly.

And, interestingly, this is the first principle to step beyond the actual FOOD of the meal itself: Your sense of touch, here, is at least partly tied not just to mouthfeel and texture, but to the physical, hands-based sense of touch. There should be a stimulus and interest the selection of dishes: A heavy bowl of rice versus a delicate and light bowl for pickled veggies. A bamboo cup of soup, and a cold mug of etched glass for your beer. The meal should feel good to hold, it should be nice to look at, it should smell great, taste great, and it should even, if possible, SOUND good. Slurping, crunching, sizzling, etc. I suspect this is one factor behind why it is rude to NOT slurp your noodles in Japan, versus our western distaste for the sound.

full mouth.png

Ramen shops are surprisingly moist sounding places.

And now that we’ve stepped beyond the meal itself, we’ve come to the final principle, the most esoteric one.


Point 5: The Philosophy of Go Kan Mon

The last principle is, more than any of the previous ones, actually five principles. The go kan mon or five outlooks/ five attitudes, refer to a set of five rules/moral instructions related to food, heavily tied to Japanese Buddhist teachings, and often displayed at Buddhist shrines that serve food. They represent a broader understanding of what food is FOR, so to speak, in Japanese culture. And the first one is I feel the one with the most weight:

“Respect the efforts of all those who contributed to this food”, or, as it is said in the Buddhist temples: “I reflect on the work that brings this food before me; let me see whence this food comes”. And this has really penetrated, I feel, into Japanese culinary culture, because of a point I’ve already discussed: “Itadakimasu”. The traditional way to start a Japanese meal is by saying “itakadakimasu”, a word that means “I humbly receive this.”

eating humbly.png

By the way, if you want to check out a show about humbly receiving food, I am ALWAYS down to plug Samurai Gourmet.

And that word is spoken to that very work. All of it. Not just the people who made it, but those who harvested it, those who transported it, those who stored it. And not just the PEOPLE involved: it is to the plants, the animals, and the elements as well. It is a thank-you to everything that has allowed this to come to you. And that’s the NORMAL thing to say at the start of a meal.

The second attitude can be expressed as either “I should be worthy of this effort”, or “I reflect on my imperfections, on whether I am deserving of this offering of food.” A powerful thought. I mean, it’s the cultural equivalent of your mother’s oft-repeated “There are plenty of kids who would love food like this.”

The third one feels…honestly kind of funny, because, thinking about it, it’s something I feel America implicitly holds as well, in one interpretation. “I come to the table without ire”, or “let me hold my mind free of preference or greed.” Which the former is what struck me as humorous: like, right now, think about someone eating while ANGRY. Isn’t that person almost always in the wrong? Like, in our culture, I feel like you’re either supposed to be too angry TO eat, or you put aside your anger during the meal. Anyone who eats a whole meal in a movie, show, or book and stays angry the whole time is almost always a dick, or needs to learn their important lesson for the episode.


Not even Tina Fey can make it likable.

Then, second-to-last: “I eat for my health, both of body, and spirit” or “I take this food as medicine to keep me in good health”. That’s just good thinking. Eat to sustain yourself. Whatever that means, however you need it now.

Lastly, and honestly a bit of a cheat from the Buddhists: “I respect my struggle for enlightenment” or “I accept this food so I will fulfill my task of enlightenment.” Just a HINT of propaganda there, my friends. Still, I can’t blame you too much, that’s always how it goes, innit? “Look, I gave you plenty of good ideas without any bias, I think I’ve earned a bit of a plug for my beliefs.” And it’s hard to say they haven’t earned it.

Wrapping up Washoku

There’s some more elements to washoku that we didn’t have time to touch on here, from shun, to wabi-sabi and we’ll probably get around to them someday. But for now, I feel we have more than enough to digest for the day. But, before we do, here’s my favorite Zen Koan:

A young monk was sent down to the village one day, as an important teacher was coming to the temple. The elders, smiling slightly, sent the monk to get “the best cut of meat” for the teacher’s dinner. The monk, serious and thorough, traveled through the village, asking where the best meat could be found. Eventually, he arrived at a well-maintained butcher’s shop. He entered, and saw that there was a startling number of different meat cuts arrayed on the racks. Shoulder Roasts, ribs, flanks and rumps, there were at least a dozen different options. How could he know which to grab? He turned to the butcher, and asked “My apologies for my ignorance, but can you tell me which of these cuts is the best?” The butcher snorted, and said “All the meat in my shop is the best.” The monk frowned, and then became enlightened.


“We meant Short Rib, you dummy.”

We will not plug our Patreon or Social media outlets today, as that would express attachments to the material, and thus a failing of our Zen path. Join us next week when we go back to our attachments because, hey, nobody’s perfect.