Apr 6

How Japanese Cuisine Has Changed the Way I Think About Food and Cooking

in Japan, Travel

Spring kaiseki meal in Ikaho Japan

Last April during our most recent visit to Japan, we took a side trip with some friends to Ikaho, a small town several hours northwest of Tokyo known for its hot springs. For dinner one evening we ate a kaiseki meal, a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner. It was spring, and every morsel of food spoke to what was happening at that moment in nature. Hues of green and pink were abundant, both in the dishware and in the food. Springtime delicacies, like sansai (wild vegetables) were incorporated into the courses. Garnishes like delicate flower buds and leaves were used.

Many dishes of kaiseki meal in Ikaho Japan

Beginning a new course was like unwrapping a gift—each one different from the last and filled with diverse visual, textural, and flavor details. The meal was a celebration of spring for all of the senses. The beauty of the meal had me wanting to stop and admire everything, while the flavors had me wanting to devour my food. My favorite dish was a fishcake that was light as air, wrapped in a cherry blossom tree leaf and accompanied by a tender fiddlehead fern, a fragrant cherry blossom, and a piece of thinly sliced carrot shaped to look like a cherry blossom petal, all suspended in a light clear broth.

Kaiseki soup

I have always loved to eat and cook, but it wasn’t until I moved to Japan for the first time twelve and a half years ago that I began to truly appreciate the art and craft of food. I began to understand that eating is a multi-dimensional experience—a balance of the quality of the food itself and expertise used to prepare it, but also in how it is presented and served. I learned to better appreciate subtlety in flavor, an art that Japanese chefs spend lifetimes working to perfect. I learned that traditional Japanese culture pays meticulous attention to seasons, and not just winter, spring, summer and fall, but also to smaller distinct seasons within the four main seasons. The season is often invoked, from the seasonality of ingredients used, to garnishes evocative of the season, from what dishware is used to serve the food, to décor in the room the food is served in. I learned that the dining experience should be a visual one, not just from the standpoint of having the food be beautiful, but also in the use of different colors, shapes, glazes, and textures in the dishes used and how the dishes are arranged on the table.

Kaiseki sashimi

My experiences with food in Japan, like my meal last April, have changed the way I cook in my own kitchen. I have learned that simplicity can be more elegant and refined when used correctly and that subtle flavors can pay homage to an ingredient. I am learning to edit what I include in a recipe and what ultimately goes on the plate. I try to pay more attention to the seasons, seeking to learn more about where my food comes from, how it is grown, and when it is most delicious, and incorporate more seasonal references in my cooking. I try to use more texture and color in what I cook and how I serve it. I have moved away from the Western style of matching dishware to looking for pieces that will compliment other things on the table and add to the visual appeal. I am inspired by the beauty and complexity of Japanese cuisine, the devotion of its practitioners to their craft, and the dedication to giving customers a whole eating experience.

What experiences have changed how you do things in your own kitchen?

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Susie Plummer April 6, 2015 at 10:20 am

This is so interesting! I think life in Japan changed the way I think about food too. Buying and cooking seasonal food is definitely part of it, but I also love the Japanese style of cooking a whole selection, on of little dishes (like your meal here which looks INCREDIBLE!). I often take this idea into non Japanese meals and add small, simple side dishes which give a different flavour or texture to the main dish.
I also changed the way I think about food a LOT when I gave up meat for lent one year. It made me realise how often I planned meals around a piece of meat. When cooking veggie food, I planned around cuisine or flavours instead and it made me much more excited about my food and so that has made a huge difference to how I cook.


Fuji Mama (Rachael) April 6, 2015 at 1:35 pm

Susie — I hear ya! Your veggie point is a huge one. That time in Japan helped me to see meat as a piece of the meal, and often as more of a garnish, not the main attraction! Since my first time living in Japan to now, we have decreased our meat consumption considerably and have frequent vegetarian or pescatarian days.


Tim April 7, 2015 at 12:43 pm

I love this. I grew up with the 70s and 80s mentality that margarine is healthier than butter. Then during college I spent a year living in France, where margarine was an abomination and butter was king. The experience completely changed my palate, but it also changed my viewpoint on what was “healthy.” I’m definitely a different cook in my kitchen than I would have been if I had never studied abroad.


Fuji Mama (Rachael) April 8, 2015 at 10:31 am

I was a margarine kid too and I can totally relate to your France experience! I lived there for a semester during undergrad and fell in love with good butter. I’m totally jealous that you got to spend a year there.


Kirsten April 8, 2015 at 9:29 am

I like to think I’ve picked up a bit of each of the cultures I’ve lived in, but I’d say the biggest change was joining a community supported agriculture farm share. Now what we eat is based on what showed up that week in the box, and what can’t be put up for later use.


Fuji Mama (Rachael) April 8, 2015 at 10:32 am

Thank you so much for sharing Kirsten! Culture can have a huge impact on us if we’re open to it, don’t you think? Including our own local cultures, like your CSA program!


Kacey @ The Cookie Writer April 8, 2015 at 11:18 am

First off: How amazing is it that you have moved to Japan?! I noticed you said “first time” so I am assuming you have been there and back. We really appreciate their integrity in cooking. You can see the care and precision in it. Had you told me in my childhood I would be eating foods from all around the world, I would have denied it (my parent’s are very picky eaters.) I have allowed my daughter to try EVERYTHING and hope she gets the chance to travel and try these amazing meals.


Fuji Mama (Rachael) April 8, 2015 at 1:18 pm

Kacey — Yes, we’ve lived in Japan twice and have been back many times to visit! I think giving our children the opportunity to be exposed to different food experiences is huge! I love that you’re doing that.


Renée ♥ The Good Hearted Woman April 8, 2015 at 1:48 pm

What a thought-provoking post! I love this: “I have learned that simplicity can be more elegant and refined when used correctly and that subtle flavors can pay homage to an ingredient…I try to pay more attention to the seasons, seeking to learn more about where my food comes from, how it is grown, and when it is most delicious…” Such important ideas to consider, both as a cook and a food blogger. Thank you.


Fuji Mama (Rachael) April 11, 2015 at 10:35 pm

Thank you so much Renee! It was a really fun topic to think about.


Stephanie Stuart April 8, 2015 at 10:33 pm

Beautiful photography! I’d say my biggest influence is my awakening of the Paleo diet and having a family to create meals for. I have to think about whole foods to make things simple, then I typically try to *season* with whole foods too.


Fuji Mama (Rachael) April 11, 2015 at 10:36 pm

Thank you Stephanie! Love that! Dietary changes, by virtue of “change” force (or at least facilitate) a change in the way we think, don’t they?


Alice April 9, 2015 at 7:31 pm

I grew up in Japan and when we moved to the States I missed all of these things exactly! It’s really pretty isn’t it? :)


Fuji Mama (Rachael) April 11, 2015 at 10:37 pm

I’m so jealous Alice! I love it there and miss it every day. It is beautiful!


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