Japanese basics: the anatomy of a Japanese meal

In this episode of my continuing series exploring Japanese food basics, I'd like to explain the breakdown of a typical Japanese home meal, which differs quite a bit from a Western meal.

In Western culture, a meal consists of a light first course or two, followed by a main course, then smaller following courses. The most basic format is soup or appetizer, main course, then a dessert. The main course itself is centered around the protein part, whether it's meat, fish or something vegetarian, and the vegetables are starch are the side dishes.

In Japan, a home meal is served in one course, but with several dishes. There is the starch, which is usually steamed rice; a soup, which is usually miso soup, and at least two dishes. The rice is taken for granted, but it's the central point of this meal. The accompaniments are collectively called okazu, and they are the supporting cast to the rice.

The main okazu is usually protein based - a grilled fish, or some sort of meat dish. The secondary okazu can be a vegetable dish, or more protein such as a bean dish. Everything is served in its own container usually. The secondary okazu in particular are often served family style, from which each diner takes his or her portion. The usual way to eat a Japanese meal is to take the rice bowl in your hand, then take a little of this and that from the various okazu. Occasionally, you set down the rice bowl, take the bowl of soup, and take a sip and eat some of the things in it.

When you go to a Japanese restaurant in Western countries, you'll often see a selection of side dishes listed in the Appetizer section. This is bowing to Western food habits - those side dishes are actually designed to be eaten with the main meal, with the rice. (High end Japanese restaurants in Japan do serve each dish on its own as a course. This means that a meal can go on for hours!) Dessert is not a traditional ending to a meal - one usually just has a cup of hot tea. Japanese people eat sweet things as a snack in-between meals. Of course this custom is changing as more people take on European/American ways of doing things, but I personally like eating sweet things separate from a meal.

There's a special category of okazu called hashi yasume, or "chopstick rest". This is a side dish that contrasts in flavor, texture, temperature and so on to the main side dish. Pickles are the most typical hashi yasume. Small side salads are often used as hashi yasume too.

I've pulled together a collage of dishes that might make up a Japanese meal:

a Japanese meal Braised bok choiJapanese potato saladChicken karaageAsian-fusion soupPlain Japanese ricesoupplain rice, perhaps with an umeboshi plum

The rice is at the center, with the soup, then there is the main dish , a side dish of vegetables, and perhaps another (cold) vegetable dish.

You might think it's a lot of food. Well, it is a lot of items, but quantity wise each dish is quite small. You also tend to eat a Japanese meal a lot more slowly too, which makes it rather ideal for weight watching. It's rather hard work on the cook of the family though! Most Japanese households don't serve Japanese meals every day partly for this reason.

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