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 choi Japanese potato salad Chicken karaage Asian-fusion soup Plain Japanese rice soup plain 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.

Filed under:  basics japanese how-to

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What an awesome post! Thanks for sharing that with us!

great post, thanks! I just wanted to point out that in my experience American homemeals are one course (everything slopped on a plate but 1 meat, a starch and a veg) and then seconds if you are "allowed". It can be different in upper level fine dining. (then anything goes)

Yes I think that's the usual way with Western style home meals...actually most of the dinners we have at home tend to be one- or two- dish affairs (like pasta + salad) because doing the dishes is a chore!

Definitely ideal for weight-watching :-)

Since I have started to cook and serve the way my mom cooked for us when we were younger I've noticed how much more I think about the food when I prepare it and when I eat it, I just appreciate everything more than I did before.

Very interesting post!
In Brazil, we have a similar structured meal...We almost always have rice and black beans cooked in their sauce, plus a main dish including some kind of meat, and usually 2 vegetable based side dishes, sometimes one of them a salad. Everything comes together. It's a lot of food...And we always have dessert too...
I can hardly manage that much myself and usually stick with a salad, a meat dish and a starch dish: rice, pasta or potatoes. I rarely bother with dessert. I agree it's preferable to have something sweet later on...

I like sweets separate from meals. I think hot tea is ideal for digestion at mealtime, and I'll save my sweets for later thanks! I love the idea of having my own bowl of rice and picking tasty mouthfuls to go with it one at a time.

Hello, thank you for your great post! I live in Japan now and I think my favorite food is home-cooked food here. (It's great when I have the chance to be invited to a friend's house!). People often ask me what my favorite kind of Japanese food is, but I don't know the word in Japanese for "home cooked". Does anyone know the answer to that?


Did you get any reponse to that inquiry? I think it is called "Katei Ryori". Katei means home and Ryori means cooking.

This Has Really helped with my homework.

thank is very intersting. most of that stuff i did not know. wow.

Thanks for your wonderful articles! I had to comment on this one - I love seeing entire meals put together. Please do more articles like this! I typically make one big dish and getting past that is a struggle for me. The simple extra dishes with soup and quickly made vegetables aren't difficult and this article is a reminder to me how simple it can be to add a few extra things to really make it all a good meal.

For eating a home Western meal, they don't consist of multiple courses. Just one with 2 side dishes. The multiple course options are for more formal restaurants or the usual mom and dad places that offer soup and salad to seem like they are "fine dining." You don't have to get them, but they are there if your starving to death. Plus we don't all traditionally eat dessert. Even at restaurants, a great deal of westerns don't bother with it. Dessert or sweets in general are viewed as something reserved for those very special occasions, not an every day. If anything it is a pleasant cup of coffee or tea as a finisher. Anyway, thank you for the article! It is always so nice to read them!

I beg to differ. American home meals are one course, but the "Western" tradition is limited to the U.S. As a Mexican-Italian I'm familiar with two other ones.
Italian home meals start with a primo (first), normally a starch and typically pasta asciutta (dry pasta, what the rest of the world thinks of as simply pasta). That is followed by a secondo or main dish (protein) with its contorni (garnishes, usually vegetables). The next dish is a salad. You may finish with a dolce (dessert) but almost necessarily you end with caffe' (espresso).
In Mexico you start with a sopa aguada (liquid soup, often chicken broth with vegetables or pasta). The second course is a sopa seca (dry soup, either rice or pasta). Then you have your plato principal (main dish) that includes a protein, some vegetables, beans, either refried or in broth, and tortillas. If you get dessert, it is usually small and simple (jello, pudding) or milk-based and very sweet (flan, rice pudding, chongos zamoranos).
It's complicated and time consuming, but, like Japanese meals, Mexicans and Italians still think they're worth it, even if in many cases the main meal has been moved to the evening.

That would be with rich people, average people have either vegetable protein or in rare cases meat protein, is like this... beans with any kind of meat in sauce and added vegetables, tortillas instead of bread, and sometimes they exchange the beans for rice, all in one platter, one single course in one single day!
sometimes when there's no protein just a soup with added vegetables would do the trick!!!! =>__<=

Much as it may confuse the Japanese, there is no such thing as a "Western" style meal. The "all at once, one and two sides" structure belongs to British culinary tradition, obviously inherited by other anglophone cultures. As our Mexican-Italian fellow correspondent rightly points out, some Western countries (I can bear witness for France and Spain, personally) do follow a multi-course sequence, and dessert (which can be and often is) simply fresh fruit, is just about essential.

Awesome post. The Japanese meal I've made twice now is Ginger Pork Saute. I put the pork on top of the rice on a plate. Thanks for information!

If you think of how blood sugar changes things, it makes so much sense that the Japanese do not typically have dessert but prefer to have sweet things inbetween meals instead. The trouble I get in is when I over indulge on the sweet snacks and start reducing the nutritious meals.

What would you say a Japanese person would eat on a daily basis, then, if this type of meal is too time consuming to cook? Sandwiches? Take out?

Thanks for your wonderful articles! I had to comment on this one - I love seeing entire meals put together. Please do more articles like this! I typically make one big dish and getting past that is a struggle for me. generator reviews The simple extra dishes with soup and quickly made vegetables aren't difficult and this article is a reminder to me how simple it can be to add a few extra things to really make it all a good meal.

What bout deep fried veggies? Went to Japanese restauraunt here in australia and the veggies were tempura and very greasy....is this normal?

Is that bok choy bottom left in your collage photos?

Also, I just wanted to say that I love Japanese food. Hey, I heard that sushi is like junkfood in Japan. Do you know if this is true?

I found an awesome japanese restaurant in Stockholm where you can eat real japanese food, no extra sugar added and it comes as small dishes :D

I love japanese food. <3 i would love to go out with you Japanese Basics

Maybe this is basic, but I take it bento is just an extension of this? I mean, the aim is to try and respect the different dishes (gohan, okazu, etc).
Also, do Japanese also try to have a balance when it comes to colour, texture and different ways of cooking? I know this might sound purist and extremely fastidious and it might not be done every day in real life just as you say, I was just wondering.

Thanks for such an instructive post!!

Hi Maki,
First thanks so much for such a welcoming and informative site and I sooo appreciate you sharing your knowledge. I'm just discovering japanese food and cooking and I love it! It's very different for me though as I'm from London and I'm used to Mediterranean cooking! I'm also vegan and I was wondering if you had any suggestions on how a vegan meal would be structured? I notice there aren't many legume recipes in japanese cooking (I do love my chickpeas!) and I am reluctant to serve a tofu main alongside a tofu side dish (I love shiiraae). Any advice would be so much appreciated!

There are actually many bean recipes in Japanese cooking; most of the time they are simmered in a sweet-salty broth. I have several recipes on this site and JustBento...try using the search function at the top of the page. Besides tofu and beans, vegetarians also rely on fu, which is wheat gluten, quite a bit for protein. See http://justhungry.com/fu-mother-seitan To structure a meal you'd just have several vegetarian dishes. You may or may not designate one as the main dish.

Thank you!
May I trouble you with another question: seeing as you live in France, do you have any expertise of pairing wine with Japanese cuisine?
Thanks again!

I may have to leave that answer for a full article ^_^;

Can't wait! It's pretty tricky ;)
Thanks as ever!

Thank you for the post and all the information. My daughter met a girl in school, 6 years ago, who's mom is Japanese and father is American. She started learning the culture and food at that time. Needless to say I love cooking so I jumped in to try to make meals in an authentic Japanese way. I lost 20 pounds when we first started and have expanded into making Chinese, Thai, Korean (one of her favorite types of foods), and more. With all the small dishes, bought some online from Japan, it takes longer to eat and I focus on vegetables and beans for sides. Now we make periodic trips to the nearest Asian market (Korean and an hour away) to stock up. I'm glad I have been making the meals correctly according to your post. Thank you again.