Food Culture in Japan

It is interesting how each culture has its own customs, ideas, and traditions which all seem to revolve around food. On a recent trip to Japan, I found many differences and similarities connecting America and Japan to food. I found it interesting that food can bring about many different emotions and sometimes be a source of comfort, especially while traveling. Food is an important part of our lives and has a way of becoming a part of you.

In Japan, my ideas about food were further developed. We ducked into a small ramen shop one afternoon to have a hot bowl of tonkatsu (pork broth based) ramen, to be eaten quickly at a bar with several other people. We barely had room to hang our bags on the opposite wall. I struggled eating the noodle soup with chopsticks and found it interesting that fresh vegetables still seemed to play a large part in the dish, stacked high on top of the soup. Even though everything about the food was different from what I would have considered normal, I still felt satisfied and found comfort in the food.

Another night in Japan, we searched for more ramen. We finally found a ramen shop that we thought looked good, but its sign had characters we did not recognize. Once we entered the shop, it smelled overwhelmingly fishy. We were hungry and tired, though, so we ordered. Once we got our big bowls of ramen, they were covered with tiny fishes and the broth smelled strongly of heavy fish sauce. I could not believe people would willingly want to eat that type of ramen! I gave it my best shot, but I just could not eat it. I came away with a new perspective of Japanese cuisine, and that small meal affected us for days afterward.

After attending a religious service in Japan, we were invited to stay and eat with the congregation. They were celebrating a service missionary who would soon go back to America. I sat back and watched with awe as each member of the congregation contributed a food dish, most things I had not seen before and most were made from scratch. Although the portions were small, I became full off of trying the very detailed food. The Japanese enjoy cooking and eating good food and incorporate a lot of vegetables into their cooking.

Similar to America’s MyPlate, Japan has its own set of nutrition guidelines. Their model is a spinning top, divided into sections. The straight handle of the top is a glass of water or tea, the highest section is grain dishes, then vegetable dishes, fish and meat dishes, and the bottom point is divided into two pieces—milk and fruits. The spinning motion of the top represents physical activity and there is a note to enjoy snacks and treats moderately. I share this because it is interesting to mention how culture and availability of food affect nutrition guidelines throughout the world and that there is not just one right way to eat as part of a healthy lifestyle.

What is your food culture? Do you incorporate different foods into your meals? Do you teach your children how to experience, buy, and prepare food? I once ate dinner with a family who took opportunities to learn about different holidays and prepare cultural foods to celebrate them. They would share about the holiday and the foods prepared around the dinner table. It was so much fun to learn about the “whys” of the food prepared and to try something new. Maybe this would be a fun tradition for your family to try.

The Japanese culture is fascinating and their food traditions are rich in history. Sometimes knowing the story about a certain food can help you have an open mind and a willingness to try it. Traveling to learn about a different culture is a wonderful experience, but even investing some time at home in the kitchen can be a much cheaper way to bring a little more culture into you and your family’s life.

Molly Roemer graduated with a degree in Dietetics from BYU and currently resides in Alamo. She enjoys food and family and seeks to enrich the lives of others through both. Email questions or comments to roemermolly@gmail.com.

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