Japanese Cooking 101, Lesson 6: Putting It All Together

Welcome to the last lesson in Japanese 101: The Fundamentals of Washoku. I hope you’ve enjoyed the course and learned a few things along the way. In this last lesson we’ll take a look back at what we’ve learned, and also see how to put it all together to great an authentic traditional Japanese meal at home.

What we’ve covered in this course

First we looked at the basic pantry ingredients for the course, which are also the basic pantry ingredients for a traditional Japanese kitchen.

Then learned how to make proper dashi stock, which is the foundation of many savory dishes in Japanese cooking. We also learned how to make miso soup and clear soup using that good dashi stock.

Next, we took a good hard look at how to prep and cook Japanese style rice. Rice is central to Japanese life, not to mention most Japanese meals. We also learned how to make sushi rice.

Then we got to the dishes that go with the rice and soup, starting with nimono or simmered dishes (even without dashi). We went on to sunomono and aemono - basically prepped or precooked vegetables with some kind of sauce.

We then ended by looking in-depth at arguably the most important protein used in Japanese cooking, fish, from a simple teriyaki to whole fish opened up to breaking down whole small fish and using every part of it.

If you missed the course by the way, just follow the links in the paragraph above in sequence! Or, just start at the very beginning intro, then go to the first article linked below that, required ingredients. After that just keep clicking on the ‘next’ article link below each article.

There was actually a logic to this…

There’s a reason why I presented the parts of the course in the order I did:

  • Dashi is so fundamental to traditional Japanese cuisine that it’s important to know how to make it and how to use it. This way of thinking - flavoring something with a little umami - permeates other types of cooking in Japan too.
  • Soup also is a part of most meals, even breakfast.
  • Rice forms the center of most Japanese meals. Sure, sometimes we deviate and have some noodles or something else, But we keep going back to rice. The word for cooked rice, gohan (ご飯)is also used to indicate the whole meal. When mom called out “gohan dayo-” when we were out playing, we knew she meant “it’s dinner time”, not just “it’s rice”. Even if that bowl of rice was not always 100% - poor people often had to mix in other grains like barley or millet - the ideal was always that plain bowl of white rice. (Ironicly of course these days people mix in these zakkoku (雑穀), the ‘other grains’ formerly looked down upon, into rice for their nutritious benefits. See more about zakkoku-mai or mixed grains with rice.)

The one-soup, three-side dish rule

A balanced Japanese meal is supposed to have__ 一汁三菜 - ichijuu sannsai - 1 soup, 3 side dishes, to go with the rice. It may sound like a lot, but it’s not that much more than many western style meals if you think about it. A typical western meal might have a soup as a starter, then a main dish with steak, potatoes, and some side vegetable like steamed broccoli, followed by a sweet dessert. A traditional Japanese meal doesn’t have separate courses - everything is served at once. (This differs at top end Japanese ryoutei or kaiseki restaurants, who often serve single dishes one at a time in multiple course.) Having more than 3 sides is extravagant, although in the olden days people avoided having 4 sides since the number 4 is unlucky in Japanese culture. (4 can be read as “yon” or “shi”, and “shi is synonymous with 死, or death. Most Japanese buildings don’t have a 4th floor, just like most Western buildings don’t have a 13th floor.)

The bare basic Japanese meal is 一汁一菜 - ichijuu issai - 1 soup, 1 side dish, plus the bowl of rice.

(Incidentally, there’s also no tradition of having dessert with a meal, which may be why many Japanese main dishes have a bit of sugar in them. Sweets are eaten separately during the day, not with a meal. This is changing, and many people have some fruit or a light dessert after a meal, but that is a recent thing influenced by western style eating.)

How to line up all those dishes

Traditional Japanese meals are served in multiple serving containers, one for each item. And there are some basic rules to follow as to how to line them up.

Here’s how to line up a basic 一汁一菜 - ichijuu issai - 1 soup, 1 side dish, bowl of rice meal.

washoku-narabekata1.jpg

As you can see, the rice goes on the left, the soup on the right, and the side dish is behind that. The rice always goes on the left, even for lefties. That left corner closest to the diner is considered to be the most ‘honorable’ position (don’t ask me why it’s honorable…) so that’s where it goes. If you think about it it it’s not the most convenient way to arrange things for a right handes person, who’d have to reach over the soup to get to the rice. Maybe this is why you usually lift up your rice bowl and your soup bowl to eat from them. (You don’t life up the other serving dishes though.)

This is how the full 一汁三菜 - ichijuu sannsai - 1 soup, 3 side dishes and rice meal is arranged.

washoku-narabekata2.jpg

There are no rules really to dictate where the side dishes go in relation to each other. But again, the rice and soup are closest to the diner, with the rice on the left. Plus, the main fukusai or side dish is in the most prominent position.

I arranged the dishes we made during the course for dinner one day following these rules. (Click on the photo to see a larger version.)

Components of a typical Japanese meal

The little dish of umeboshi is not really considered to be a proper side dish so you can ignore that, but as you can see the rice is on the left, soup on the right, and the side dishes beyond that. As I mentioned in the salmon teriyaki chapter for fish, the skin side goes on the top or the far side; the same goes for a piece of skin-on chicken for example. If you are serving a whole fish the head goes to the left.

Flavor balance is important too

When you put a Japanese meal together, pay attention to the balance of flavors and cooking methods. Ideally you should aim for 1 yakimono (焼き物), something cooked with dry heat - grilled, pan-fried, or deep fried; 1 nimono (煮物), something simmered, and 1 aemono (和え物) or sunomono (酢の物) - a cold dish with a sauce, dashi based or vinegar based. This gives a good balance of flavors and textures. While the yakimono is usually a protein, the two other sides can be all-vegetable, or contain a little protein (e.g. a little seafood), and so forth.

In practice, on an everyday basis most families would have maybe 2 side dishes plus some pickles or something. But this is the ideal anyway. And it’s not impossible to achieve since many dishes can be prepared in some bulk in advance, especially the nimono. What makes things a little easier for the cook when preparing Japanese food is that not everything has to be piping hot. The soup certainly should be, and the rice should be freshly cooked and hot too. And some yakimono or protein dishes should be too. But the side dishes to round out the meal don’t need to be.

There are a lot of recipes on the site that you can use for any of these categories. Take a look!

Wrapping things up

So how was that walk through the basics of washoku, traditional Japanese cuisine? I hope it was interesting.

For people who were looking forward to more fish lessons, I’ve decided to hold off on them for a bit and possibly put them in a more advanced course down the line. Stay tuned!

I’m also planning at least one more ‘course’ series like this this year, but I’m still open to ideas about what it should be about. If you have some ideas please tell me in the comments.

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17 comments so far...

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Re: Japanese Cooking 101, Lesson 6: Putting It All Together

I went on a one month vacation so I couldn't follow the course live, so I will have to do it after it finished, but I'm very happy for this course, since I borrowed so many things from japanese cousine, I like how well balanced is (mostly for the many different vegetables used and the many ways of cooking them-and the use of season vegetables too), so now I can learn how to cook it entirely (fish is the most difficult part for me, since in my country there's no a lot of culture revolving around fish). My only concern is how to find the frozen rice to use as an example. I'll see what I can do, over here is only a chinese town and it dosen't have many japanese ingredients (less fresh ingredients like cooked rice)i'll go to every store to see if they have it. And then I may bother you a little if I encounter an imposibble wall while trying to cook all these.

Thank you for doing such a detailed and "easy to follow anywhere in the globe" course. ^__^

Eneri | 3 May, 2013 - 21:07

Re: Japanese Cooking 101, Lesson 6: Putting It All Together

These lessons have been really informative and also its been something I have been looking forward to. Though to be honest I enjoy all your posts.

I am excited to be able to put together a full meal for my family. (I did cook before this though nothing like a full course meal.)

Thank you so much for teaching us be it from lessons, recipes or your thoughts and perspectives on different subjects.

Be safe and stay wonderful. :)

Ti. Valeria Celeris | 3 May, 2013 - 21:32

Re: Japanese Cooking 101, Lesson 6: Putting It All Together

The entire basic cooking lesson was wonderful and I'm so glad that you were inspired to do it. And this post about the basic place settings for a meal is brilliant. Thank you for your hard work! Looking forward to more (including the fish posts!).

anon. | 3 May, 2013 - 21:44

Re: Japanese Cooking 101, Lesson 6: Putting It All Together

Thank you Maki for this/these lessons. They are very helpful in learning a new cuisine.

PrincessFiona60 | 4 May, 2013 - 06:10

Re: Japanese Cooking 101, Lesson 6: Putting It All Together

This lesson, and the whole course, have been extremely helpful and informative. You have taken a topic that could be overwhelming and made it very interesting and not intimidating. Thank you!

anon. | 4 May, 2013 - 12:04

Re: Japanese Cooking 101, Lesson 6: Putting It All Together

Thank you for all of your hard work.

While I am lucky to live in Seattle, WA USA. (I got to meet you a few years ago when you were in town signing your bento book actually) and I have many wonderful american born friends whose mothers & grandmothers would happily feed me growing up.. non of them would take pity on the poor white girl & actually teach me the basics of how to make the delioucous dishes that we enjoyed after school & for dinners at my friends houses. (And the BOYS hated to be in the kitchen cooking they wanted to be out playing sports)

So while I knew how to appriciate a well cooked meal, what PROPER rice should taste & feel like in the mouth - and even how to "slurp" around the eyes staring back at you.. YOU have helped me find the way to connect the basics in a way that many japanese cooking books didn't. Your teaching style comes from the heart and you don't assume we know anything, which is good for those that don't.. but you also don't talk in such a way that can frustraite the people who DO know something to the point that they skip ahead and miss something important. You don't use a word like "fluffy" to discribe something and leave it at that - you give comparisons and examples which is helpful to people who really can not understand how something like rice when prepared properly relates to feathers or pillows (okay, so I have gone off on that particular rant before myself)

Blessed woman, thank you for all you have done to teach, educate and help people have good pictures of what things should look like.

Jazilee | 4 May, 2013 - 13:16

Re: Japanese Cooking 101, Lesson 6: Putting It All Together

I followed along with the course and ended up putting it together to make a nice meal for my girlfriend and family a couple weeks ago! I tend to get into a certain culture's food in spurts and cook a few meals in that style, and your series of posts inspired that to be Japanese food. The stakes were a little bit higher than usual, though, since my girlfriend is Japanese, and her dad's a phenomenal cook, so I really had to impress.
I forgot to get an actual decent picture because we all just wanted to start eating so badly, but there was an okay-ish one that my gf instagrammed:
https://www.dropbox.com/s/pdjxr1bmtqrkffw/IMG_7928.jpeg
Everything went really great (although my cast iron pan looks like it still needs some more seasoning before I try cooking fish in it again...), tasted amazing, and we were all more than satisfied after the meal. The sake might have helped a little in that regard, too...
Thanks for the great course and consistently awesome recipes and posts.

Rick | 4 May, 2013 - 20:16

Re: Japanese Cooking 101, Lesson 6: Putting It All Together

Thank you for the most 'put together' lesson on Japanese Cooking. Definitely learnt much, particularly about cleaning & cooking fish - always wanted to know how to grill & make salmon teriyaki the Japanese way.

Love your tips & bits.... The finishing touch on HOW to set out a basic meal is really helpful. So thank you, thank you, thank you...

Look forward to more 'Just Hungry' inspired meals..

anon. | 5 May, 2013 - 14:05

Re: Japanese Cooking 101, Lesson 6: Putting It All Together

I really enjoyed this course and got a lot out of it! I've been away from home for a couple months so it was nice to have this as a side project to fill up my evenings and weekends and focus my cooking a bit while also learning new techniques.

KWu | 5 May, 2013 - 20:27

Re: Japanese Cooking 101, Lesson 6: Putting It All Together

Thank you so much, this was so interesting. I really enjoyed the whole course, a little sorry it's over, but that's just being greedy :-)
Thank you again

EnaKate | 5 May, 2013 - 21:57

Re: Japanese Cooking 101, Lesson 6: Putting It All Together

Wonderful series that I am now trying out after a long vacation away.
For a next series, how about meal plans for special events such as birthday, a special celebration or just Sunday dinner. The 'what to serve together' is what I find most challenging with the various cuisines that I practice (Japanese and Indonesian). Easy enough to do single dishes but it is the combination that makes it special/cohesive.

Gerrit | 5 May, 2013 - 22:12

Re: Japanese Cooking 101, Lesson 6: Putting It All Together

Placing the rice bowl on the left seems to make perfect sense for right-handed people, because they will be picking up the rice bowl with their left hand and the chopsticks with their right.

The lesson series is very informative and clearly presented, thank you Makiko-san!

weelillad | 9 May, 2013 - 08:18

Re: Japanese Cooking 101, Lesson 6: Putting It All Together

I have found this 101 course very useful even though I have cooked Japanese style food on and off for years. I recommend it to my relatives who are gluten intolerant and who need inspiration for children's lunch boxes.

Prue | 10 May, 2013 - 10:50

Re: Japanese Cooking 101, Lesson 6: Putting It All Together

Just to echo lots of other comments - thank you so much for putting this course together. I really enjoy reading your lessons, as you go out of your way to explain things rather than saying "now do X", which is where a lot of recipe books fall down. (Why must I do X? What will happen if I don't? If I couldn't/didn't/forgot to do X, is the whole thing going to be a disaster...)

Life got in the way and I haven't finished working through all the fishy lessons yet, but the salmon teriyaki I made was way better than any I've cooked at home before. Given how poor many of the store-bought teriyaki sauces are, I can't believe how simple making it from scratch was!

Many thanks.

LizW | 10 May, 2013 - 10:58

Re: Japanese Cooking 101, Lesson 6: Putting It All Together

Maki-san, this was such a wonderful series. I grew up enjoying my mother's and grandmother's Japanese home cooking but never paid much attention except for the absolute basics (i.e., rice and tea). Now that my mother is gone and my grandmother is in a nearby nursing home, I'm trying to take familiar food to her a few times a week. It's a nice institution, but their cooking is good ol' Midwestern USA fare, which is... well... she often doesn't eat it and she's so sleight that any weight loss is worrisome.

But her eyes just lit up when she tasted the miso soup - I finally made it right, all thanks to your instructions! - and I'm looking forward to making her more dishes from your recipes and instructions. (Luckily, my Japanese family are from the Kanto region!)

I just wanted you to know that you are bringing joy to a 98-year-old Japanese woman in a Midwest nursing home who would otherwise be very isolated and unhappy. I can't thank you enough.

Joyce | 10 May, 2013 - 16:51

Thank you

Iv been reading along with your 101 course which now ill be having a go at. I love this end post about where to lay everything iv always wandered about the tableware placings. I love that you use similar and easily source able food. Keep the excellent post coming =)

Id love to see another series on pickling but for keeping the pickles for an extended period of time like over winter. I also agree with Gerrit about a series for special holidays or festivals that would be really interesting.

Thank you for such a great blog id be lost for japanese cooking without it.

anon. | 14 May, 2013 - 12:06

Re: Japanese Cooking 101, Lesson 6: Putting It All Together

Thank you so much for this course!

I grew up helping my mother in the kitchen (I am American), but I never really thought about technique or any of that--I just did what she was doing. Seriously "learning how to cook" for me came from Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook: Szechwan Home Cooking--which, while being published when raw ginger and even non-boil-in-bag rice was "exotic" in my area, had amazingly authentic and delicious Chinese recipes! The best part of it was that the authors very carefully explained why the order of ingredients, spices, etc was important in a particular dish, and how to do "unusual" knife cuts.

Knowing why one cooks a certain way is even better than knowing just "to" cook a certain way. Your explanations of how to choose ingredients, assemble a menu, and add those oh-so-Japanese understated finishing touches to every dish are very appreciated. You have a very good teaching tone, both relaxed and authoritative, and both new and old cooks would do very well to become (re)acquainted with your techniques.

If you ever come out with a washoku cookbook, I will be the first to preorder!

RiderRidee | 26 August, 2013 - 21:26

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