When you go to a new country, you want to try new and interesting foods, right? Japan has an endless variety of food and while you are studying Japanese, it can be an interesting way to learn bits and pieces of Japanese culture. Japan has a very rich food culture that both stays true to it’s roots and embraces endless variety of foreign and fusion styles. In this series, I’ll talk about the eating and drinking aspects of Japanese culture.
The most important thing to understand about food in Japan is that the concept of a meal is very different in Japan. A meal is supposed to have some sort of meat, some sort of vegetable and either bread, noodles or rice. Subtract one from the mix and it may not be considered a meal for some. I’ve seen Japanese eat endless amount of vegetables and meat and still claim to be hungry because there is no rice, but as long as they have all three, they seem to be satisfied whether it’s portion made for a monster or for a mouse. The main dish is considered to be the rice, bread or noodle part. Everything else is side dishes, even if it’s the smallest part and even if you are anticipating it the least. The nice thing about this is that most things come in sets and you can find some really cheap lunch specials.
The one time this “main dish” rule does not apply is when drinking with co-workers or friends in a party like setting (and these settings are very common in Japan). At izakaya (or a cross between a restaurant and a bar with private seating), people forget the rules of balance and often beer becomes their starch of choice while they slowly eat all kinds of side dishes and share everything.
Ordering a drink is almost understood at a Japanese. Of course no waiter or chef will get angry with you if you don’t drink alcohol but since food is often set at very fair prices, a lot of places make their money from drinks so depending on the price of the meal, at a local place, you may want to consider ordering at least an ice tea or coffee to keep the place running. The soft drinks are often close in price to the alcohol so some people find themselves drinking a lot more alcohol, trying to get more bang for their buck. I am certainly guilty of this. I usually check the atmosphere first to see if I can get away with not ordering a drink. If everyone around me is drunk or in a group or if the food is dirt cheap, I take it as a cue to get a drink. If it’s all families or if the dishes seem priced to make a profit, I skip the drink. Since I live in cafe’s, I am often ordering a drink though. We’ll talk all about drinking culture and the Izakaya in a future article.
There is a common complaint among some foreigners that portions are too small in Japan. I think this is a matter of expectations and if you don’t compare it to your own country, you may find yourself quite satisfied with the portions. Remember, it is considered polite to finish your entire meal and a chef may even feel a little pinch of sadness when someone doesn’t, although you should never force yourself. It is also very uncommon to take leftovers back with you may even get a confused look if you ask. In contrast, in the States or on trips to China, I find many people leaving a good portion of their meal for the garbage can.
As you study Japanese, don’t forget to enjoy the culture in one of the most fundamental and primitive ways possible: eating.