A Bitesize History of Japanese Food

Explore a bento box of mouth-watering facts about Japan's iconic cuisine

By Google Arts & Culture

Japanese food has won over the hearts (and stomachs) of people all over the world, and was even awarded the status of intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. Here we take a tour of some of the most important moments from history that made the meals we love today. 

Although fish and meat are an integral part of the Japanese diet today, the cuisine was actually once vegetarian! When Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the Kofun period (300-538 CE) it became forbidden to consume animals.

Sake, also known as nihonshu (Japanese liquor), originated in the Nara period (710-794 CE) and can be drunk either hot or cold. It's brewed using only 4 ingredients - can you guess them?

Rice, water, yeast, and... mold – some ingredients are definitely more appetizing than others.

Contrary to popular belief, Japanese green tea actually originated in China before it was introduced to Japan in the 9th century. Rumor has it that it was discovered when some tea leaves fell into an Emperor's pot of hot water.

Where would Japanese cuisine be without rice? The grain was first cultivated in the yayoi period (1,000 BCE-300 CE) and ancient traditions, such as eating sticky cakes made from mochigome (glutinous rice) every Japanese New Year, have stuck around until today. New year, same mochi!

Chopsticks can be used to cook, stir, serve, and eat. They were invented in the Kofun period but many people at the time still ate with their hands as only the nobility could afford these slender utensils.

Japanese cuisine started gaining its flavor in 17th century Edo, which later became known as Tokyo. The city is now home to the most restaurants with Michelin stars in the world.

The Edo period (1603-1868 CE) was also known as the samurai age. It wouldn’t have been a surprise to see the streets filled with sword-swinging samurais standing next to vegetable farmers selling their produce.

How do you like your sushi, hand-held or squeezed? Oshizushi (squeezed sushi) was the main style of sushi in the early Edo period until nigiri (hand-held sushi) was created.

Ramen has always been a go-to student meal. After an influx of students moved from China to Japan in the 17th century, restaurants started to fuse Chinese noodles with Japanese cuisine to create the quick and easy dish.

Japanese food may have been grown in the fields but it was raised in the streets. As the Edo population grew to 1 million in the 18th century, an influx of single men brought about a new style of eating while standing at food stalls called yatai.

What comes to mind when you think of fast food? It might not be nigiri sushi, tempura, and soba noodles, but these were actually known as the fast-foods of the Edo era.

You can't have Japanese cuisine without umami – the fifth taste that combines sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. In 1908, chemist Kikunae Ikeda discovered this taste which can be found in a wide variety of foods, from peas and pork to cheese and carrots.

From the origins of Japan’s cuisine to its influence today, the history of these mouth-watering dishes gives you a taste of where Japanese food came from.

Bento

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