The Powerful Influence of Japanese Cuisine on Food Culture

A hand with chopsticks reaching into a black bowl of ramen with pork slices, noodles, greens, halves of eggs, and narutomaki, or Japanese fish cake, on a black wood table with a red decorative napkin in the upper left corner.

In our hyper-connected world, global cuisines zip around the planet, inspiring chefs and home cooks to try new ingredients, recipes, and techniques.

Japanese cuisine, or washoku, has influenced cultures everywhere. Sushi and ramen are just a couple iconic dishes you may have tried from grocery stores or local restaurants, but it goes way deeper than that: The roots of Japanese foodways are sewn into the fabric of global cuisine in a profound way. Before we explore a few of the many ways it’s changed and impacted food culture at large, we’d like to acknowledge that Japan is a large, diverse country with a very long history and many, many traditions. Over the centuries, Japanese cuisine itself has been influenced by other cultures’ foods, including China’s and the West’s.

We can’t sum up the powerful reach of such a rich, complex society and its food in one blog post; we’re just here to celebrate some of the techniques and ingredients that have traveled far and wide!

Philosophies & Techniques

There is a large emphasis on seasonality in Japanese cooking, known as shun (). There are specific dishes meant to celebrate the coming of seasons or months. A seasonal approach to eating has become more and more prevalent among conscious consumers, especially as our on-demand society means that anything is available pretty much anytime. Shopping and cooking by the calendar is an influence of Japanese culture.

The idea of simplicity is also a key element of Japanese cuisine — simplicity of flavor and ingredients. At the core, Japanese cooking celebrates the pure flavor of that ONE thing in the dish with subtlety — without heavy sauces, distracting ingredients or preparations that cover up the spirit & purity of the star ingredient.

Plant-based eating is also a cultural theme. Buddism, Shintoism, and Hinduism are all key religions  have similar beliefs around avoiding or limiting consumption of animal products.

Fermented condiments, various pickles, steamed rice and lots of vegetables are other tenants of Japanese cuisine that became the foundation of the macrobiotic diet, which people in many countries follow.

Ingredients

Raw Fish: Japan is an island nation, and fish has historically been one of the most available forms of protein there. Raw fish has been a staple of the Japanese diet going as far back as the fifth century BCE. There are uncooked fish dishes in lots of cuisines, like ceviche in Mexico and gravlax in Sweden, but nothing is as synonymous with “raw fish” as sushi and sashimi. In fine dining restaurants in every city in the world, you’ll find dishes like tartare and crudo on the menu, which are usually inspired by Japanese raw fish preparations.

Seaweed: Different kinds of seaweed are staples in the Japanese diet, used in salads, soups, and as wrappers for onigiri and nori rolls. While you don’t come across seaweed in everyday global dishes, you can find dried wakame, nori, kombu, dulse, and more, for sale in major supermarkets everywhere. There are even toasted and flavored seaweed snacks marketed to kids in Western markets!

Soy: Look in the freezer section at any grocery store, and you’ll find edamame right next to other frozen veggie staples like broccoli, corn, and green beans. These nutritious green pods are steamed or boiled as a snack in Japan, and have become mainstream in many other places.

Tofu, now a super-popular protein for those following plant-based diets, is also a feature in numerous Japanese dishes, where you’ll find it raw, steamed, deep-fried, freeze-dried, and fermented!

Miso, a fermented soybean paste packed with umami, is a familiar part of a global pantry, used in things like soups, salad dressings, marinades, and sauces.

And, of course there’s soy sauce — glorious soy sauce! — which adds a major pop of umami to everything it touches. Soy sauce is so mainstream as a condiment and flavoring agent these days, it’s giving ketchup a run for its money.

Vegetables: Plants are enormously important in Japanese cuisine, and we now see a greater emphasis on eating vegetables in cultures around the world. Shishito peppers, daikon radishes, maitake mushrooms, burdock root, mizuna greens, and kabocha squash are just a few of the Japanese vegetables that are now commonly found in non-Japanese cultures.

Wasabi, soba and udon noodles, mochi, tempura, yakitori … We could go on and on. There are so many Japanese dishes and techniques that global eaters have fallen in love with. And while our 100% yellow pea pasta and whole-plant sauces and snacks aren’t directly descended from Japanese food traditions, our philosophies most certainly are.

ZENB is a Japanese-owned company with over 200 years of food experience. The ZENB approach to food — simple ingredients packed with plant-fueled nutrition that respect and honor the planet — began with our Japanese owners, and now informs our entire perspective.

Fun fact: Our name is derived from the word zenbu (全部), which is the Japanese expression for “whole.” We’ve taken the idea and run with it, developing products that embrace the whole plant, and whole food experiences across the whole day!

Dig into more ZENB goodness by exploring our collection of 100+ plant-fueled recipes and following along on Pinterest, Facebook, and Instagram!


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