18 Surprising Facts About Japanese Food You Never Knew

Apr 5, 2024

Japanese food is, without a doubt, some of the tastiest in the world. If you’ve ever enjoyed some fresh nigiri, Tonkotsu ramen or katsu curry, it's not hard to see why.

However, beyond the familiar delicious dishes lie many hidden and interesting facts that many people don't know.

In this article, we'll share 18 surprising facts about Japanese food that all Japanese food lovers must know.

→ Shop now: Our range of Japanese Food and Ingredients

#1 Sushi Has Humble Beginnings

Modern-day sushi started from a simple fish preservation process many centuries ago. This process involved fermenting fish with rice, vinegar and salt. Its evolution to the tasty vinegared rice and fresh fish combination we enjoy today is a credit to Japan's culinary innovation.

Sushi platter

#2 The Concept of Umami Originates in Japan

In 1908, a Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda identified a fifth taste called "umami", in addition to sweet, salty, bitter and sour. The discovery marked a turning point in culinary science. Umami taste is a testament to Japan's contribution to understanding the complex flavours that our palates can perceive. The word "umami" means "pleasant, savoury taste" in Japanese.

Umami Taste

#3 Wagyu Beef Farming Involves Unparalleled Breeding and Care

The allure of Wagyu beef lies in its unparalleled marbling and flavour, a result of meticulous breeding and care. This enthralling dish reflects Japan's dedication to quality and perfection. We find that it offers a melt-in-the-mouth experience that is simply irresistible, and will keep you wanting more.

Slice of Wagyu Beef Steak

#4 Ramen Noodles Have Chinese Roots

Although synonymous with Japan, the roots of ramen noodles can be traced back to China. More specifically Chinese immigrants who lived in Japanese port cities. It is generally agreed that modern-day ramen is a Japanese adaptation of Chinese wheat noodle soup. The first recorded instance was in Yokohama Chinatown in the early 20th century.

Ichiran Noodle Restaurant in Tokyo

#5 Matcha Is a Versatile Ingredient

Matcha is not just used as an essential Japanese ingredient for traditional tea but also to add distinctive colour and flavour to a variety of dishes. From green teas and matcha lattes to matcha ice cream, matcha showcases the innovative spirit of Japanese cuisine. Besides transforming simple ingredients, matcha also has health benefits and cultural significance.

Japanese matcha inspiration

#6 Japanese Tea Comes in Many Forms

Japan's tea culture extends far beyond the well-known matcha tea. It also includes a variety of other green teas like sencha and gyokuro, each with unique brewing methods and flavours. There are other teas such as Mugichu tea which is made from roasted barley grains, Wakoucha, a black tea, and Gobocha which is made from burdock root.

Japanese green tea

#7 Miso Comes in Different Styles

Miso paste plays an important role in Japanese cooking. However, did you know this fermented soybean paste varies widely in colour, texture, and taste? This diversity reflects regional preferences and culinary traditions across Japan. With its depth of umami flavour, miso paste elevates dishes, highlighting the importance of fermented foods.

Different types of Miso Paste

#8 Sake Is Brewed During Winter Months

Japan's famous rice wine, Sake is brewed primarily in the Winter months. The colder Winter weather during this period creates the perfect conditions for fermentation. The result is a delicate alcoholic beverage that ranges from sweet to dry, as well as rich to light.

Saje brewing in distillery


#9 Bento Boxes Started Around 1,000 Years Ago

Originating in the Kamakura period around 1,000 years ago, bento boxes are a testament to Japanese ingenuity. They offer delicious balanced meals aesthetically arranged in portable containers. Bento lunchboxes are still a key part of Japanese lunch culture, feeding millions every day. We love grabbing ours at the station before catching the Shinkansen (bullet train).

Selection of Bento Boxes At Shinkansen Station

#10 Kit Kat Has Over 300 Flavours in Japan

Japan's fascination with Kit Kat has led to the creation of over 300 flavours, with everything from wasabi to milk tea and sake. The innovative tastes not only speak to the Japanese desire for experimentation but also to cultural openness. This has allowed them to redefine conventional snacks into something uniquely Japanese. Our favourite flavour is matcha green tea, however why not try strawberry cheesecake?

#11 Japanese Cooking Loves Seasonal Ingredients

The principle of shun, or eating seasonally, is deeply ingrained in Japanese culinary culture. This philosophy not only ensures the freshest flavours but also maintains a connection with the natural world. Thus, reminding us of the rhythms of life and the importance of living in harmony with the environment.

Seasonal Japanese rice dish

#12 Traditional Dining often Involves Sitting Down on the Floor

Traditionally, Japanese diners eat on low tables while sitting on a thin cushion placed on top of tatami mats. The tatami is covered with a weft-faced weave of the soft rush plant. In very formal settings it is typical for diners to kneel. However, in less formal settings men often cross their legs and women keep both their legs to the same side. We find that sitting so low may take a little time to adjust to.

Japanese Tatami on Miyajima

#13 Many Restaurants Specialise in One Type of Food

Many food establishments serve up a small range of flavourful dishes in only one type of food. For instance, tempura, sushi, soba noodles, ramen noodles, donburi, oden, yakitori, tonkatsu, and teppanyaki. We love the Yatai concept, which is covered, moveable food stalls that include seating space and specialise in one type of food. They are particularly famous in the port city of Fukuoka.

Plate of tempura

#14 Japanese Whisky Is World Class

The international acclaim for Japanese whisky marks its standing at the pinnacle of the global whisky industry. This is experienced through some exceptional whisky brands including Nikka, Yamazaki, and Hakushu that have received international awards. These have shot to prominence in recent years, and are popular due to their distinct character and craftsmanship.

Japanese whisky pouring

#15 The First Sushi Conveyor Belt Was from Japan

The invention of the sushi conveyor belt was in Osaka in 1958. This revolutionized the sushi dining experience, making it more accessible and fun, appealing to a younger crowd. The sushi conveyor belt reflects the Japanese knack for blending tradition with technology. In doing this it has also reinvented the dining experience.

Sushi conveyor belt in action

#16 Japan Loves Fast Food Culture

Japan's fast food scene integrates global influences with local tastes. This has created a fast-food culture that is distinctly Japanese. It's popular for Japanese people to enjoy highly localised menus of international fast food chains such as McDonald's and KFC. They can also eat at home-grown domestic fast food champions like Mos Burger, Yoshinoya and even Family Mart.

KFC in Fukuoka, Japan

#17 Sushi Making Is a Highly Skilled Artform

The rigorous training required to become a sushi chef in Japan often lasts up to a decade. This is a testament to the artistry and dedication behind each piece of sushi. This meticulous craft highlights the Japanese commitment to excellence. It also reaffirms the deep respect for culinary traditions.

Sushi making

#18 Traditional Japanese Breakfasts Offer a Balanced Start to the Day

A traditional Japanese breakfast comes with grilled fish, rice, miso soup, and pickled vegetables. This offers a balanced start to the day. Japanese breakfast exemplifies the Japanese principle of "washoku", or harmony in food. Traditional breakfasts combine a variety of food groups, flavours, and textures. This creates a wholesomely satisfying experience.

Traditional Japanese Breakfast

Final Word

These 18 surprising facts offer a glimpse into the heart and soul of Japanese cuisine. This reveals a cuisine that is shaped and influenced by thousands of years of history and culture. Japanese cooking invites us to explore, taste, and celebrate a rich heritage that continues to enchant and delight the world.

→ Shop now: Our range of Japanese Food and Ingredients

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