Washoku – “the harmony of food”

At the same two-day overview about Japan living that I wrote about in a previous post, I learned about the concept of Washoku, or the Japanese culinary mindset of “the harmony of food” from a well-known culinary arts expert named Elizabeth Andoh.

Knowing these principles that underlie the preparation and consumption of food in Japan has made me more attuned to noticing and appreciating these elements of Japanese cooking. Japanese people will use these principles when ordering at a restaurant as well as when preparing a traditional Japanese meal at home.

Five colors

Every Japanese meal should include each of the five color groups. These colors help give visual cues to the different nutrients included in the meal and including each color group ensures nutritional diversity.

Five colors
Note the use of the five color groups even in just one dish.


  • Red (aka) – any red tones including orange, purple, crimson, etc.
  • Green (ao) – also means “blue”
  • Yellow (kii) – includes any golden or ochre tones
  • White (shiro) – includes silver or ivory tones
  • Black (kuro) – includes any very dark tones (such as eggplant skin or shiitake mushrooms)

Five ways of preparation

Every Japanese meal should include elements of the five modes of food preparation. The benefit of having different modes of preparation is that textural differences created through the different modes of preparation result in a greater sense of satisfaction. This concept originated as a way to help people create a sense of diversity when limited by resources (such as only having one vegetable and fish during a particular season). This is likely the basis for the concept of the Iron Chef cooking competitions of being given one theme ingredient with which to make multiple courses.

Sakura obento box
Notice the five ways of preparation are included in this bento box. I made this “Sakura viewing obento” in a class by Elizabeth Andoh.


  • Simmer (niru) – anything cooked in a boiling liquid
  • Steam (musu) – often rice, but can be any steamed dish
  • Grill (yaku) – the creation of layers of flavor through grilling, broiling, searing, roasting
  • Fry (ageru) – includes the use of oil
  • Raw (nama) – heat is not applied, though the food is still transformed (think of sashimi or pickles)

Western cooking also usually emphasizes one style of preparation, which may make us crave additional textures or flavors and possibly lead to overeating.

Five flavors

By including the five flavors in each meal, cravings for any one particular flavor are minimized. One will also feel satisfied earlier if the flavors are balanced through the meal, rather that served at one particular time.

  • Salty
  • Sour
  • Sweet
  • Bitter – discourages appetite (often the pickles served as a side dish in a Japanese meal)
  • Spicy – encourages appetite

In Western cultures, we often serve our bitter flavor at the end of the meal (coffee/tea), which is too late to suppress our appetite and any overeating we may have experienced.

Five senses

The Japanese place value on the culinary experience created through all five senses:

  • Smell
  • Taste
  • Sound
  • Touch (mouth feel)
  • Sight

I’m continually impressed with the beauty of food arrangements – from more casual cooking to higher end restaurants.

Seasonality and freshness

These fives senses together help create a sense of time and place. Washoku also places importance on seasonality and when food is at the seasonal peak of flavor. I’ve noticed that many restaurants highlight seasonal ingredients and have frequently changing menus.


While genetically modified food (GMO) has been outlawed in Japan (hooray!), it is still okay to naturally manipulate food as long as it is respectful of nature and builds on the cleverness of people. Because of this, you see square watermelons or multicolored stenciled apples. They are not genetically modified, but have been grown in such as way that alters their appearance.


The food in Japan – Japanese and any cuisine I’ve encountered so far – is amazing, and the number of restaurants in Tokyo are endless. Knowing these concepts has just elevated my appreciation to another level. It is easy to practice “kansha” or appreciation toward those who cultivate, harvest and prepare food.

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