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The Japanese Table / Dramatic change in washoku eaten at home

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Nobuko Iwamura

The Yomiuri ShimbunThis series has taken a look at washoku traditional Japanese cuisine. Starting with this installment, we focus on the current situation of the home dinner table.

Washoku at home is said to be facing a crisis. It is less frequently served, and the practice of featuring seasonal elements, one of washoku’s strengths, is disappearing. To hear about the possibilities of washoku’s revival, The Yomiuri Shimbun interviewed Nobuko Iwamura, a guest professor at Taisho University who has conducted research into dining at home for many years.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

I started conducting this research in 1998. I commission homemakers to take photos and make records of their meals at home for a week and also find out other details about them. Through this research, I have collected more than 15,000 photos.

Dining at home has changed over the past 20 years, and the amount of washoku served at home has decreased.

Fewer households serve meals at which the whole family sits down to enjoy seasonal foods together.

A typical change has happened with nabe hot pot dishes, which were originally meant for winter. For each dining occasion, seasonings are carefully chosen to maximize the flavor of ingredients that are in season. One diner is usually designated as the nabe bugyo (hot pot commissioner), serving guests and family the ingredients they judge to be cooked just right.

But these days, nabe is eaten all year round. In addition, instead of enjoying the inherent good flavor of ingredients, many people today cook them in hot pot stocks with such flavors as tomato or kimchi, partly because children like them. If family members do not eat at the same time, heating the dish each time works well. In this respect, nabe today has become a kind of stewed dish.

This means it has become common to “eat what I want now” seasoned with “my favorite flavor” according to “my own schedule.”

Diners have shifted their emphasis to their own preferences and convenience, away from ingredients and natural elements. That change is not peculiar to nabe alone.

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  • Photos courtesy of Nobuko Iwamura

    1. A breakfast without a bowl of rice: Members of this family buy what they want to eat at convenience stores.
    2. A meal with two or more “staple” foods: Yakisoba fried noodles are not enough to make the whole family feel full, so their favorites, such as takoyaki octopus balls and somen noodles, are served one after another. No side dishes appear.

  • Photos courtesy of Nobuko Iwamura

    3. Foods for adults served on partitioned plates for children: An onigiri rice ball, leftover salad and cheese are served together on a single plate for each person. This style can reduce the number of dishes to wash.
    4. No preference for washoku
    This family likes curry and rice. They do not want vegetables. Cold tofu and aburaage deep-fried tofu are served as side dishes. Mugicha barley tea is indispensable.

  • Photos courtesy of Nobuko Iwamura

    5. This table is not equipped with enough chairs to accommodate the whole family: The husband prepares breakfast by himself. He eats a cup of instant noodles he buys at a store and also cooked rice, sitting on a stool he brings to the table from elsewhere in the house.
    6. Add seasonings at the same time: The nikujaga simmered meat and potatoes, top left, is seasoned simultaneously with sake, mirin, soy sauce and sugar at the end of the cooking process.

  • Photo courtesy of Nobuko Iwamura

    7. No basic seasonings are used: Thin strips of konbu seaweed simmered with chikuwa tube-shaped fish cake are seasoned with soy-sauce based stock. Chop suey is seasoned with a commercially available mixed seasoning.

Parents these days rarely convey their knowledge and experience of washoku to their children. That clearly stems from changes in lifestyles caused by the times.

Western influence

My research covers homemakers who were born in the 1960s or later. Their mothers grew up amid a food shortage after the end of World War II, and therefore there was very little about washoku they could convey to their children based on their own experiences.

When they got married and started families, the government had already tried hard to promote the Western-style diet that includes abundant oils and fats, meat, flour and milk. Many of these homemakers learned how to prepare Western dishes at cooking schools and from magazines, which triggered a drastic change in dining at home.

In addition, 1960 is dubbed “the first year of instant foods,” so people who were born in 1960 or later were greatly influenced by instant food. Fast food later became popular, which further simplified dining at home and caused a bigger decrease in opportunities to cook at home.

Also, in a new trend in child care, adults started to cater to children’s wishes. Based on the idea that their likes and dislikes of foods are part of their unique personal traits, children were no longer forced to eat everything that was served.

More and more children started to go to cram schools, which required them to finish their evening meals early, while their fathers came home very late and dined alone. That situation led to the common practice of eating alone and even eating different food from other family members.

More and more people also says things like, “I don’t like plain white rice because it has no taste,” and “I don’t need miso soup” — both basic components of Japanese cuisine — while people increasingly favor Western foods. At the same time, more and more people tend to eat quickly, such as by washing food down with mugicha barley tea without chewing sufficiently.

Some people place only what they like on the dinner table, and such meals often consist of two or more “staple” foods alone, such as a rice ball and a cup of instant noodles, and spaghetti and a dessert pastry.

These changes that happened in washoku dining at home obviously reflect changes in familial relationships, which eventually made the dinner table at home the way it is today as a result of looking for good dining styles. I don’t think washoku can be revived at home even if people are given opportunities to learn recipes and experience good flavors.

Ultimately, washoku may become something that is passed down only at expensive restaurants and other special places, just like tea ceremonies and wearing kimono.

However, even if traditional washoku menus decrease, I believe the spirit of washoku will be handed down in a form that is somehow different from today’s. For example, cold pasta recipes were created based on the washoku idea of eating cold hiyamugi or somen noodles to help beat the summer heat. Thus, the essence of washoku will continue to be incorporated into the cooking of Western and Chinese dishes.

The concept of “handing down washoku” in fact poses a difficult challenge to individuals and families alike because it is closely associated with what lifestyles they want to follow.

— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Miwa Uehara.

Survey on more than 400 people

Iwamura’s research, titled “Shoku (dining) Drive,” covers homemakers who were born in 1960 or later, live in Tokyo and neighboring areas and have children.

At the outset, they are asked about their cooking routine for their families, awareness of diet and actual situations through a questionnaire survey. They then record and take photos of three meals every day for a week. They specify such aspects as reasons for choosing a dish, recipes, dining times and places.

Each of them is further interviewed to provide more details. In the end, the results of the questionnaire survey and actual situations are compared to find gaps, and their backgrounds are studied.

Since Iwamura started the research in 1998, she has collected such data as questionnaire results from more than 400 people, journals of more than 8,600 meals and more than 15,000 photos.

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