Daily Japanese Meals

A Brief Introduction to Traditional Japanese Cooking

Japanese cooking can be as difficult or as easy as one wants to make it.  It does take time, but there are dishes that are very easy and quick to make.  Basic grilled fish dishes are extremely easy and can be made using an ordinary frying pan or a small toaster oven.  Buying fish at a Japanese grocer can be expensive, but good food usually is.  We’ll try and orient you to the various fish commonly available and how best to prepare and cook them.  Western cooking is a daily part of Japanese life, but traditional cooking is still main stream.  Let’s take a look at a typical day in Japanese cooking.  Every meal begins with cleaning one’s hands with a hot moist towel called an oshiboria hot moist towel.
おしぼりThe Kanji for this word is お絞り


Although it’s common for Japanese to rush to work having eaten toast and yogurt, or maybe nothing at all, a traditional Japanese breakfast (most often served at a ryokan) consists of yakizakanagrilled fish.
やきざかなThe Kanji for this word is 焼き魚
which is grilled fish, oshinkopickles.
おしんこThe Kanji for this word is お新香
which are pickles, miso shiro, which is better known as miso soup, and a bowl of rice.


The word obentō comes from the kanji tōza meaning “for the time being” and benzuru meaning “make do”.  The original idea of this light meal dates back to the 12th century, but it wasn’t until 1885, when ekibentō or the “train station boxed meals” were made and sold at Utsunomiya station by Saitō Kahei.  He sold omusubi (pressed rice cakes) stuffed with umeboshi and takuan.  A bentō box is generally made with locally available foods, known as meisan or as meibutsu in which it is arranged in a particular manner or special commorative box according to a local theme.

Lunch can take on a variety of forms, but often it can be something quick to eat.  If there isn’t time to actually sit down at a restaurant, and one hasn’t brought their own bentō box, then a trip to the corner convenience store, or as said in Japanese, conbini (short for conbiniensu suto-a), to purchase their lunch meal is made.  Convenience stores such as Lawson, Family Mart and the well known American chain, 7-11 sell a host of items including popular snack foods (such as dried and boiled squid), bentō boxes, onigiri (which are rice balls pressed into a triangular shape, and stuffed with salmon, umeboshi plum, and other fillings), oden, a mixture of various fish cakes, hard boiled egg, vegetables and octopus, as well as nikuman (see below).   Point of sale systems track the time of day as well as other types of consumer purchasing information, thereby providing suppliers a better understanding of what products are hot, and what aren’t.  

Here is a list of common lunch time foods offered at corporate cafeterias and at local restaurants as daily specials:

Japanese Lunch Foods
Name Kanji/Hiragana Description
Curry rice カレーラス A popular rice dish with a curry flavored sauce; often thought of as an Indian dish, but this one is distinctly Japanese.
Eki bentō 駅弁当 / えきべんとう Train station boxed meal which originated in 1885 at Utsunomiya station through the entrepanurial spirit of Saitō Kahei who sold omusubi (pressed rice cakes) stuffed with umeboshi and takuan.
Kaiseki bentō 会席弁当 / かいせきべんとう A poplular boxed lunch containing fish, Chinese dumpling called shu-mai, rice, sushi or sashimi as an appetizer and vegetables.  Obentō comes from the kanji tōza meaning for the time being and benzuru meaning make do.  The original idea of a light meal dates back to the 12th century.
Makunouchi bentō 幕の内弁当 / まくのうちべんとう Similar to kaiseki bentō.  Obentō is made with locally available foods, known as meisan or as meibutsu in which it is arranged in a particular manner or special commorative box.
Ramen ラメン A popular noodle soup.  See the section on Noodles.
Nikuman 肉マン / にくまん nikuman

Of course, for those in a real hurry, there is nothing like picking up a couple of steamed pork buns, or what is called nikuman.  Place the mouse cursor over the picture on the right, to see what’s inside of this treat.


A number of traditional Japanese dinner dishes have made there way into the Western culinary vocabulary.  The food glossary found here, describes some of the most common Japanese foods, some that you will find at your local Japanese restaurant.

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