People think Japan is all about the sushi and ramen, but there’s more that goes into the way the country eats and plans meals.

Japanese food
Credit: Hideki Yoshihara/Aflo/Corbis

Ramen is one of Japan’s fast foods: Cheap, greasy, and favored by students after a night of drinking, but it’s not taken very seriously. Sushi is popular, but it’s not an everyday eat. Tempura, beef, sukiyaki? Also not everyday foods.

We looked to a few of the country’s top chefs and experts to find out what is more common. They talked about how they compose a plate, how much their daily diet adheres to the Zen principles of presenting five colors, five flavors, and five ways of cooking at each meal, and in what ways the culture of food is changing there, given the rise of interest in Western culture. Whether dining out or as a guest in a home, on your next trip, you’ll know how to eat like a local.

Chef Kenichiro Ooe, chef of Kozue, at the Park-Hyatt Tokyo

“Presentation, which we call moritsuke, is key. On a Japanese plate, for example, you might find diced meat to the far left and then daikon on top, and another vegetable to the right of that.

You eat the protein with the vegetable—the focus is not just the meat. You’ll find that portions are never four in number; five or seven is usually the number of dishes instead. That plating derives from flower arrangement and the tea ceremony. The food on the plate is often three-dimensional so that it can resemble a mountain, and in any family home, even without the formality of a restaurant, the plating follows the same mentality.

As for Zen: Sure, I think about that at home. Five colors: Green, yellow, white, black, red. Five tastes: Salty, bitter, sweet, sour, and spicy. And five methods of cooking: Grill, steam, fry, boil, and slice raw. I’m not saying every meal embraces these, but it is something to think about.

Culturally, today, there’s kind of been a meat “explosion.” People want to eat more meat, and butter, and cakes—in general, more Western dishes. But for real Japanese ‘soul food,’ what makes everyone happy is grilled salmon, miso soup, pickles, and white rice with sesame seeds.

Chef Yoshihiro Seno, chef of Zaborin, Niseko

“Something delicious is something beautiful. The visual component is of paramount importance here, as are the ingredients. For both kaiseki and home cooking, I trust there’s no better presentation than to cook something delicious with a true heart, as well as to choose good ingredients.

But the Zen principles are not something most people are aware of, let alone follow. Instead, Japanese traditions are customs rooted in our agricultural origins. Rice, for example, is our basis for food and life, and yet, with a flood of information in food globalization, some of those traditional elements become less necessary, and now we’re more open to being selective. Which is why I feel that people in Japan are becoming less interested and less respectful of our traditional food identity.”

Chef Yutaka Ebihara, chef of Kayotei, Yamanaka, Ishikawa

“I think three essential ingredients make up a Japanese meal: Dashi (broth), kombu, and bonita. With these, you know the meal is in Japan. As far as the classic Zen tastes, I’d add the sixth one: Umami!

Changes in what I make take place not just in terms of time, but with respect to place, as well as what I’m cooking. I’ll use different kombu from Hokkaido. Each of the kombu imbue a dish with completely different flavors—so if it’s a broth or an enhancement to a dish, that will decide what kombu I’ll be using.”

Chef Yoko Nomura, chef and owner of a cooking school, Sapporo

“Certain ingredients call to mind an everyday Japanese meal: Bonita (dried fish) and kombu (dried kelp). We use these to create a basic broth, and that varies from one prefecture to the next.

For example, in northern Japan, a certain type of fish is used for the bonita, and in Hokkaido we use more kombu because it comes from here. In Western Japan, sweet soy is added to the broth, and in northern Japan, salty soy is used.

So if you’re eating in someone’s home, you can tell where that person is from by the broth. To make traditional dishes, we use lots of sake and mirin.

As for Zen traditions, that’s not really part of daily life, but we do consider these on very special occasions. Especially for funerals, since the ceremonies are Buddhist. Changes of course take place: After World War II, American products like milk and chocolate became very popular. Then after the economic bubble burst around 1990, people took up the older Japanese style. On a personal level, I enjoy “old school” food such as miso soup, grilled fish, tofu, and rice, as well as western dishes like curry, beef stew, spaghetti, pizza, and salad.”