Cooking In A Japanese Kitchen

The beauty of culture, practices, beliefs, and product creation, is that all these things vary per country. You may see similarities in the way people make music, dance, or cook, but they are never completely alike. Any of these factors can be compared to the same factor of a different country. When you do take apart the intricacies behind something as menial as the way a nation designs their home or cooks their food, you discover a little more about them that can only be understood when you look in between the lines.

Take, for instance, a Japanese kitchen. Most, if not all houses have some sort of kitchen or an area of cooking. Back in the olden days in Japan, they used to call kitchens “kamado”. When directly translated, this means “stoves”. Depending on how it is used, the term can even represent the household, thus birthing different quotes and sayings that include the term “kamado”.

Quotes Using the Word "Kamado"

Using a stove to represent one’s home is not unique to Japan. The English have done this as well, specifically with the word “hearth”. One Japanese have a saying goes, “kamado wo yaburu”, which means to break a stove, connotes a family being broken apart. Another, “kamado wo wakeru”, - literally meaning to “divide the furnace”- means to separate a family.

The similar saying in English goes by the simple phrase, “hearth and home”, with both words being synonymous to each other. When one comes back to hearth and home, he or she comes back to the warmth and love that is his or her family.

The Development of the Japanese Kitchen

Japan’s earliest stages of human history fall into a category called the Jomon period. Kitchens at that time were a hearth located at the center of a circle of hearths. From a shallow dirt pit to one with stones, to one with clay vases, humans slowly learned how to adapt to cooking, making it more accessible and safer to keep inside their dwelling spaces.

The 6th century, which is during the Kofun period, is when almost everyone had a place to cook in their homes. Families that were well-off would construct an entirely different structure from their house just for cooking purposes. They were strategically placed beside bodies of water for quick access and also stored sacks of food underground. Once the Japanese got better at cultivating rice, storehouses would be made for entire villages to keep their rice supplies.

“Shoinzukuri”, The Standard Kitchen Style

By the 13th century, most homes would have kitchens of a style called “shoinzukuri”. This style was simple, but incredibly useful, as the drain and stove would be constructed in integration with each other. In its early development, the shoinzukuri was not a part of the main home but attached to it with a small hallway leading to a sub-building. It was fashioned with two kinds of stoves; the kamado, the secondary “irori”, and a sink, or drain board floor, called a “sunokoyuka”.

What You’ll Find in A Traditional Japanese Kitchen

From the 8th century to the 16th century, not much changed when it came to Japanese kitchens. There was a total of 17 items, give or take, that you were likely to find in traditional Japanese kitchen of these eras. The different kinds of pots would include an “ashikanahe”, which is an iron pot with 10 legs, as well as an iron pot placed on top of a stove (used to make “kayu” or congee), called “kakekanahe”. One pot was already connected to the stove, and was also mobile – this was called a “yukikamado”.

Other Pots and Ladles

A metal/clay-based pot for boiling water and cooking up a stew was called “nabe”, a bigger version of this made from clay was called a “hiraka”, while a “sashinabe”, smaller in size with a handle attached, heated up bottles of sake. A “karakamado” was a combination of karahe, koshiki, and kamado that was light enough to move from one spot to another. The “oke” is a wooden tub that could come in small, medium, and large sizes, as well as both flat and deep shapes. After the food is cooked, it is stored in a vase referred to as “kame”.

Essential Ware

To help the steam continue to cook the rice, a basket made of wood would be placed on top of the pot, and that basket is called a “koshiki”. Don’t forget the previously mentioned “kamado”, or the stove, which is the ultimate center of every kitchen. The kamado would usually be constructed from clay, tiles, and stones. To fuel the kamado, you would need some “takigi”, or dried wood. To scoop out the food, from any pot, you would use the “shaku”, which was a ladle made from wood.

Kitchen Tools For Food Preparation

The knife you would have to use to cut your vegetables, fish, and poultry would be the “katana”; No worries – it’s not the actual katana sword, it’s just what the knife is named. The cutting board where you chop your ingredients, which is called a “Manaita”, used to be called a “Kritsukue”, and other times, “Sekki”. When you’re done with cooking, you wash everything in a “Fune”, another kind of tub constructed from wood. To drain out any last bits of liquid from your ingredients, you would squeeze them with a hemp cloth called “Shitami”.

The Three Kinds of Stoves

While kamado was initially low, and made of sand and clay, creating one rim to support the cooking pot, it evolved throughout time. Soon, the kamado would have two holes; particularly noticed during the Muromachi period. Rising commercialism and entrepreneurship would lead to large restaurants by the 1600’s, leading to bigger kamado with many holes in their kitchens, more elevated, so it would be possible to cook while standing instead of squatting. This was observed as well in the homes of the wealthy, especially by the Edo era.

The second kind of stove is called an “irori”, whose purpose was to be a secondary stove. This kind is installed in your house, on the floor, as a frame would be mounted after removing the floor’s wooden panels, and that frame would be filled with sand. The pot would dangle from the ceiling from a hook, heated by the fire from the installed stove system.

Lastly, there was the “hibachi”, which has developed to be known as those flat counters that Japanese chefs use to cook food in front of you with. Back then, it was just deep pot used to grill bits of food when you didn’t want to fire up a larger stove. It was also safer to use.

Ways of Draining Water

It was easier to have your kitchen located near a river before there were water systems leading to houses. Wells that weren’t so deep (“asaido”) were made to aid those far from water sources. And then funes were made to collect the water, transported using bamboo shafts. The Muromachi, again, brought in the use of sinks. A match of the sunokoyuka was used to drain, with an oke pot and hisyaku to wash up the wares. All food scraps were used as compost, and the system rarely clogged up, as most Japanese were vegetarian, and thus did not eat meat at that time.

The Meiji Period and Industrialization

The Meiji period brought with it ideas from around the world, thus some major changes to how Japan’s kitchens worked. From slow and easy cooking squatting or sitting, European style kitchens emerged, and the Japanese came up with food fusions to welcome the change (known as the “haikara” boom) and changed their kitchen systems to be able to handle it.

The 20th century is when the gas light was used throughout Japan, despite the first one being used in Yokohama during the 1870’s. The Japanese initially shun the use of gas, but the 1900's watched the biggest shift with other kitchen items when electricity was introduced to houses. As for water, most homes in the city by the early 20th century were connected to a decent tap system.

The Usual Design of a Japanese Kitchen

Also called a “post-war” kitchen, the traces of traditional Japanese kitchens were minimal to nonexistent in newer houses as the occupation settled in. Gas was go-to for cooking, and electricity was used for all the other appliances in the kitchen. More houses would be built to have a “system kitchen”, which means that it would have slots and outlets prepared just for the incoming appliances such as a refrigerator and stove. Now, a Japanese kitchen doesn’t look too different from most western kitchens. They may use a few different appliances, but there are no major disparities.

Gadgets and Elements You’ll Find in A Contemporary Japanese Kitchen

An important but often overlooked variable in a kitchen is the countertop – which is now present in the contemporary Japanese kitchen. These countertops can be made of stainless steel for those on a budget, or stone/marble for those who can afford it. On top of those countertops are large sinks to wash plates. Another must-have is cabinets (usually pre-installed) to hold the dry ingredients (soy sauce, pre-packaged goods) before they’re cooked.

Gadget and appliance-wise, a refrigerator with a freezer are necessary for storing wet ingredients, or dishes/food that need to stay cold. Induction stoves or gas stoves (though some use electric stoves now) are placed on top of counters in many and are mainly used for cooking and grilling. Bigger kitchens take on bigger stoves, rarely with an oven, as it isn’t used in most Japanese recipes. A microwave and toaster oven are also essential.

As for what’s uniquely Japanese, you’ll find they have rice cookers and electric water boilers. This is because the Japanese consume rice as a large part of their diet. They also consume lots of noodles, which need hot water to be cooked – especially noodles in instant form or ramen. They also use the electric water boilers (you’ll find them in every hotel) to make oolong and green tea. You may also notice that they don’t use dishwashers too, as they prefer hand-washing their plates and utensils.

Where to Buy Supplies To Have Your Own Japanese Kitchen

You can purchase the supplies in almost any department store that sells appliances. Most of what is found in Japanese kitchens descend from western culture, so it should be no problem finding these items abroad – including the rice cooker and electric water boiler.

What are a little bit harder to find are specific items from Japanese cutlery? Good Japanese knives are known to be one of the best quality cutleries in the world, from hundreds of years of experience with blacksmithing.

The Best Knives For Your Kitchen: Buy Japanese Brands

You should check out their knife stores, and consider buying a few – especially if you are into cooking. The price is worth it. One popular knife store is Aritsugu, which gives you a wide selection of kitchen and sashimi knives. Just head to the Tsukiji Fish Market – you’ll find the kiosk lying at the fringes of the vending area.

The next brand to watch out for is Kamata, near the Asakusa station. Not only do they speak English and are happy to assist you with picking out the kinds of knives you may need, they also make the blades, white hot, right before you. Unparalleled by other knives, they have a signature etching on their blades, some of which are Japanese symbols, flowers, and waves.

Worried about how you’re going to take it through airport security? The store can help you with that as well. Giving you a Letter of Consideration when you buy their knives. You can’t miss their store because they have the statues of two mythological creatures – the Kappa – situated right outside their door.

What’s in a Japanese Kitchen Knife Set?

The retailer chooses how to package the company’s knives, so there’s no definite kitchen knife set that’s particularly Japanese. There are many kinds of sets you can choose from, such as 19-piece sets 14-piece sets, to 5-piece sets. It depends on what you need in your kitchen. What is advisable to do, so you can keep costs and clutter down, is to get four knives (preferably of a Japanese brand) that are essential to your kitchen. Those are an 8-10 inch Chef’s Knife (gyuto), a serrated bread knife, a Santoku knife that measures 7 to 8 inches, and a 3-4 inch paring knife for vegetables.

The Japanese Kitchen Menu

There is a restaurant called “The Japanese Kitchen” in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that supposedly won “Best of the City” in terms of restaurants in 2013 and 2014, as well as “Best of Burque”, 2014. They are famous for their great service in two divisions; the Sushi Bar and Cuisine, and the Japanese Kitchen Steak House. Their menu is not available online, though reviewers on yelp and TripAdvisor enjoyed their creative sushi rolls and juicy steaks drizzled with sauce.

Globalization has taken the world to a point that cultures and ideas are shared easily. Sharing ideas often helps everyone in the end game, with the best and most convenient ideas being the new norm – an example of this is the modern Japanese kitchen.