Simply put, washoku means Japanese-style (wa) food (shoku).
It was inscribed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013, and UNESCO defines it as “a social practice based on a set of skills, knowledge, practice and traditions related to the production, processing, preparation and consumption of food.” This means that washoku isn’t just food, but also the attitudes and traditions surrounding it.
Okay, that sounds good. But what is this food? Most research will point you in the direction of kaiseki ryouri, which is, according to Japan Magazine, “the most refined form of washoku”.
Kaiseki is the traditional haute cuisine of Japan. It is based on the style of dishes served at the Imperial Court, at Buddhist temples, at the homes of samurai lords, and at tea ceremonies. The kaiseki aesthetic requires the use of local, seasonal food, with an attention to the balance of flavours and artistic presentation of each dish. As Japan is an island nation surrounded by a bounty of seafood, and generally followed the Buddhist tradition of forgoing meat until the 19th century, traditional kaiseki meals focused mainly on fish, vegetables and rice. Ichiju sansai, or one soup and three side dishes, was the basic structure of the traditional kaiseki meal, though nowadays it is followed by a number of elaborate dishes.
You can usually find kaiseki at high-end traditional restaurants or ryokan (traditional Japanese inns), and it is often made by masters who have studied their art for years! The fact that most people don’t make kaiseki at home goes without saying…