Traditional Japanese cuisine is dominated by white rice and few meals would be complete without it. Anything else served during a meal, fish, meat, vegetables, tsukemono (pickles), is considered a side dish, known as okazu.
Traditional Japanese meals are named by the number of side dishes that accompany the rice and soup that are nearly always served. The simplest Japanese meal, for example, consists of ichiju-issai ( “one soup, one side” or “one dish meal”). This means soup, rice, and one accompanying side dish,usually a pickled vegetable like daikon. A traditional Japanese breakfast, for example, usually consists of miso soup, rice, and a pickled vegetable. The most common meal, however, is called ichiju-sansai ( “one soup, three sides”), or soup, rice, and three side dishes, each employing a different cooking technique. The three side dishes are usually raw fish (sashimi), a grilled dish, and a simmered (sometimes called boiled in translations from Japanese) dish, although steamed, deep fried, vinegared, or dressed dishes may replace the grilled or simmered dishes. Ichiju-sansai often finishes with pickles such as umeboshi and green tea.
This Japanese view of a meal is reflected in the organization of traditional Japanese cookbooks. Chapters are organized according to cooking techniques: fried foods, steamed foods, and grilled foods, for example, and not according to particular ingredients (e.g., chicken or beef) as are western cookbooks. There may also be chapters devoted to soups, sushi, rice, noodles, and sweets.
Since Japan is an island nation, its people consume much seafood including fish, shellfish, octopus, squid, crab, lobster, shrimp and seaweed. Although not known as a meat eating country, very few Japanese consider themselves vegetarians. Beef and chicken are commonly eaten and have become part of everyday cuisine.
Noodles, originating from China, have become an essential part of Japanese cuisine. There are two traditional types of noodle, soba and udon. Made from buckwheat flour, soba is a thin, brown noodle. Made from wheat flour, udon is a thick, white noodle. Both are generally served in a soy-flavored fish broth with various vegetables. A more recent import from China, dating to the early 19th century, is ramen (Chinese wheat noodles), which has become extremely popular. Ramen is served in a variety of soup stocks ranging from soy sauce/fish stock to butter/pork stock.
Although most Japanese eschew eating insects, there are a couple of exceptions. In some regions, grasshoppers (inago) and bee larvae (hachinoko) are not uncommon dishes. Salamander is eaten as well in places.