Washoku – five colors, five tastes

“Five tastes, or go mi, describes what the Japanese call anbai, the harmonious balance of flavors – salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and spicy – that ensures that our palates are pleasantly stimulated, but not overwhelmed.” — Elizabeth Andoh, Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen

I haven’t posted a washoku meal for a while now. I began my exploration of the Japanese “harmony of food” by attending to the five colors (red, yellow, green, black, and white) on my plate. Then I turned my attention to the principle of “five ways,” which encourages the cook to incorporate several different cooking methods in preparing the meal.

Today’s lunch focused on inclusion of the five flavors. I had sweet from the corn in the polenta and the mirin-sake-tamari-shitake broth in which the carrots had been simmered. Salty came from the miso in the goma miso dressing and spicy from the red pepper-yuzu condiment sprinkled on the broccoli. I made a little salad of radish, hijiki, black sesame seeds, and rice vinegar which pulled in bitter and sour notes to complement the rest of the meal.

Five colors were also represented – red from the carrot and radish, yellow from the polenta, green from the broccoli, black from the hijiki and sesame seeds, and white from the radish – as were five cooking methods – simmered carrots, steamed broccoli, dry-roasted sesame seeds in the goma miso sauce, and the radish salad which was somewhere between pickled and raw.

I had wondered if the polenta, which is fairly neutral but still tagged as “Mediterranean” in my mind, would go well with the Japanese flavors of the carrots and broccoli. As promised by washoku, however, somehow the radish salad, with its crisp texture and bright flavors, created a kind of flavor bridge that pulled the whole meal together, and indeed I found my palate “pleasantly stimulated, but not overwhelmed.”

Goma Miso Dressing
This is one of my favorite sauces. I can rarely resist ordering goma ae (goma miso sauce over cooked spinach) at Japanese restaurants. I hadn’t realized how easy it is to make at home!
Recipe is from Elizabeth Andoh’s Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen .

1/4 cup white sesame seeds
2 T. sweet, light miso
Scant 1/4 cup dashi (I used my mirin-sake-tamari broth instead)
pinch of salt, if needed

Heat a small, heavy skillet (dry, without oil) over medium-high heat and add sesame seeds. Stir with a wooden spatula or gently swirl pan occasionally. In about a minute the seeds will begin to darken and you’ll smell them – remove from heat and continue to stir seeds in pan for another 20-30 seconds. If the seeds look in danger of scorching, put them immediately into the food processor. (The seeds may pop quite a bit – I like to cover my pan with a splatter screen while roasting the seeds.)

Process still-warm seeds in a food processor until all the seeds have been evenly crushed. Add a tablespoon of the miso and two tablespoons of the broth and pulse until combined. Taste and adjust sweetness with salt, if needed. Scrape down the sides of the food processor bowl, add the remaining miso and broth, and pulse until smooth. Makes about 1/2 cup, which was way more than enough for three large stalks of broccoli.

Washoku, the second principle

“Five ways, or go ho, urges cooks to prepare food by a variety of methods, simmering, broiling, and steaming being some of the most basic. By combining various methods at every meal, it is easy to limit the total amounts of sugar, salt, and oil consumed, thereby avoiding excessive calories.” — Elizabeth Andoh, Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen

I began my exploration of washoku, the Japanese “harmony of food,” by paying attention to having the five colors (red, yellow, black, green, and white) represented at each meal. Another aspect of bringing a meal into harmony involves attending to how my food is prepared.

“Avoiding excess calories” is something I don’t worry about in my home cooking (and it’s not like I have to hold myself back from eating meals that are entirely deep-fried), but within a cultural cuisine (and particularly within Japanese cuisine which seems to adore fried things as special treats) it makes sense to have a kind of checks-and-balances system to ensure meals will be healthful overall. And what I’ve found a lot of joy in for myself is the fact that bringing a variety of cooking methods to the plate means a greater range of textures; soft, chewy, crisp, crunchy – my mouth perks up when it literally has so much variety to chew on.


This meal may have been stretching it a little on the “five colors” front (red from quinoa, yellow from carrot, black from raisin, green from scallions, white from cauliflower – a more muted palate for sure) but it was brought to completion by attention to “five ways.” The meal originally contained quinoa, steamed, cauliflower, simmered, and tofu, broiled. I wanted to bring washoku to the meal in terms of cooking methods, so I added the scallions, which are raw, and made a quick carrot-raisin pickle.  These additions naturally brought so much more color to the plate as well, which is something I’ve found in my pursuit of harmonious meals – bringing one facet into harmonious alighnment usually pulls in other facets simultaneously. Not to mention simply making the meal more interesting, more tasty, and more healthful!

Washoku, the first principle

“Five colors, or go shiki, suggests that every meal include foods that are red, yellow, green, black, and white. (Often very dark colors, particularly, deep purple – eggplant, grapes – and sometimes brown – shitake mushrooms – are counted as black.) Vitamins and minerals naturally come into balance with a colorful range of foods.” — Elizabeth Andoh, Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen

Washoku, the book, is a huge and glossy tome filled with, as the subtitle suggests, recipes from the Japanese home kitchen. But before I started reading her book, I heard Andoh interviewed on The Splendid Table, my beloved NPR food show, and she talked about how the principles of washoku can be easily applied to a Western meal. After I started reading the book, I began looking for ways to bring the principles into any meal I prepare.


One of my first washoku meal-tweaks was a simple meal of homemade falafel over quinoa with tahini sauce, accompanied by a salad of grated daikon and carrot. Pretty plain on the plate – the falafel, quinoa, and tahini sauce all fall into your basic brown-to-tan spectrum, and the only color offered up by the salad, which I had been eating topped with toasted white sesame seeds (hello, brown-to-tan!), is the orange carrot.

So I checked the list Andoh outlines in the first principle of washoku, that of “five colors.” White was covered nicely by the daikon, and the orange carrots definitely seemed to me to be holding up the “yellow” end of things. But this plate of tan goodness was seriously defective in the other color departments, and, washoku aside, a big plate of neutral-colored food always kind of depresses me. (I remember my mom being horrified when she came to visit me at college – everything served in the dining hall that night was white-to-tan, from the fish filets to the cauliflower and mashed potatoes right down to the vanilla pudding for dessert. It was a big plate o’ neutral. Yum.)

So I brought a little color to my plate. Toasted black sesame seeds for the salad. A sexy line of sriracha hot sauce wending its way across the falafel brought in red and a sprinkle of parsely balanced the whole plate out with some green. Clearly this was not a jewel-like meal fit for an emperor – I was more interested in eating my lunch than in perfect plating – but having this extra boost of color significantly enhanced my enjoyment of the meal. Washoku is beginning to creep in, and, rather than feeling like a rule or a structure, it actually feels like something intuitive and right is coming home.

Washoku, an introduction

I’ve been reading the most fascinating book, Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen, by Elizabeth Andoh. In the book, Andoh (described on the book jacket as “the leading English-language authority on the foodways of Japan”) writes about the Japanese principles of washoku, the “harmony of food.”

As Andoh explains it, washoku is “both a culinary philosophy and the simple, nutritionally balanced food prepared in that spirit.” One of the things I foundbookcover most interesting is that, although Andoh details a set of principles that form the basis of washoku, she writes that in Japan washoku is so old and so deeply ingrained in the culture that “most Japanese today would have a hard time articulating washoku notions.” Nevertheless they follow them instinctively, whether preparing a home-cooked meal or putting together a meal of packaged foods from the supermarket or even the convenience store!

This made me think about the food principles that each culture follows intuitively. For the better part of the 20th century, most white Americans had a common understanding about how a plate of food should look – this much meat, this much starch, this much vegetable. I imagine a Japanese visitor wondering how each ’50s housewife knew to portion out and place exactly so much meatloaf, mashed potato, and green beans, each in their own zone on the plate. Why are potatoes served with gravy and not with tomato sauce? Why is meatloaf topped with ketchup and not mustard?

I have my own intuitive principles around food preparation and presentation, influenced most strongly by my mother. More than any specific recipes or dishes, what I remember learning were ideas about how food should look on the plate: lots of colors, pretty arrangements, interesting contrasts of textures. And above all, bounty. Not so much for an individual plate, but every platter, every holiday table, should be brimming with food, so much that every person could take as much as they craved and never have to worry for the people who hadn’t yet helped themselves.

Washoku, the book, is part cookbook, part comprehensive Japanese pantry-stocking and ingredients guide (with gorgeous, glossy photos of all the ingredients as well as prepared dishes), and part introduction to the beautiful and sensible principles that make up the washoku philosophy. I haven’t used the pantry-stocking guide or explored any of the recipes yet, but the washoku principles really resonate with me and I will be writing more about them here as I see how they incorporate into my life.