Traditional Japanese cuisine (washoku) is recognised by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, but do you know about "ichiju sansai?" Dishes like sushi, ramen, and tempura are often the first that come to mind when someone mentions Japanese food. However, washoku and especially Japanese home-cooking are actually very different, and usually most of these meals are based on ichiju sansai, the traditional Japanese meal setting.
What Is Ichiju Sansai?
"Ichiju sansai" (一汁三菜) literally translates to "one soup, three dishes." It is the foundation of many traditional Japanese meals. The three dishes will usually consist of one main dish and two side dishes, offering endless combinations for a varied meal.
Although rice and pickles are always included as well, you will notice that they are not part of the name "ichiju sansai." This is because both rice and pickles are considered an indispensable part of any Japanese meal, which makes it unnecessary to indicate that they will be served as well.
The Origins of Ichiju Sansai
Ichiju sansai has its roots in the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) and derives from a banquet-style form of serving meals to nobility and the samurai class during this era. This elaborate type of dining was called "honzen ryori" (本膳料理) where dishes were skillfully arranged and served to guests on small wooden or lacquered tray tables. These four-legged tables would be presented in sets of three, five, or seven, with the first tray (honzen) holding 1 soup and 3 dishes, the second tray (ninozen) usually holding 2 soups and 5 dishes, the third tray (sannozen) usually holding 3 soups and 7 dishes, and so on.
Over time, this extravagant way of dining evolved and changed into the simpler everyday ichiju sansai meal we know today, containing the dishes of the original honzen: 1 soup and 3 dishes.
The Benefits of Ichiju Sansai
Even today, most Japanese subconsciously eat after the principles of ichiju sansai for the majority of their meals. There are many reasons this way of eating remains popular, the main one being ichiju sansai’s unbeatable health benefits.
A traditional ichiju sansai meal is carefully balanced to make sure you get all the energy and vital nutrients your body needs. The main dish is usually based on protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, eggs, or tofu, and the two side dishes contain a variety of vegetables for vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Rice provides carbohydrates, and a bowl of soup ensures you stay hydrated.
Balance is also about including a variety of flavors and textures. And since ichiju sansai is served in multiple smaller bowls instead of one big one, it is easy to get this variety, which ultimately makes us enjoy it more and leads to less overeating.
How to Implement Ichiju Sansai at Home
As ichiju sansai is a concept rather than a set of specific dishes, it’s for everyone. Dishes can be swapped, mixed, and matched, and the meal can be customized and made suitable for vegetarians, vegans, and people with other dietary restrictions. As long as you keep the basic principles in mind, only your imagination sets the limit for cooking up a delicious, traditional Japanese ichiju sansai meal in your own home!
Below, we'll go through each element of the traditional ichiju sansai meal so that you know exactly how to implement it at home.
Rice is the staple food in Japanese cuisine. Because it is such an important part of their diet, many Japanese invest in high-grade rice cookers or cook the rice in clay pots directly on the stove for that perfect texture and fluffiness.
Traditionally, plain white rice is served with an ichiju sansai meal, but you can switch it out for "takikomi gohan," a seasoned rice dish typically cooked with mushrooms and other vegetables.
The rice can be served in a bowl with or without a lid, and the bowls can be anything from robust pottery in earthy hues to porcelain decorated with elegant patterns and bold colors.
SC&SC HOMUSUBI CHARCOAL POT (SMALL) (DIRECT FIRE & IH)
This outstanding pot is the result of a collaboration between skilled cookware craftsman Junji Sato from Gunma Prefecture and Shintaro Katayama - a renowned chef who now runs a Michelin restaurant in Osaka.
Rather than earthenware or metal, this pot is made with carbon which gives it high thermal conductivity, allowing the cooking time to be reduced by as much as 50%. It's also more lightweight than traditional clay pots and has nonstick coating, making it easy to clean.
UTSUWA ROAN TENMOKU CAMELLIA BOWL (BLACK/RED)
Utsuwa Roan creates bowls, tea cups, and other ceramics based on the Akazu technique which has a history of more than 1,300 years. All their items are hand-crafted and hand-painted.
These beautiful rice bowls come together as a set. The black is slightly bigger than the red, which makes the set perfect for couples who have very different appetites. Both are decorated with delicate "tsubaki" camellia flowers, the symbolic flower of Seto City, which is where Utsuwa Roan is located.
HIRADO SHOZAN HIRADO-JYUSSO CHAWAN (M)
Hirado ware is a type of porcelain originating in Nagasaki Prefecture that used to be especially popular with the imperial court and European royalty. It’s characterized by its pure white, sometimes almost transparent, base color and intricate decorative patterns in indigo.
These particular Hirado rice bowls come in a set, with one being slightly larger than the other, and are made by Hirado Shozan, a 400-year-old kiln started by one of the founding fathers of Hirado ware. They are hand painted with extreme precision to create a classic and elegant look for your dinner table. These bowls are also very practical and sturdy, and can be heated up in the microwave or put in the dishwasher.
Traditionally, the soup for an ichiju sansai meal will be a miso soup, which is good for digestion. That said, any soup goes - if you feel like adding minestrone to your meal, go for it! Often, things like seaweed, leek, tofu, or clams will be added to the miso soup to give it some extra texture and nutrients.
Soup bowls can come with or without a lid. Some people will even use rice bowls as soup bowls and vice versa!
87.5 GOTO LACQUER RICE BOWL
This stylish lacquer bowl was made using the "goto-nuri" technique. Wares made with this technique have a distinct vermilion color that only deepens with age and a unique texture thanks to the pigment being applied by hand rather than a brush.
On top of its gorgeous appearance, this bowl is incredibly easy to use. The fine lines on the outside of the bowl help with grip when holding it, and the bowl has a slight outward curve to make it easy to drink from. Lacquer also strengthens wood and reduces heat transfer, so you can easily drink hot soup with it. Even young children and the elderly will find it a breeze to use!
Originally, the three dishes of ichiju sansai were not broken down into one main dish and two side dishes, but rather consisted of one nimono (stewed dish), one namasu (raw dish), and one yakimono (fried or grilled dish). Though this recipe isn't followed today, it is still advised to try to add different types of flavors and textures as well as implement a variety of cooking styles to any ichiju sansai meal.
Back in the day, it wasn't common to eat meat like pork or beef in Japan, so the main dish would usually consist of seafood. Today, anything protein-based goes, and you will find main dishes like meat stews, raw or grilled fish, various types of tofu, and even tonkatsu or gyoza.
The type of plate used to present the main dish is often ceramic and can have all kinds of colors, glazes, and patterns. The shape depends on the dish: an oblong shape is ideal for fish, a shallow bowl works well for meat stews, and so on.
MARUMO KATO POTTERY LARGE KUSHIME SAURY PLATE BLACK
This rectangular plate was crafted with the Mino technique, which originated in an area of Gifu Prefecture known as “Ceramic Valley” where pottery has been produced for more than 1,300 years. It has a simple and aesthetic design, and the shape makes it perfect for grilled fish.
HAKUICHI SMALL OBOROTSUKI PLATE 180 (LACQUER)
This gorgeous circular plate is hand crafted in Ishikawa Prefecture, which is famous for its Kanazawa gold leaf wares. The raw wood is polished and treated with lacquer multiple times until it takes on a deep black color, and then delicate gold leaf is carefully applied to it in the shape of a full moon.
With its refined appearance, this plate works great for presenting sushi such as nigiri or maki rolls. It also goes well with colorful dishes which contrast beautifully with its dark appearance.
The two side dishes served in ichiju sansai meals are usually vegetable-based. They are where you can really let loose and explore many different recipes and combinations - keeping in mind seasonal produce and the need to have a well-balanced meal, of course.
Depending on the dish, both bowls and plates can be used to present side dishes in ichiju sansai. Experiment with different shapes, patterns, and colors for a unique table setting!
DAINICHI SMALL HIBIKI ASH GLAZE SANSAI PLATE 150
The deep hues of green and blue in this beautiful plate are the work of Shigeo Takemura, one of the few artisans in Japan who work with ash glaze. Since the ratio of ashes used to make the glaze differs each time, each and every piece ends up with a unique finish. If you're looking for a piece that really makes a statement, this is the plate for you.
Pickled vegetables such as Japanese daikon radish, cucumber, and Chinese cabbage serve as a palate cleanser during your meal. You can choose to serve only one type of tsukemono, or include 2-3 different types.
Tsukemono are usually presented on small plates or bowls in ichiju sansai meals. Feel free to switch up their sizes and colors to match your mood or the rest of the dining table.
MARUMO TAKAGI SMALL SHUN JAPAN SHUKIN MAME PLATE (5 PIECES)
Another example of Mino ware from Gifu Prefecture, this set of 5 small plates is perfect for presenting tsukemono with your ichiju sansai meal. With a pure white base, the plates are painted in red and gold, featuring traditional Japanese patterns and symbols such as gingko leaves, goldfish, and plum blossoms.
MARIKO SUZUKI PLATE TINY
Mariko Suzuki is a young artisan from the seaside town of Tokoname in Aichi Prefecture. She specializes in pottery coated with a unique glaze made from seashells collected from her local area that makes her creations look different under various types of lighting.
This particular tiny dish is jet black, providing a perfect contrasting backdrop to the often colorful tsukemono. It is made to order, so you know that each and every version of this dish is 100% unique.
Placement of the Dishes in Ichiju Sansai
Whether at a restaurant or at home, most ichiju sansai meals are served following this rule when setting up the tray or table:
Bottom right: soup
Bottom left: Rice
Top right: Main dish
Top left: 1st side dish
Middle: 2nd side dish
However, in Kansai, the main dish is usually placed at the bottom right, the soup at the top left, and the 1st side dish at the top right.
Other Essential Utensils for Ichiju Sansai
Now that you have prepared and beautifully presented all the dishes for your ichiju sansai meal, it’s time to add the final touches for a true home-cooked Japanese-style feast.
Chopsticks—Japan’s indispensable eating utensil. They come in a wide range of materials, lengths, and finishes to fit every hand and fashion style. Add a pair of plain, wooden chopsticks for a classic finish, or choose an elaborately decorated pair of lacquered chopsticks in bright colors for a sophisticated feel with a twist.
Chopsticks are placed at the bottom of the table setting with the pointy end pointing left (for right-handed people) or right (for left-handed people).
MATSUKAN WAKASA-NURI OCTAGONAL COUPLE CHOPSTICKS
For a classic and natural addition to your dining table, we recommend this elegant pair of chopsticks which lets the beauty of the natural wood shine through the layers of lacquer.
Chopstick rests make sure the ends of your chopsticks don’t touch the table. They come in a wide range of designs and materials, from cute to classy, from cedar to ceramic.
NOUSAKU CHOPSTICK REST (HOLDER) KNOT
This set of 5 chopstick rests come in a wooden box which also makes it perfect as a gift. The chopstick rests are made of polished tin and feature different designs based on "mizuhiki" - special knots used to decorate gifts that are considered auspicious.
No Japanese meal is complete without tea. Tea can be served hot or cold depending on the season, often in small cups or handleless mugs.
MARUMO TAKAGI SHUN JAPAN SAKURA MAGIC YUNOMI TEA CUP
With this unique cup, your tea-drinking experience will be taken to the next level. As you pour the steaming tea to accompany your tasty meal, cherry blossoms will appear like magic.
HIRADO SHOZAN JAPANESE TEA CUP & TEA POT WITH HAND-PAINTED BLUE SEIKAIHA DESIGN
Mikawachi ware is a type of porcelain originating in Nagasaki Prefecture which used to be especially popular with the shogunate, imperial court, and European royalty. The pure white base of this stunning Mikawachi tea set is hand painted with classic wave patterns in indigo, symbolizing the blessings of an endless sea. If you're looking to buy a genuinely made-in-Japan tea set that'll stand out amongst the crowd, this might be perfect for you!
In restaurants, ichiju sansai meals are usually served on wooden or lacquered trays without legs. Though in Japanese homes, they're often just placed directly on the table, on special occasions, why not consider using a beautiful handcrafted tray?
OMINATO BUNKICHI SHOTEN JAPANESE SET HEMP LEAF TRAY (M)
Founded during the Meiji period (1868-1912), Niigata-based Ominato Bunkichi Shoten are renowned for their outstanding products based on natural wood and "washi" Japanese paper. This stylish tray is made of high-grade Akita cedar using a traditional Japanese joinery technique to create beautiful latticework. The surface is treated with silicone to protect the wood from stains.
Try Eating the Japanese Way!
Now that you have gained an understanding of the traditional Japanese ichiju sansai meal, we hope that you are feeling inspired and ready to undertake the fun challenge of creating a home-cooked Japanese-style meal in your own kitchen. Remember, as long as you keep the basic principles in mind, it’s not about having the right exotic ingredients at hand or being a gastronomic mastermind - anyone can delight in the joys and benefits of ichiju sansai!
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