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The Raw and the Cooked in Japanese cuisine

Triangulations around Culture, Nature and Artifice
Le cru et le cuit dans la cuisine japonaise. Triangulations autour de la culture, du sauvage et de l'artifice
Nicolas Baumert and Ikuhiro Fukuda


Using the famous culinary triangle theorized by Claude Lévi-Strauss, this paper tries to determine the place of the raw in the Japanese culinary model and to understand how it became so iconic. For this purpose, the research focuses on the relationship with the “milieu” and concentrates on cultural explanations and historical evolution of modes of preparation and flavors. It appears that the primary purpose of the gastronomic process in Japan is to reveal the natural taste of food that will accompany rice. All modes of preparation and presentation tend towards this goal, for high cuisine but also for most traditional dishes. We conclude that the raw is not perceived to be a non-cultural product, but is simultaneously the starting and the ending point for the process of cultural appropriation of food.

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1In most cultures, the historical evolution of preparation methods for foods of animal origin has been to transform raw materials into something different in a process of culturalization. This is what Lévi-Strauss observed in his book Le Cru et le Cuit (1964) (The raw and the cooked, 1969) and theorized in L’origine des manières de table (1968) (The Origin of Table Manners, 1978) with the culinary triangle (1968: 306-309) (see figure 1). His purpose was to give a universal key for understanding foods’ transition between the categories of raw, cooked and rotten, with a figure that could be adapted to different food cultures. Japan, along with its treatment of the raw, is one exception that initially seems to highlight the limits of Lévi-Strauss’ theorization, as many critics have highlighted, focusing on the model’s lack of relativism and inability to explain changes, especially when faced with complex culinary systems (Leach 1974, Mennel 1985). Following authors who have attempted to complete and historize this model (Lehrer 1972; Poulain 2002), we propose to use Lévi-Strauss’ premises to further question the relationship between nature and culture in food representations.

2Recently Lévi-Strauss’ structural writing about food has been revisited through different angles. Authors featured in a special issue of the journal Food, Culture & Society (2020) entitled “From nature to culture? Lévi-Strauss’ legacy and the study of contemporary foodways” discuss, among other studies, how the relationship between nature and culture in the culinary triangle is called into question by the growing interest in the raw food diet in France and the United States, pointing out the lack of attention in Lévi-Strauss’ theorization, to the temporal dimension of food practices and their changes across time (Thircuir 2020). The study of Japanese cuisine, where raw consumption is an ancient cultural fact, elaborated and conceptualized as a continuum of practices and related discourses, allows us to consider this articulation through another perspective. Rather than an opposition between the categories of nature and culture, it points instead to circular causalities.

3Drawing on the culinary triangle, this paper examines the place of the raw in the Japanese culinary model in an effort to understand how it became so iconic. For this purpose, the article will focus on the relationship with the “milieu”, hence the title’s explicit reference to the work of the geographer and philosopher Augustin Berque in Le sauvage et l’artifice (1986) (Japan: Nature and Artifice, 1997). Berque’s work demonstrates the importance of going beyond the Nature-Culture dichotomy, presenting an analysis that permits us to revive the theory of the culinary triangle and to endow it – particularly the poles of the raw and the cooked – with different meaning. The goal is not to demonstrate that the raw has a unique meaning in Japanese cuisine or that it is the major mode of presentation of food, but rather to try to understand why food preparations (using raw or different cooking techniques) presented as natural became so important.

4This article is based on analysis of a large corpus of gastronomic texts produced in Japan as early as the 13th century, of culinary guidebooks, cuisine dictionaries and cookbooks. It also draws on observations in restaurants and interviews with cooks carried out in urban and rural Japan, that were conducted by the two authors (together and alone), over periods of more than 30 years for one (Fukuda) and 10 years for the other (Baumert). The first section of the paper will concentrate on the cultural explanations of simplicity of Japanese culinary discourses and the modes of preparation and tastes, focusing on the relationship between the wild-natural and the artificial-cultural in Japanese culinary representations. In order to understand the gap between the culinary discourse and the historical evolution of food preparations, the second section will continue with the study of two examples, the iconic Japanese dish of sushi and the traditional high cuisine derived from the tea ceremony called “kaiseki”, which also includes raw preparations. The third section will question the preparation methods and the tendency to highlight the original taste of all food.

The raw and the cooked in Japanese culinary discourses: a quest for simplicity and naturalness

5It is customary in Japan, among chefs and families alike, to say that fresh fish will be “first eaten raw, and then grilled and finally stewed”, in a slow transition that distances it from its original state because of the impossibility of conserving the flavor of raw fish products due to natural decomposition. In their writings, gastronomes willingly adopt this perspective. Kitaōji Rosanjin, a great epicurean who participated in the revival of the Japanese gastronomy in the mid-twentieth century, offers this advice in his gastronomic treatise: “About fish and shellfish: As for the taste, if it is possible, it is better to eat them raw, or almost raw. If you boil or toast, even adding other ingredients, you lose the original taste” (Kitaōji 2014 [1960]: 260).

6This order of appropriation of fish products in Japan constitutes a reversal of culinary systems in China or Western Europe where cooking and processing of animal products is a profound act of civilizing the food. Presenting fish as raw sashimi slides is one of the simplest and most refined ways of appropriating the essence of animal-origin food and, ultimately, of the state of nature. This mark of refinement, and therefore of civilization, creates a communion that too much cooking would distort. This aspiration therefore suggests a system fundamentally different than Lévi-Strauss’ triangle of cooked, raw, and rotten, whose basic concept is sketched in figure 1.

Figure 1. The culinary triangle

Figure 1. The culinary triangle

© Baumert & Fukuda, adapted from Lévi-Strauss 1965: 26 & 1968: 306 and Vilgis 2013

7The three vertices represent the three basic categories of raw, cooked and rotten. The raw lies in the top of the figure, implying that it is not transformed or elaborated. On the sides, cooking, through temperature, is a cultural transformation that makes the food edible, while rotting, through microbiology, is a natural transformation that makes it unfit for consumption (Vilgis 2013). In his explanations, Lévi-Strauss integrated the various cooking methods into this schema by establishing their analogy with the three basic categories, roasting being for example close to the raw while boiling is akin to an edible rotting (1968: 397-399). Depending on the modes of preparation, the nature-culture dichotomy is parallel to one or the other side of the triangle.

8Faced with Japanese gastronomy, the culinary triangle at first appears difficult to apply. The raw is an exception, an ambiguity, evoking not the disgust of animality but refinement, especially when fish and seafood are presented through the form of sushi and sashimi. If we, like Jean-Pierre Poulain (2002: 161), attribute positivity to the different poles, it is obvious that the raw is not perceived as a non-prepared food and that cooking is not the only element of cultural transformations. In many cases, nature is more valued than culture and the unprocessed food is seemingly more valued than the processed food. The basic culinary triangle, however, is not entirely inappropriate and reveals that positive and negative perceptions of food preparations through the nature-culture dichotomy are maybe not linear.

9In L’Autre face de la lune (2011), a posthumous collection of publications and lectures on Japan that Lévi-Strauss produced between 1988 and 2009, the subject of cuisine is evoked briefly (Lévi-Strauss 2011: 46, 71-73, 151-152). He contrasts Japanese cuisine in particular to that of China relative to the preeminence of “natural products in their pure state” and the “optimal use of resources” (2011: 72, our translation). With limited detail, and certainly more through intuition than any real research on the subject, he emphasizes these two elements that are indeed at the heart of most discourses on Japanese cuisine.

10A good place to start is the idea of simplicity that permeates the Japanese culinary arts. It is generally accepted that Japanese cuisine has been extremely influenced by the aesthetics of the art of tea. The reasons for this almost mythical link will be detailed below, but focusing on simplicity, one of the founding discourses in the 16th century of the cuisine of the tea ceremony, based on the Notes of Yamanoue Sōji – Yamanoue Sōji (1544-1590) was the disciple of the famous Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591) considered as the founder of the tea ceremony – postulates that every time: “Cuisine must appear simple” (Tsutsui 1987: 323).

11The phrasing is laconic, and one thing that emerges from the Japanese discourse about the art of food in general is that, whether for the cook or the gastronome, there is in fact little need for words. The discourse is often hidden behind a suggestion that it would not be useful to explain. The aesthetic of Japanese cuisine invites us to look at the world, taste it, admire it, smell it, and this sensation is particularly easy to understand with fresh, seasonal, and minimally processed products.

12In his book Bimi Kyūshin (Gastronomy as a Search of Truth), Kenjiro Kinoshita (1869-1947), a well-known gastronome and deputy under the imperial regime, asserts that the art of cooking is fundamentally that of bringing out “the true taste of food”. Published in 1937, it is perhaps the most important book about the Japanese way of cooking. In it, Kinoshita lays out three principles (1937: 62, 92, 103):

13Do not eat the dish if the food is not in season.

14Do not eat the dish if the cut is not appropriate for the food.

15Do not eat the dish without getting the sauce that best accompanies the food.

16As a first principle we find thus the link with nature, marked by the seasonality. To fully understand this aspiration toward natural products, we must return to the early days of Japanese gastronomic sense at the end of the Kamakura (1185-1333) and Muromachi (1333-1573) periods. We do not suggest that there was no quality cooking or culinary art before these periods. However, we do think that a particular sense appeared at that time because of the advent of culinary discourses which served to convey a certain perception of the world. The first to have truly written on the subject of cooking is Dōgen (1200-1253). The importance of his influence merits attention.

17Dōgen was a Japanese Buddhist monk, writer, poet, philosopher, and founder of the Sōtō School who introduced Zen in Japan after a stay of almost five years in China. Among his many writings, two relate to cooking: the Dharma of food consumption (Fushuku hanpō) and the Instructions for the Cook (Tenzo kyōkun). When he returned to Japan, he deplored that his countrymen did not accord sufficient importance to the act of preparing food and he proposed an adaptation of the culinary principles of Zen to Japanese practices, including the introduction of a sixth flavor, the essential taste (tanmi) revealing the others (Dōgen 1983: 4-5). The quest for this essential taste is at the center of his conception of the cook’s role: “The many rivers which into the ocean become the one taste of the ocean; when they flow into the pure ocean of dharma there are no such distinctions between delicacies or plain food, there is just one taste, and it is buddhadharme, the world itself as it is” (Dōgen 1983: 13).

18Zen’s considerable impact in Japan may have come about because its values are similar to those that already existed regarding the relation to nature, in particular in the different indigenous cults understood today as Shinto. In the link with food, this sense found a spiritual justification that allowed the passage to a gastronomy marked by well-structured representations and discourses – even if the Zen ideal paradoxically wants to achieve it without words. Perhaps more than the texts themselves, the implementation of their principles, at the beginning of modern times in a reinterpretation of a large part of Japanese culture through the Zen and Confucian prisms, allowed for the maturation of Japanese cuisine (Ishige 2013).

19Considering the structure of the meal, in Japan, “gohan” is both the word for “meal” and for “cooked rice”. A meal is traditionally understood to be an assortment of prepared dishes that accompany a simple bowl of steamed rice. The meal is precisely the combination of a main food base rice (gohan), a soup (shiru) and some accompaniments (okazu) which usually include vegetables, fish, seaweed, etc. In the actual everyday cooking, this arrangement is called “one soup and three side dishes [accompanying rice]” (ichi ju san sai) (see figure 2). The broth’s (dashi) role – most of the time prepared with dry fermented skipjack tuna (katsuobushi) and kombu kelp – is to reveal and sublimate the taste of simple accompaniments, as suggested by Dōgen in his instructions (Kitamoto 2016: 182-189). The consultation of actual cookbooks intended for the general public shows this importance given both to the arrangement and to the quality of the dashi broth (Fukuda 2019: 190).

Figure 2. Sample arrangement for the “one soup and three side dishes” (ichi ju san sai) traditional meal

Figure 2. Sample arrangement for the “one soup and three side dishes” (ichi ju san sai) traditional meal

© Baumert & Fukuda

20If rice is the symbolic center of almost all meals, it is because it represents what the anthropologist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney calls the “self-primordial identity” that connects both landscapes and food. As she has demonstrated, Japanese mythology as reinterpreted over the course of its long history is exceptional in that it is not concerned with the creation of the universe but the transformation of a wild land into a land of abundant rice (Ohnuki-Tierney 1993). This mythology continues to influence current representations concerning the importance of rice, even if historians have shown that during antiquity, rice was not necessarily the only cereal, and its importance in the collective imagination competed with barley, wheat and millet, which were also used as offerings to the deities (Von Verschuer 2003). The exclusive place of rice in Japanese cuisine or culinary world intervenes only later, at the end of the Middle Ages, whereas for a long time its consumption was the privilege of the elites and the inhabitants of major cities (Ishige 2013).

21Dōgen’s instructions nowadays seem to reveal the spiritual foundations present in Japanese cuisine for the food that will accompany the rice: the cook, through his skill and art, allows consumers as humans to find their place in nature in line with the Zen principles of simplicity. Did Dōgen influence the way food is perceived in Japanese cuisine or did he simply reveal this perception? Possibly, his writings may have provoked much later reinterpretations in a quest to assimilate the essence of Japan to Japanese nature, but this is open to debate. For example, the anthropologist Ishige Naomichi (2001) sometimes used this link in his historical explanations; the historians of tea ceremony Kōzu Asao (2005) and Iwai Shigeki (2006) advocate that the Japanese gastronomic discourses were later interpreted as an extension the ideals of Zen from the end of the 17th century.

22An important point is that, in the Japanese culinary art, it is not a real nature that is at the heart of the matter, but a reworked nature, recomposed to make it more culturally structured. This understanding can only be completed with technical mastery. It represents the intimacy of nature and artifice, which is revealed by the act of eating, at once so animal and so human. The geographer and philosopher Augustin Berque’s research allows us to understand the correlation of humans with their environment (Berque 1990) through the concept of “médiance” that he has taken and deepened from the Japanese philosopher Watsuji Tetsurō concept of “fūdosei”’ (Watsuji 2011).

23The starting point of Berque’s reflection reveals the extent to which the link between humans and the environment is constitutive of all human culture. He asserts that the individual, alone, is an unfinished being that must be fulfilled in a dual relationship, both towards society and his environment. Berque postulates that the human being has three bodies: an animal body, a social body and a medial body, each of which represents scales and degrees of the relationship between the human being and his environment, both natural and human. This highlighting of the different scales of the human’s relation to the world is corroborated by the development of phenomenology and Merleau-Ponty’s (1945) research on body and language. It resonates with the anthropology of Leroi-Gourhan (1964-1965) which establishes a relationship between the animal body (individual) and the social body (shared with others), making this mechanism the key to understanding the civilization process, since only the social body can be transmitted, while the animal body always dies. Although Augustin Berque developed his theory mainly through the example of the landscape, this theory corresponds perfectly to the art of cuisine, which has the particularity of using all the five senses, of course taste and smell but also sight, sound and touch.

24This thought, which finally takes up the notions of transmission and tradition for the first two bodies, is well represented in the human and social sciences, but the third dimension, the relation of the human being to his environment, has been overlooked in most academic fields. Yet the social body of humans is not unrelated to the surrounding environment. Its source is not pure abstraction, nor the simple will of human subjects. Round causalities are frequent, a fact that the example of wine can help us understand better. The French geographer Roger Dion, who has worked on the history of the vineyard and wine, repeats throughout his work that it is human will that produces a quality wine, but he also indicates that this relationship can be reversed in the imagination of people, suggesting that the “old and noble vineyards, so intimately and harmoniously associated with the land that bears them [...] seem to have formed themselves there as though by spontaneous generation” (Dion 1952: 423). Identifying the third human body, the medial link of societies with their environment, makes it possible to understand what, for Roger Dion, was only a simple observation (Fukuda 2010).

25Without this essential link with its environment, a culture cannot really be fully accomplished. Augustin Berque shows that the so-called landscape societies have an awareness of themselves through the various representations put forward in art – painting, art of gardens, etc. We will add to this list the so-called gastronomic cultures, which have similar characteristics. Cuisine or culinary art is then also a way of connecting the three bodies of human beings and of feeling the link with the environment through the incorporation of food (Baumert & Fukuda 2017).

26In his book The Empire of Signs, an essay written after a few trips to Japan in the 1960s, the French intellectual Roland Barthes left a remarkable description of this ability of Japanese cuisine to connect the three scales that Augustin Berque theorizes. Barthes, with no previous knowledge about Japanese cuisine, describes the Japanese classic meal as follows: “Written food, tributary to the gestures of division and selection which inscribe the foodstuff, not on the meal tray [...] but in a profound space which hierarchizes man, table and universe” (Barthes 1970: 14).

27As previously discussed, gastronomy is not only a cuisine with ingredients and recipes; it is a discourse, a link with environment, people and products. Indeed, as the sociologist Claude Fischler (2001) indicates, by consuming a product, the human being also ingests the representations related to it. In Japan, this discourse took the form of a quest for simplicity and naturalness as Claude Lévi-Strauss correctly observed (2011: 71-73). However, it is a reconstructed nature and an appearance of simplicity rather than a true simplicity. As quoted earlier, the tea master Yamanoue Sōji wrote that “cuisine must appear simple” and not that “it must be simple” (Tsutsui 1987: 323). All the ambiguity of Japan’s relation to its environment lies in this quest for appearance and the raw must be thought of in this way: a product prepared so as to appear as close as possible to its original form. The historical evolution of culinary styles and recipes that will be developed in the next section can help us to better understand the roots of this discourse.

The historical evolution of sushi and the haute cuisine style kaiseki

The evolution of sushi: from fermented to raw

28Although sushi may be a luxury dish, it has humble origins. The proliferation of sushi restaurants all over Japan, which range from haute cuisine to kaitenzushi – a convenient and affordable type of restaurant characterized by a conveyor belt that carries plates of sushi past the diners, who can take whatever they wish –, makes it possible to observe diverse representations of the raw in Japanese eating practices.

29Like many of Japan’s iconic dishes, sushi is not native to the Japanese archipelago but was invented around the 4th century in the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia as a way to conserve river fish through fermentation (Ishige 2013). The fermentation of the rice served as a preservative for the fish and gave the flesh a very pronounced taste. This preparation became quite common throughout rice-growing Asia. Originally, only the fish was eaten, not the rice. This kind of sushi still exists in Japan and is called “narezushi” – nare means fermented and this preparation is indeed fermented for six months at least. It is made with freshwater fish, especially in Western Japan, and the most famous version is the fermented crucian carp sushi called “funazushi” made in the area around Lake Biwa near Kyoto (Shinoda 2002).

30Over time, by transforming and adapting the preparation of fish and fermented rice, the Japanese have successively created different types of sushi. First, in the 14th century, a semi-fermented sushi appeared called “nama nare”, literally “raw fermented” (the term nama means “raw”), but it is actually a semi-fermented sushi, as it is fermented for only a few days. This sushi is usually made with a freshwater fish from the stud family (ayu), but can also be made with saltwater fish such as sardines. What is important at this first stage of the evolution and acculturation of the Southeast Asian fish dish in Japan is that the Japanese were not discarding the rice but rather began to eat it (Hibino 1999).

31In the 17th century, a less strong semi-fermented pressed sushi appeared, called “hayazushi”, “fast sushi” (the term haya means “fast”). From this moment, the rice was no longer fermented and the sushi was made with rice vinegar (Hibino 1999). This sushi, which is marinated for a few days, remains a notable tradition of Western Japan, around the regions of Kyoto and Osaka. It is often presented in small bites of round rice covered with slices of seabream, mackerel or various blue fish and it is called “oshizushi, literally “pressed sushi” (the term oshi means “pressed”).

32In the 19th century, a sort of simplified hayazushi appeared in street stalls of Edo, the capital of the Shogunate, in Eastern Japan: the “pressed by hand sushi” (nigirizushi, the term nigiri means “pressed”) (Shinoda & Kawakami 1961). This is the well-known modern sushi with its more elongated rice dumpling, and covered with fresh fish. For this preparation, fish and shellfish of the Edo Bay were used in a nearly raw state, that is, they were consumed immediately, or lightly marinated with vinegar. This new sushi quickly became a very fashionable and iconic food of the city of Edo. But Western Japan has, while accepting this new sushi, kept its own tradition of “pressed sushi” (oshizushi).

33The original form of Edo’s street stalls influences not only the spatial arrangement of sushi restaurants but also the making of sushi. Yoshino Masuo (1906-1991), a famous actor who also owned the third generation of the Yoshinozushi, a sushi restaurant in the traditional Tokyo district of Nihonbashi. He explains in his Sushi book-dictionary (Yoshino 1990), a reliable book based on several documents and own experience, that at the restaurant-shop they used to sell only sushi to take away while at the rolling stall they made the sushi that the customers ate on the spot standing at the counter of the stall.

34By becoming (almost always) a raw delicacy, symbolic of the aesthetics of the city of Edo, an expression of its simplicity and sophistication, spontaneity and originality called “iki (Nara 2004), sushi underwent a process of re-naturalization. At the counter of a sushi restaurant, the culinary experience is a kind of polishing. The customer is admitted, in relative comfort and for a very short time, to a decentering experience in order to reconnect with nature. This experience confronts the human being with the unjustifiable nature of his or her existence through the consumption of a simple raw fish, which has in fact undergone elaborate preparations so that they can experience its “original” taste.

35In 1930, the gastronome Nagase Kibanosuke explains, in his book Sushi tsū (Sushi’s Connoisseur), the importance of this original taste, especially concerning the “cooked” sushi like the conger:

“With regard to the special sauce for conger or clam sushi, the mixture of soy sauce and mirin should be boiled after adding the water in which they were cooked (to bring out their own taste), the sauce for the sushi of the conger using water in which the conger was cooked and for the clam sushi the waster in which the clam was cooked; but nowadays few sushi restaurants practice this laborious method” (1930: 30).

36The last sentence shows the evolution in progress, with the end of most sushi-takeaway restaurant in Tokyo and the wish of consumers for fresh fish and shellfish, the laborious method of cooking tends to disappear.

37Sushi’s long history thus shows an evolution from the fermented to the raw. One can see in this transition a functionalist explanation that by first getting closer to the sea – Kyoto and Nara are in the middle of the land while Edo is at the bottom of a very poisonous bay –, then by developing ways of preserving fish flesh, it has become possible to eat fresh fish. But one can also detect an aspiration for the raw, a willingness to return to natural – or to represent the natural – specific to the culinary culture of Japan, which guided this evolution when all the technical conditions were met.

38This example permits us to highlights the difficulty of distinguishing what is really transformed from what is not, as well as what pertains to culture and what to nature, an ambiguous movement that is perhaps properly Japanese. It can be then conceived for Japan that there is a tension between nature and culture as identified by Augustin Berque, and between the transformed and the untransformed food, turning on themselves in the manner of a Möbius strip.

The raw and the cooked in the high cuisine kaiseki style: a progression toward feeling nature

39Kaiseki is perhaps the cuisine style that best captures the Japanese gastronomic sensitivity toward the “milieu” and its quest for the natural. The current form, also known as “modern kaiseki”, is a high-class meal consisting of a long succession of very elaborate small dishes of fish and vegetables, accompanied by soups and also a bowl of rice, symbolically the “main element” served at the very end of the meal. Each course features different tastes and methods of preparation and cooking. The taste is not the only sense highlighted. Ideally, a kaiseki restaurant also integrates sight, in the contemplation of the landscape of which it constitutes the transition, but also in the visual composition of the dishes (Kumakura 2002). The restaurants are characterized by individualized rooms overlooking a mountain slope or an inner garden, sometimes on a lake or the sea. The contemplation of the landscape gives meaning to the culinary discourse, and the composition of dishes echoes that of the garden with the choice of seasonal ingredients, the color of the dishes, the bouquet of flours (ikebana) which decorates the room, or the presence of a freshly picked bamboo leaf, a cherry petal, or a chestnut pod on the different dishes (Baumert 2012).

40The origin of the name kaiseki comes from a kind of snack consisting of a bowl of soup and small vegetarian dishes, consumed in the Middle Ages in Zen monasteries. Its principle comes from the tea ceremony, developed by the master Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591), and whose purpose was to prepare the body and mind to enjoy the tea that was served at the end of the snack. Originally, rice, soup and some apparently simple dishes were served together. Two modes of cooking were then represented: boiling and grilling. The classical kaiseki was later interpreted as an extension of the tea ceremony incorporating the ideals of Zen in the preparation of the meal, especially from the end of the 17th century in the discourses of tea ceremony practitioners (Kōzu 2005, Iwai 2006). Therefore, it includes an aesthetic sense articulated around a rusticity and lack of pretension (the notion of wabi) the ephemeral nature of everything and the vanity of human aspirations (the notion of sabi).

41The marriage of this cuisine issuing from the art of tea with the cuisine of the sumptuous banquets of the lords of the late Middle Ages evolved gradually into a more elaborate succession. As the purpose of the banquet became to drink sake, the rice was then served at the end, taking the place of tea as the end point of the meal, contrary to the tea ceremony where the rice was served at the beginning, with dishes and soup, and the tea was the conclusion (Baumert 2011). From then on, the number of dishes increased and accordingly preparations became more elaborate. At the end of the 19th century, modern kaiseki, rediscovered by the new elites of the Meiji restauration (1868), allowed a further gastronomic progression around a discourse about Japanese identity and served as an affirmation against Western cuisine (Harada 2005). Writing also evolved, using different characters so as to differentiate the two kaiseki懐石 for classic kaiseki and会席 for modern kaiseki – because the nominal compounds are homophones.

42Even if the cooks have freedom in the composition, the order of the dishes in modern kaiseki is relatively fixed and it involves a large number of different cooking methods for the successive preparations. In general, their names refer to the containers, the positions of the dishes on the table or the individual tray, the cooking method, and they are declined in six or eight courses that precede the “meal” of rice. The table (figure 3) shows a sample progression for the modern kaiseki. The names and practices differ from one region to the other, especially the two main traditions: Tokyo and Kyoto.

43Kaiseki involves both a progression and an association of cooking methods, linking fire, water and air, but also marinating, brining and fermentation – the salted and fermented vegetables, the soy sauce and the miso which are basic fermented seasonings (see figure 3). The raw is one of the ways to reach this feeling of understanding the “médiance” to which cuisine invites. In Augustin Berque’s terms, the raw is one of the ways by which a “trajection” is realized between the three bodies of the human, but it is not the only way, and it is not even the main mode of transition toward the focus of the meal: tea for classic kaiseki or rice for its modern form. The raw comes in the first part of the meal and its name, “prepared” (otsukuri), shows that the raw is particularly prepared, as in the case of sushi.

44Compared to sushi, the relationships of raw products with nature and culture in kaiseki are more complex. In fact, as in the culinary triangle theory, in the kaiseki style, cooking civilizes the raw product, makes it suitable for consumption and preservation, and enriches its flavors. But this linear relationship is probably still too technical, too artificial, for Japanese sensitivity. This may be because it ultimately marks the desire for intervention and domination over the natural order. The forms of cooking must therefore aim, not to transform, but to reveal the original taste (identified with the natural taste) of the product. In an everyday meal with the ichi ju san sai arrangement, the combination is simultaneous with the soup and three side dishes, but the kaiseki permit to decompose the process, because the rice arrives only at the end and, therefore, the progression establishes all the links with the “milieu”.

Figure 3. Sample progression for modern kaiseki

Figure 3. Sample progression for modern kaiseki

© Baumert & Fukuda

The role of cooking techniques: to reveal the essential taste

45Both sushi and kaiseki, briefly examined above, bear a similar discourse, and these two examples show that the raw is not necessarily the most common or the most popular mode of consumption in Japanese cuisine. It offers just one possibility for reaching the most suitable taste for the product, the place and the season. In the same way, the fermented allows the conservation of a food while giving it a strong symbolic value of life. The raw, the cooked and the fermented in Japanese gastronomy have the same aim: a quest for the original taste.

46This is exactly what Kojima Masajirō (1894-1994), a writer from Tokyo who was known as a fine gastronome, indicates about another mode of cooking, frying (tempura): “The oil, just like the lace of fried dough, aims to bring out the best of the shrimp’s original taste and take it to the next level” (1987 [1972]: 32-33).

47It should be noted that the French gourmet Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), in his literary work Physiologie du goût, pronounced a similar judgment on fried foods: “Fried dishes are well received in feasts; they introduce a pungent variation; they are pleasant to view, retain their primitive taste and can be eaten using the hands” (1982 [1825]: 91).

48In the relationship between nature and culture, the fried corresponds to culture as to the cooking medium, but to nature as to the resulting dish. Frying does not affect the nature of the food; it wraps it in a crunchy crust and concentrates the flavors inward. Fried, with its lightness, is the ultimate example.

49Taking this finding into account, why does kaiseki cuisine’s progression use so few fried dishes? According to Kojima and Brillat-Savarin, in terms of essential taste, frying participates in the translation towards re-naturalization. It is thought that fried mode of cooking was at the beginning a popular cuisine, not really suitable for a kaiseki cuisine, but rather for food stalls – during the Edo period fried was considered quite vulgar, then came to be seen as more or less refined during the Meiji period while retaining its popular status. It is also difficult to find a place for a fried dish in the arrangement of kaiseki cuisine because it plays a symbolic role close to sashimi, but it is too fatty to be served just after. Its taste warrants a place at the end of the arrangement, but then it might interfere with the serving of rice. Moreover, fried dishes would not go well with sake, which, being made with rice, does not have sufficient acidity to wash out the oil in the mouth, unlike grape-based wine in which acidity balance the fat of the frying (Baumert 2011).

50Returning to our main discussion, the tension between nature and culture and between the raw product and the prepared food can be observed in the kaiseki progression and it can be noticed that the variation in cooking modes is practically the same as the one proposed for modern French cuisine by Jean-Pierre Poulain (2002) (figure 4). In this attempt to revisit Lévi-Strauss through the lens of the cooking methods of French cuisine, the author proposed a star-shaped figure combining water, air, fire and fat that could also be suitable for the kaiseki style, with the exception of smoking and frying. The Japanese perspective adds that the raw could be thought to approach the smoked in the sense that the technique of smoking corresponds mainly to nature due to the absence of an intermediary between the element of transformation and the food.

Figure 4. The cooking techniques system in French cuisine

Figure 4. The cooking techniques system in French cuisine

© Baumert & Fukuda, adapted from Poulain 2002

Figure 5. The cooking techniques system in Japanese cuisine

Figure 5. The cooking techniques system in Japanese cuisine

© Baumert & Fukuda

51Such a figure for Japanese cuisine would keep the three elements of water, air and fire and reduce the role of fat – in fact only oil (figure 5). Animal fats are absent from a culture practicing little breeding, while frying arrived late in history with Chinese and Portuguese influence (Ishige 2013). For a long time, sesame was the only oil used. Being heavy and quick to decompose, it was poorly suited to fried foods, which explains the vulgar and popular character that has long been associated with fried dishes (Shintani & Sekizawa: 223, Shinoda 1961: 141-142). Even today, few dishes are roasted, sautéed or braised. Ovens have never been used in the kitchen and pots are reserved for cooking with water.

52As the Japanese meal is mainly an association of dishes that accompany rice, the relation to food in this culinary system must be divided between the cooked grains that constitute the main dish and accompaniments. The preparation therefore starts, for accompaniments, from a product that can be grilled or boiled but also return to the raw consumption, sometimes by means of fermentation. The raw material thus prepared has a positive value, comparable to cooking, which also intervenes to reveal the essential taste.

53A parallel can be drawn between the processing of raw in Japan and smoked in other cultures. Lévi-Strauss (1968: 409-410) has already suggested that smoking belongs to nature, from the point of view of the means, and to culture, from the point of view of the result. The smoking technique corresponds mainly to nature, without any intermediary between the processing element (smoke) and the food. For raw fish the absence of an intermediary is deceptive (because of marinades, maturation, etc.) but appears as such in the final result. The appearance of the natural is achieved through various stages: killing the fish with the proper technique to keep it fresh and preserve it, maturing it, and using various cutting techniques to reveal the original taste. Unlike smoked preparations, the final result seems unprocessed, almost natural.

54A synthesis figure representing the Japanese culinary system can be proposed at this point (figure 6). Claude Lévi-Strauss gives us an interpretation key with the example of the Blackfoot (1968: 408-409), a tribe at the crossroads of several cultures whose system of representation of cooking methods had to solve opposing symbolisms inspired by different influences. To represent the tribe’s relationship to the consumption of raw or cooked meat, Lévi-Strauss describes it a square rather than a triangle (1968: 409). Following the idea of Roberte Hamayon who developed, from the culinary triangle, a double culinary diamond, concerning meat and dairy products in Mongolia (1975: 115), this mode of representation can also be used for Japanese culinary system, which indeed, like the Blackfoot tribe, had to resolve many symbolic contradictions.

Figure 6. The culinary square of high Japanese cuisine

Figure 6. The culinary square of high Japanese cuisine

© Baumert, Fukuda & Ōta

55In Japan, the essential/natural taste equated with nature is the keystone of a cultural system that places it as the highest point of civilization. It can be obtained by raw consumption but also by fire, water, or air – as oil is a slight exception as discussed earlier, it is left outside in order to keep the classic representations. The fermented through microbiology takes these different elements to the other side of the triangle, giving it the mirror shape of a square – our findings, based on the observation of cultural practices join here previous studies’ conclusions about fermentation through the gastrophysics of foods (Vilgils 2013). The four corners of the square represent thus four possible ways to reach the ultimate goal of what is called “natural taste” and we can sketch here a parallel with the art of gardens and even extend it to various aspects of aesthetics in Japan: the ultimate refinement is to appear natural. The Japanese garden is indeed a gradation towards the wild, a penetration into the heart of a reconstituted nature towards the original source covered with moss and surrounded by rocks. A more careful look shows the mosses are maintained, the waterfall requires a perfect mastery of the water, and the flag-like trees, twisted by the winds, have been forced and subtly carved over many years to achieve this appearance so intimately integrated into the landscape. The art of cuisine, like the art of gardens, is also a subtle play of cooking that reveals the essential taste of food, and its historical evolution has exacerbated this trend in the structuring of a gastronomic discourse that emphasizes naturalness and simplicity.

Conclusion: A re-naturalization that solves the nature and culture opposition

56This paper has shown how in Japan, the structure of traditional meals and their modes of preparation are related to a quest for simplicity and naturalness. However, simplicity is obtained through a preparation so as to appear as close as possible to its original form, and nature is a reworked nature, recomposed in order to make it more culturally structured. The historical evolution of emblematic preparations, like sushi, which has undergone a long transition over time from fermented to raw, and the traditional high cuisine derived from tea ceremony (kaiseki), where the forms of cooking must aim, not to transform, but to reveal the original taste of the products, helped us to better understand the roots of this movement elaborated and conceptualized as a structured discourse through time. In its staging, Japanese cuisine gives great importance to the relationship with nature, especially in the attention it pays to seasonality and the raw. Its culinary experience permits it to bring the revelation of the link with the “milieu”, going beyond the nature-culture dichotomy. These conclusions permit us to enlarge the theory of Lévi-Strauss’s culinary triangle and to endow the poles of the raw and the cooked with different meanings, implying not opposition but complementarity.

57The particular example of the relationship to the raw allowed us to reveal the food mediation at work that tries to re-naturalize food in a cultural way, most often unconsciously. In Japan, the raw is not really perceived to be a non-cultural product and is, at the same time, the starting and the ending point for the process of cultural appropriation of food. Like the Moebius strip, the ends form a loop, a surface with only one side and one limit. It is not possible to distinguish the beginning from the end or to identify the point of inversion. The fermentation that allows the conservation of food while giving it a strong symbolism of life, is both natural and cultural, and can be the equivalent of the raw in an inverted mirror shape triangle. As the primary purpose of the culinary process in Japan is to reveal the natural taste of food that will accompany the rice, all modes of preparation and presentation tend towards this goal. Thus, the culinary triangle evolves to a square that forms the base of a pyramid whose summit points to nature (figure 7). Everything in the art of Japanese cuisine is therefore geared toward the re-naturalization of the cultured transformed products with all the possible gradations. The “re” eventually disappears, coming to seem to be the only possible conclusion to the side dishes that complete the primordial cultural element represented by rice.

Figure 7. The nature-culture tension in Japanese cuisine

Figure 7. The nature-culture tension in Japanese cuisine

© Baumert & Fukuda

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1. The culinary triangle
Credits © Baumert & Fukuda, adapted from Lévi-Strauss 1965: 26 & 1968: 306 and Vilgis 2013
File image/jpeg, 34k
Title Figure 2. Sample arrangement for the “one soup and three side dishes” (ichi ju san sai) traditional meal
Credits © Baumert & Fukuda
File image/jpeg, 116k
Title Figure 3. Sample progression for modern kaiseki
Credits © Baumert & Fukuda
File image/jpeg, 396k
Title Figure 4. The cooking techniques system in French cuisine
Credits © Baumert & Fukuda, adapted from Poulain 2002
File image/jpeg, 43k
Title Figure 5. The cooking techniques system in Japanese cuisine
Credits © Baumert & Fukuda
File image/jpeg, 34k
Title Figure 6. The culinary square of high Japanese cuisine
Credits © Baumert, Fukuda & Ōta
File image/jpeg, 38k
Title Figure 7. The nature-culture tension in Japanese cuisine
Credits © Baumert & Fukuda
File image/jpeg, 57k
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Electronic reference

Nicolas Baumert and Ikuhiro Fukuda, « The Raw and the Cooked in Japanese cuisine », Anthropology of food [Online], 15 | 2021, Online since 31 December 2021, connection on 27 January 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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About the authors

Nicolas Baumert

geographer, Nagoya University, Japan

Ikuhiro Fukuda

specialist of food studies, Waseda University, Japan

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Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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