The Art of Washoku

Did you know that the bento boxes served at sushi restaurants are just one of many types of bento traditionally offered in Japan? Their common characteristic isn’t the raw fish or the cute compartments they are served in, but the way they are packed. Every bento is created according to a deep cultural principle known as washoku—literally “harmony food”—the ancient practice of balancing five colors, five tastes and five elements in every meal.

I first learned of this Japanese art in culinary school when I discovered the cookbook, “Washoku,” by Elizabeth Andoh. Intrigued, I played with this theory of balanced cooking and was astonished that even the simplest ingredients became ridiculously delicious and strikingly satisfying when prepared as part of a complete symphony of flavor, texture and color. 

I’ve been using washoku principles in my cooking for six years and it’s at the heart of our menu design at my business Bento Picnic. The comment I hear most frequently is, “I’ve never liked this vegetable or that vegetable, but I LOVE all of yours! How do you do it?” I’d like to say it’s magic, but it’s simply about balance. Here’s how it works:

bento 3

Step-by-Step Washoku

Start with organic, wholesome ingredients.

Think vegetables, grains, legumes and pasture-raised proteins. They are rich in nutrients and are easier for our bodies to recognize and absorb than processed foods.

Choose a wide range of colorful ingredients.

Aim to get five major color groups in each meal: Black, White, Green, Yellow and Red. Each color corresponds with a unique nutritional profile to maximize your intake of nutrients and antioxidants.

Pair ingredients to incorporate all the five major tastes in each meal.

When sweet, salty, sour, pungent and bitter elements are present, it maximizes the flavor dimensions of a meal without the need to add excessive amounts of fat and salt.

Prepare ingredients using a variety of cooking methods.

Cooking methods can be grouped into five elemental categories as well and combined to create a rich depth of textures and flavors:

• Water (blanch, boil, steam, poach)

• Tree (raw)

• Fire (open-air dry methods, e.g., sauté, grill)

• Earth (preserve, pickle, ferment)

• Metal (enclosed dry methods, e.g., bake, roast, fry)

bento 2

You have no doubt seen washoku principles in practice in sushi restaurant bentos, where raw fish might be nestled next to Japanese-style toasted nori, steamed white rice, tempura-fried vegetables and fermented soy sauce. But it’s just as easy to achieve washoku with homestyle bento combinations, such as chicken meatball skewers with soba noodle salad, kinpira-sautéed carrots and burdock, quick-pickled sesame cucumbers and ripe cherry tomatoes. The possibilities are truly limitless—I’ve even had success using washoku to make the one-dimensional recipes from my childhood more well-rounded and appetizing; my grandma’s beef stroganoff came to life once I accentuated the slow-braised beef and egg noodles in gravy with horseradish-beet relish, crème fraîche and fresh scallions.  

Practicing balanced cooking through washoku has made me more present and tuned-in to the process of nurturing my body with food. With each meal, cooking has become a more fun, intuitive and creative process. 

By Leanne Valenti • Photography by Knoxy