Saving money, one delicious meal at a time
It took me seven visits to Japan and one year of living there to finally understand and appreciate Japanese cuisine for what it is. Prior to that, I always thought that food portions in Japan are tiny and not worth the money. And while it is true that the average Japanese calorie intake was ranked 109th at 2,705kcal intake per day on average (compared to, 3500+ in the US and many other Western countries), there was something else I was missing: the relationship between main and side dishes.
Rice is King
When you look at a typical western dish like the one below and someone asked you to identify the main dish and side dish, most people would naturally say that the fish is the main dish and the potatoes and vegetables are the side dishes.
Now, look at this picture, which is a typical Japanese 定食 (Teishoku) meal. You might be tempted to say that the fish variation is the main dish and all the other stuff around is the side dish. But as you could already guess, that would be wrong. In fact, that is what makes Japanese cuisine such a great way to save money while cooking; the main dish is not the fish but what’s underneath is: rice.
The okazu system
According to Wikipedia, “Okazu (おかず or お数; お菜; 御菜) is a Japanese word meaning a side dish to accompany rice; subsidiary articles of diet. They are cooked and seasoned in such a way as to match well when eaten with rice, and are typically made from fish, meat, vegetable, or tofu.”
The most important word in this paragraph is “accompany”. It shows that any kinds of fish, meat or vegetable that you can typically find in a Japanese dish is only there to accompany the main dish of rice.
Because rice is the main dish, you can usually offer smaller portion sizes of the side dishes (e.g. meat or fish) which are also usually more expensive. In the past, I would have considered at least 200–300g of protein per meal to be normal, however since I switched to eating primarily Japanese dishes, I find that half the amount is enough. This means that with a cheap carb to fill you up (rice) you can have a filling but delicious dish for very little money.
Variety Variety Variety
Another advantage of the Okazu System is not only saving money but also the variety of food you can sample for each meal. It is not uncommon to eat a bowl of rice with 3 to 5 different side dishes such as miso soup, some form of protein and pickled vegetables. This allows you to eat a wide variety of dishes with each meal, many of which can be made in advance.
It gets even better
One final advantage of the Okazu system besides saving money and having a lot of variety in food is the health benefit. Japanese people are among the healthiest in the world, with some of the longest living people found there. I believe the Okazu system is a big part of this as many of the side dishes that accompany consist of healthy food (fish, tofu, vegetables) and even if they contain unhealthy foods such as fried chicken, meat, etc. they come in a much lower quantity than if you were to eat it in a western way.
I will post some of my favorite simple and frugal Japanese dishes that I cook at home in the future and I hope that you will be able to appreciate Japanese food for the bang-for-buck, healthy, delicious super food that it is.