A balanced diet – Teishoku Dining

Flicking through my Twitter feed last night I came on, for me, a very exciting discovery. The style of food I had raved about when we stayed in the ryokan in Takayama had a name and I had only just discovered this, a year late! It is Teishoku.

Every morning and evening we were served with a tray-full of small dishes which looked so insubstantial but after eating actually constituted a huge meal. There was always water, and tea, miso soup (and sake in the evening), rice, a main dish, a tofu side, another vegetable side, perhaps mushrooms and always some interesting pickle. All the dishes were beautifully presented in small bowls and decorated delicately with flowers, shredded dikon or different types of leaves. This was the most delicious food we had in our time in Japan (apart, perhaps, from the Shojin Ryori cuisine served at Buddhist temples)

Teishoku seems to have two distinct meanings. According to some, Teishoku means a fixed price dinner served at a shokudō or dining hall or restaurant. There is a Japanese wide chain of Teishoku restaurants called Ootoya devoted to the busy worker. But Teishoku restaurants are not restricted to Japan, and can also be found in New York’s Ootoya Teishoku restaurant, and in the Phillipines in the Japanese Teishoku Restaurant, Yayoi, which is so thoroughly modern that patrons place their orders through a touch-screen menu on their tables.

Hino Maple has an intriguing description of a lunchtime teishoku shop:

“If you are in an entertainment district during lunch, you can sometimes see an izakaya (a type of informal pub that serves small dishes with drinks), that has converted itself into a lunch time teishoku shop.  These shops can be very interesting.  You generally see office workers rushing in and out at all times.  It’s not for the weak of heart as you need to be a little strong to understand how things work.  Usually, everything is for a set price.  You pay at the front then you can choose what you want to eat.  They usually have a counter where you can pick one of the main items, then two of the side dishes.  Water, rice, and soup are all self serve, but you can get as much as you want.  The quality of the food tends to be good, but the quality of the rice will depend on the shop.  Major izakaya chains probably won’t offer this service, and this service is usually open for just one or two hours a day.  After the service has ended, the shop closes, cleans, and finishes preparing for the after work drinking crowd.  It’s an amazing event to see and something I recommend trying if you aren’t afraid.  Do be warned that the shop’s staffs tends to speak only Japanese, so getting help in understanding what to do can be very difficult.  Just do your best.”

For others, though, Teishuko represents a very traditional cuisine that is simple, reflects home cooking and is very flavourful.  It’s reasonable and fills you up.  Essentially, here, teishoku is a meal comprising of a set of principles for combining foods that result in a delicious and balanced and nutritionally complete meal. Teishoku is simply a very well-balanced meal, which is served on a tray in small separate bowls and which taken together comprise the whole or ‘set’ meal.

Kaki Okumura, who writes a well-being blog captures completely the principles of Teishoku meal planning in her article for Meduim ‘Teishoku Completely Changed the Way I See Healthy Food’ when she writes that:

‘What separates eating in Japan from eating in America is that for Japanese people, eating is largely a balancing act. Rather than a categorization of foods to eat, and foods not to eat, meals tend to be built around moderation and variety, a thought that’s no better represented than by a teishoku meal.’

Kaki gives guidance on how to start to eat according to Teishuko principles noting that:

‘Teishoku meals are constructed to have a balanced portion of carbohydrates, vegetables, and protein, without skimping on flavor. Each portion is prepared differently, which gives the meal its variety and color. A teishoku meal might have fried chicken, a food that is commonly deemed unhealthy, but in moderation and consumed with other vegetables, it can definitely be part of a healthy diet. Teishoku meals are nutritious, filling, and delicious, so anyone can enjoy it.’

As Favy notes when comparing Japanese and American Ootoya Teishoku restaurants, ‘The Ootoya restaurants in Japan serve “Japanese home-cooked meals”. They try to make the taste and selection in the menu the kind of food that mothers would make for their children, thinking about their health and balance in their diet. In Japan, Ootoya promotes their concept of making their food taste like their mom’s home-cooked meal.’

However, ‘in New York, the quality of food is their primary focus, and they make sure to create the true Japanese style taste in each dish using fermented food and other Japanese ingredients. As the teishoku culture and other Japanese food cultures are still uncommon to Americans, it is their goal to promote this unique style.’

Rice, soup, a main dish, one or two side dishes, a salad, and some pickles all served beautifully and in proportion – what more could you want.

All photos were taken by me while on holiday in Japan.