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Five Ancient Elements Rule Traditional Japanese Meals

Japanese meals are beautifully balanced and presented, and tend to be light on the stomach. You will never feel that you are stuffed with too much fat, sugar or protein by the end of a traditionally prepared Japanese meal. The balance we strive for not only satisfies hunger, but also entertains and nourishes each of the five senses — taste, smell, texture, color and sound.

Interestingly, non-Japanese cooks seem to think that cooking such a well-balanced meal in a home kitchen is not possible. But it is! In my New York City kitchen, I regularly achieve this goal with American ingredients because, like my fellow Japanese, I have learned to follow the simple “rules” governing Japanese meal creation. These rules, which originated in China, take into account the relationship of the five ancient key elements of the universe: earth, wood, fire, water and metal. I teach this cooking philosophy to my students during a week-long Japanese cooking course, Essentials of Japanese Cuisine, held twice a year at the International Culinary Center in New York City. They are fascinated to learn that they can apply the philosophy and rules of Japanese cuisine in their day-to-day cooking.

It’s elemental for Japanese meals

The Five Elements Philosophy holds that each element must be in proper relation to every other element in order for the universe to maintain a healthy balance and for human beings to maintain their optimal mental and physical health. Each element is tied to a color, taste and cooking technique: Wood is associated with green, sour and simmering; fire with red, bitter and grilling; earth with sweet, orange and raw; metal with white, hot and deep-frying; and water with black, salty and steaming.

When Japanese professional chefs and home cooks plan a meal, we naturally incorporate the Five Elements Philosophy. Both the simplest Japanese home-style meal and the most complex, structured, multi-course formal kaiseki consist of dishes prepared by complementary cooking techniques, flavors and colors. The following is an example of simple home-style dinner: a bowl of steamed rice (water), a bowl of miso soup (water), a grilled fish dish (fire), a sashimi dish (earth) and a simmered vegetable dish (wood) Another dish, such as deep-fried tempura (metal) can be also included in the menu.

Balance and moderation

Each of these dishes is served in modest-sized portion to ensure dining satisfaction. For example, a grilled fish dish, the protein, is typically about 4 ounces per person. At home these prepared dishes are served simultaneously, arrayed in front of the diner. At a formal kaiseki meal, the dishes are served in a prescribed sequence. In preparing the dishes we try to bring in five colors, not only to entertain the diner’s eye, but also to add to the health of the meal. Variously colored vegetables offer different vitamins and nutritional components.

And, finally, the Japanese meal balances the five taste sensations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and hot. Today in America when people talk about balancing flavors, they tend to single out four taste sensations — sweet, sour, hot and salty — and the result often is that the relative strength of these elements is escalated in an unbalanced fashion, over-emphasizing one over the other. Everything tastes too salty, too sweet, too hot and/or too sour.

The dominance of one flavor destroys the ability to detect and enjoy the natural flavor and aroma of each individual ingredient in the dishes — an important attribute of cooking Japanese style. In the Japanese meal, not only do we balance all five flavors, including the bitter flavor, which contains healthy chemicals such as polyphenols, but we also use these flavors in a way to enhance, not mask, the natural flavor of each ingredient in a preparation.

As I show in my new book, “Hiroko’s American Kitchen,” no matter what style cuisine you are preparing, if you balance cooking techniques, balance food colors and balance the five tastes, you can prepare nutritionally balanced, delicious and healthy meals. The ancient philosophy at the foundation of Japanese cuisine has endured for centuries without losing its relevance. Since I no longer live in Japan, I now use readily available fresh American produce, meat and seafood. By cooking these local ingredients in the Japanese way, I have produced many delicious dishes best described as “East-West hybrids” (Please don’t call it “fusion!”) as Nancy Matsumoto writes in her review of my book.  I strongly believe that ascribing to the Five Elements Philosophy will introduce you to new and healthful way of cooking that will lead to a more balanced life.

Top photo: Hiroko Shimbo. Credit: Courtesy of

Zester Daily contributor Hiroko Shimbo, a widely acclaimed chef-consultant and Japanese cooking instructor, is the author of "Hiroko's American Kitchen," "The Japanese Kitchen" (published as "La Cocina Japonesa" in Spain) and "The Sushi Experience."

  • Deller Trask 2·9·13

    This is a lovely article.


  • James 3·31·17

    Yes, I am trying to learn of true Kaiseki, as I have an interview for a steakhouse/sushi restaurant. I love cooking and have always admired Japenese culture. This helped me to understand better. Thank you Hiroko.