Bread or rice for dinner?

April 18th, 2011

“What would you like for dinner? Bread or Rice?”

Sound a bit bland? Luckily, we are still able to afford such luxuries as meats and vegetables, and when my wife Mizuki asks me this rather intriguing question, what she is actually asking is whether I would like Japanese or Western cuisine for supper.

This may sound pretty straight forward, but after I respond “with what?” for the twentieth time, it can get rather tedious for both parties. What this really shows is a deep divide in how Westerners and Japanese think of food.

The base: protein vs. starch

In our culture, we are used to considering the protein as the base of a meal. Fish, steak, lobster, chicken, etc.. We think of these when we are preparing a menu for guests, complemented by a side dish of vegetables and a starch (potato, pasta, etc.).

As a Frenchman, I automatically assume bread will be served throughout the meal, but this is also true in other western countries to a certain extent. In any case, bread is hardly ever viewed as the featured ingredient.

Western vs. Japanese table setting (click to zoom)

In Japan however, the starch is considered the base of the meal, and traditionally the starch is rice. Every other dish on the table, whether it is beef, vegetables or pickles, is considered an accompaniment to the rice, and bunched together under the term okazu.

Here’s a very detailed article I found on this topic. It is completely correct in that these are not what we normally consider side dishes, as they actually include the main protein.

Simply put, okazu is the flavoring for your daily rice. But it’s not necessarily natural for western culture to view grilled fish as mere flavoring however. Even the word sushi literally is derived from -vinegared rice-!


Typically, I suppose a Japanese husband would ask his wife what the okazu is for dinner, simply assuming that rice will be served in the same way that I assume bread will be on the table.

But with the internationalization of food culture, and the fact that we alternate between western and Japanese cuisine at home, these issues arise, which are tied to this fundamental way of thinking about food mentioned above.

The main ingredient prevails over anything in my mind, whereas the importance of the starch pretty much defines the meal for Mizuki, hence the question: rice or bread?

It is more important for her to know which of the two will serve as the base so that she may adapt her cooking style to whatever ingredients she has access to. On the other hand, it’s more insightful for me to know if we will be eating fish, beef or salad for dinner, regardless of how it’s prepared. Guess it just takes a little patience to come to an understanding!

Leave a Reply