If you lived in Japan like I do, you wouldn’t confuse Japanese and Chinese food. But you would also understand that people living outside the country will easily get them mixed up because there are as many overlaps as differences between the two.

In this article, let me clarify the differences in Japanese and Chinese food and where the borderline lies between the two.

1. Differences in philosophy

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The greatest difference between Japanese and Chinese cuisine lies in what each considers to be a virtue.

In Chinese cuisine, cooking is mostly about turning foods that are inedible as they are into edible form by means of skill. There is a famous quote glorifying the great skills of Chinese chefs of Kanton province, roughly saying something to the effect of:

The only four-legged objects that cannot be eaten are desks, the only two-legged objects that cannot be eaten are your parents. The only inedible winged objects are planes and the only inedible aquatic objects are sunbmarines.

Meanwhile, the basic philosophy behind Japanese cuisine is to serve food in a form as close to its natural self. Legendary Japanese chefs consistently claim that:

The one thing a chef should avoid is doing too much cooking.

What matters more than cooking skills is having the eyes to select fresh ingredients and drawing out their full potential.

So the ideal of Japanese cuisine is to do as little cooking as possible, and still make food taste good. We can say that the epitome of Japanese food is Sashimi  刺身, which is sliced raw fish. The only thing the chef does is slice up fresh fish with a knife and put some condiments (soy sauce and wasabi) on the side.

I’d imagine Chinese people would not consider this cooking. It’s just cutting. But cutting is an art Japanese chefs train years to perfect because the other important ideal of Japanese cuisine is aesthetic beauty.

Chefs of traditional Japanese restaurants strive to make each dish they serve visually pleasing by cutting vegetables into the shape of flowers, or depicting sceneries of rivers, mountains and sea with how they lay out sushi or sashimi, and selecting the most elaborate plates and bowls to nest the food as canvases.

There is an old saying from Japan that goes:

You enjoy Chinese food with your tongue, Western food with your nose (to smell the appetizing scent of spices), and Japanese food with your eyes.

Let me discuss the differences in looks in more details later.

There are many originally-Chinese and originally-Western dishes that were adopted and adapted into the diet of Japanese people in modern times so you will find many exceptions in Japanese food, but these philosophical differences lie underneath Japanese and Chinese food.

2. Differences in cooking methods

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Especially to the Western world, Japanese and Chinese food can be easily confused because there are many kinds of Chinese dishes served at casual Japanese restaurants (however not the other way around). For example if you go in a pseudo-Japanese restaurant run by a non-Japanese owner in the US, there is a high chance of your seeing “fried rice” in the menu. That’s not Japanese food because it is made through a cooking method outside the Japanese repertoire.

However in Japan, the kinds of dishes that you would normally eat at home consist of a wide variety of cuisines, and one of them is Chinese food. Chinese dishes are so widely and regularly cooked in Japan that Japanese people have come to recognize some of them as Japanese food.

Among these “originally-Chinese” Japanese dishes are dumplings, fried rice and stir-fried vegetables, and they are commonly served at casual Japanese resautrants.

Everyone in Japan is aware that these have their origins in China, but to people outside Japan, how would they know?

2-1. China = fire, Japan = water

Putting all exceptions aside, it can be said that to make Chinese food, fire is the key, and to make Japanese food, water is the key. This fundamental difference connects to the differences in taste.

Rivers in Japan are short. Most islands are narrowly shaped and most parts are mountainous, which means rivers start from a high altitude and don’t take long to find their way into sea. This means rivers flow very quickly, and therefore river water is kept clean, free of mud. This is part of the reason tap water is drinkable in modern-day Japan.

So from ancient times, merely washing fruits, vegetables and fish with water made some of them edible. If washing didn’t do the job, people tried boiling stuff. And boiled food wouldn’t taste good if you used muddy water. The realization that some kinds of food in nature are edible in their purest form was acheived thanks to clean water. Hence, the ideal of Japanese cuisine became to draw out the natural flavor of each ingredient.

Let’s now look at China. Because of its massive land, 4 of the world’s longest rivers (the Yangze River, the Yellow River, the Ob River and the Amur River) flow in China. Long rivers mean slower currents, and therefore the river water contains a lot of mud and is not very clean. For this reason, people living in areas with no access to quality water couldn’t eat stuff in nature just by washing or boiling.

This is why there are many stir-fried dishes in Chinese cuisine. Fire is used to transform things into edible form. Also, the cooking technique of steaming is common in Chinese cuisine because it cooks food without having it touch water directly.

So we can make a generalization that in Chinese cuisine, there’s more oil used (to stir-fry) while in Japanese cuisine, there’s relatively less.

2-2. China = complex, Japan = simple

Because one of the ideals of Chinese cuisine is to create a taste that is yet to exist using natural ingredients, some dishes go through a very complex cooking process. So a chef might first stir-fry some ingredients and then boil them in soup, or deep-fry some other ingredients and then glaze them.

A Chinese chef would need to know the ins and outs of so many cooking processes and may often apply several of them to cook one dish.

Meanwhile, a Japanese chef needs to know the ins and outs of each ingredient and will often apply only one process per dish so as not to change the natural flavor of the ingredient too much. He would cut fish in a way that it will taste best, cook beef in a way that it will taste best, and boil vegetables in a way that they will taste best.

3. Differences in values

How do you tell if the dish in front of you should be rated high or low? Because of differences in values, the criteria to determine quality food differs between Japanese and Chinese food.

3-1. Japanese food starts from the looks

As mentioned earlier, Japanese cuisine values aesthetic beauty. Chefs and even some households try to realize visual appeal by means of:

  1. Shaping the food into sexy figures
  2. Choosing ingredients that come in all sorts of sexy colors
  3. Choosing plates that make the food look sexy
  4. Laying the plates out to complete a sexy presentation.

That’s a lot of sexy. Here’s Japanese sexiness in a nutshell:

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Of course Western cuisine goes for visual appeal too. However, while Western food prefers to be presented in symmetrical form, Japanese food prefers asymmetry, as you can see in the picture above.

The most likely reason for the great Japanese preference towards asymmetry is respect towards mother nature. Nature is more asymmetrical than symmetrical. So many Japanese chefs try to depict landscapes, rivers and ocean waves on the table by laying out food and plates accordingly, and naturally, they always end up being asymmetrical (Japanese gardens are always asymmetrical for the same reason).

Japanese porcelains can look similar to those used in Chinese cuisine because, well, porcelain originated in China in the first place. Afterall, these are often called chinaware.

The knowledge and crafting technique to make porcelain traveled to Japan through Korea in the late 1500s (Japan invaded Korea and brought back several craftsmen). Although Japan had been importing Chinese-style porcelain for a long time, it was not until the 17th century that Japanese style porcelain started to be crafted.

If you compare the porcelains of the two countries carefully, you’ll start to see differences especially in the choice of motifs. But yes, they look similar.

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Also to be noted is the use of color. In a quality Japanese meal, you’re supposed to see at least 5 of the 7 colors listed below:

  1. Red – tomato, paprika, apple, pepper, strawberry, red meat, salmon, shrimp
  2. Yellow – carrot, pumpkin, corn, lemon, banana, pineapple, sweet potato
  3. Purple – egg plant, grape, blueberry, black bean, red bean, red cabbage
  4. Green – spinach, broccoli, asparagas, green pepper, okra, green pea
  5. Brown – mushroom, natto, burdock root, pork, almond, chestnut
  6. Black –  seaweed, black sesame, raisin, konjak
  7. White – white radish, onion, bean sprout, tofu, yogurt, chicken, ginger

By making a conscious effort to gather as many different colors as possible, you can make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need to live a healthy life. This idea is taught in elementary school. Not many people take vitamin pills in Japan because their mothers knew how to make nutritious meals for their children.

Anyway, a Japanese person with some education in cooking can tell how healthy a meal is just by looking at it. So to a Japanese person, pizza, fish’n chips, fried rice and dumplings are tasty food, but not quality food by themselves. They know that if these are all you eat, you’ll die quickly.

3-2. Chinese food starts from the taste

In Chinese cuisine, judging whether the food is good starts when it is put inside your mouth. The taste, texture and smell are the primary focus of Chinese food. The looks and the use of colors don’t really matter.

When you eat good spring rolls 春巻, the exterior wrap will be very crispy and the interior will be rich and soothing. When you eat good soup dumplings 小籠包, the coating will be soft and delicate, soup will juice out upon biting in, and then your tongue will recognize and enjoy the meat hidden inside. Providing your tongue and teeth with pleasant surprises seem to be one of many several thems  Chinese dishes share.

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In fact, just like the Eskimos have many words to express different forms of snow, there are many Chinese words that express subtle variations of food texture and some will be difficult to translate into other languages.

4. Differences in taste

There is a wide variety of schools of taste within each country so making generalizations will not be wise, but there are a few clear distinctions that make Japanese and Chinese food to taste so different.

There are several condiments unique to both countries and you’ll immediately see a difference between the two cuisines when you compare how they look.

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I think you can kind of see that Chinese condiments tend to be pastes and they look pretty hardcore. In the meantime, Japanese condiments tend to be liquids and they look pretty laid back. Just as they look, Chinese condiments are used more to modify the taste of ingredients and Japanese condiments are used more to accentuate the taste of ingredients.

In Japan, when you eat sushi or tempura, you get a sauce. But you only dip the tip of the fish or part of the tempura in the sauce. You don’t let it bathe. This practice symbolizes the Japanese ideal of enjoying food as close to its natural form as possible. They don’t want to modify the taste of the ingredients; they want to enjoy the taste of the fish or shrimp, not the sauce.

So farmers and fishermen play a significant role in producing foods that taste good before any cooking is done. Producers compete to make quality food, and as a result, meat is branded by the area its made (like Kobe beef 神戸牛) and vegetables are also branded by the place of origin (like Kyo-yasai 京野菜 – vegetables grown in Kyoto). If you compare branded food with non-branded ones, you will taste quite a significant difference.

When you go to an authentic Chinese restaurant, you may come across several dishes in which you can’t really tell what the ingredients are just from tasting them. You’ll be thinking “I have no idea what this is but it sure is delicious.” I personally think that when you eat Chinese food, you’re enjoying the sauce or soup the chef created more so than the flavor of each ingredient.

It’s amazing how skilled Chinese chefs can make ordinary pork or vegetables (branded or non-branded) taste exponentially better than you can imagine.

So you can generally say that when you eat at a nice Japanese place, you are enjoying the quality food picked and prepared skillfully by the chef, and when you eat at a nice Chinese place, you are being amused by the chef’s magical skills.