Japan from the inside out

Food roots

Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 4, 2011

It’s a mongrelized world we live in, and among those most aware of the degree of mongrelization are the people who study national dietary habits. The Korean dish kimchee is just one of many examples of the phenomenon. It’s such an integral part of Korean life that it’s served free in restaurants with meals in the way water is provided in other countries. The image of the food that immediately arises in the mind’s eye is tinted a bright red from the chili flakes used for seasoning. But though Koreans have been eating different forms of kimchee for at least 2,000 years, chili wasn’t cultivated there until 1600, after it was introduced from Japan. (That’s also roughly when Chinese cabbage and daikon radish became the main ingredients).

Also, the image of the basic/classic Japanese meal, both inside and outside the country, is of a bowl of rice, a bowl of miso soup, tsukemono (pickled vegetables), and some fish or meat on the side. But Katarzyna J. Cwiertka argues that what many consider to be the classic Japanese diet was a 20th century invention created with considerable Western influence:

(A)ll Japanese canteens (by which she means cafeterias at worksites or universities) share a common heritage, which can be traced to the 1930s military food. A standard menu in a Japanese canteen consists of a bowl of rice, a bowl of miso soup, and pickles (tsukemono) supplemented by two or three side dishes, one of them being a kind of “main side dish” usually featuring fish or meat. Other canteens’ mainstays include Japanese-style and Chinese-style noodles, spaghetti, sandwiches, and the Japanese-Western rice-based hybrids served on a plate (not in a bowl), such as curry on rice (kare raisu), pilaf, and rice pan-fried with chicken and tomato ketchup given the name ‘chicken rice’ (chikin raisu). As will become obvious in the course of this paper, the majority of these dishes appeared in wartime military menus.


The fact that the Japanese military fed its troops on novelties, and that these dishes were among the favorites, is extraordinary, considering that this was against the general rule of military caterers elsewhere, who precisely avoided serving unknown food…As practically no “all-Japanese” cooking existed in Japan at that time, and proper nourishment could be achieved economically only by adopting non-Japanese dishes instead of providing traditional food, Japanese military caterers chose to serve hybrid culinary experiments. We may surmise that the fact that these hybrids were served with a mixture of rice and barley eased the resistance towards the unknown food. Rice was the staple of choice for the Japanese (Ohnuki-Tierney 1993), but the conscription experience meant for many farmers’ sons and other drafted members of the underclass the luxury of having rice three times a day.

She’s even written a favorably reviewed book on the subject, called Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity. (The Amazon page contains the claim that “key shifts in the Japanese diet were, in many cases, a consequence of modern imperialism”. That would be true if one equates having a standing national military with imperialism, but some people have a taste for connecting all sorts of things Japanese with militaristic imperialism. Then again, it’s difficult for more than a few people to recognize that correlation doesn’t always equal causation.)

The question naturally arises of what sort of meals Japanese ate before the 20th century, especially during the Edo period (1603-1868), when there was little contact with the outside world. Fortunately, the Japanese keep excellent records, and some of those dishes can be easily recreated. In fact, the folks in Fukui conducted a series of events this year in which some seriously old-fashioned home cooking was served to curious gastronomes. One of the events presented four varieties of Edo period mazegohan, or “mixed rice”. The four were: sakurameshi (literally, cherry rice), with thin-sliced octopus legs arranged to resemble cherry trees; taimeshi, using the sea bream, a symbol of good luck, as the mixed ingredient; and kibimeshi and awameshi, made with different types of millet.

The dainty dishes set before the Japanese diners surprised them for several reasons. First, the sakurameshi was eaten in the same bowl with strained miso soup, (though they were less surprised when they saw the octopus parts still twitching.) The two varieties with millet were also eaten with broth, and the ratio of millet to rice was 6 to 4 in favor of the millet. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call those dishes mixed millet rather than mazegohan.

The event’s organizers didn’t have far to go to find period seasonings. The Muroji company in Fukui City earlier this year brought back one of their old favorites — soy sauce brewed from a recipe dating from the Bakumatsu period, which was the very end of the Edo period in the mid-19th century. They didn’t have to do much digging to find the recipe, either. The company was founded in 1689, and the current president is the 13th in an unbroken line of descendants running the firm.

One of the selling points for this classic soy sauce is that it will satisfy even the most ideological of food purists. It’s made from Fukui soybeans, wheat, koji-kin (a mold for fermentation), yeast, lactic acid bacteria — and that’s all. No preservatives or additives are used. It’s also allowed to ferment for a year, in contrast to the three-month period for most of today’s commercial varieties. The company’s Japanese-language website notes that it has 300 constituent ingredients, including amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, and they also provide a list of its many health benefits. If that sounds like something you’d like to try, the company will sell it and ship it to you, if you live in Japan.

Muroji chose to market the product in a peculiar way, however: They gave it the name Bakumatsu Soy Sauce, with soy sauce written in the katakana alphabet based on the English pronunciation, rather than shoyu, the Japanese word. Few Japanese who used the product when it was first sold are likely to have known the term “soy sauce”.

It’s a mongrelized world we live in!

The name of the group is Mazegohan and they’re performing a Japanese pop song (with a few English words for lyrics) that was recorded by Ray Charles. How’s that for mongrelization?

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2 Responses to “Food roots”

  1. toadold said

    Edo wazurai えどわずらい
    “the Illness of Edo”, Edo disease
    beriberi; vitamin B deficiency
    . . . . . kakke 脚気(かっけ)

    Toward the 18th century, this mysterious disease started as an affliction of the rich and wealthy, who could afford to eat polished rice, which let to vitamin B deficiency.
    Poor townspeople in Edo, who ate brown rice, did not get it, also the poor in the countryside.
    Even the 8th Shogun Yoshimune suffered from it for a while, until his cooks gave him a sidedish with the ark clam in miso-vinegar. The ark clam contains a lot of vitamin B.”

    As more polished rice became available there were more cases of Beri Beri.
    There were arguments between the Japanese Army and the Navy medical establishments about the cause of Beri Beri. The Army favored a bacterial cause and the Navy a food deficiency cause. During and after the Meiji period it was showing up in poor people and conscripts. Eventually the conclusion was the necessity of including foods with vitamin B1 into the military diet. Beri Beri is a nasty condition and fatal unless treated.

    It still appears in the poorer parts of the white rice eating world. Sweet potatoes, whole grains,beans, meat, fish, and other foods have the B complex vitamins.

  2. camphortree said

    In 1910 the first vitamin was discovered by Dr. Umetaro Suzuki in Japan. He had been looking for the cure of Beri Beri for the J-military. The mysterious nutrient Dr. Suzuki discovered was called oryzanin. This is now known as Vitamin B1.

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