History of Japanese Cuisine
We think of Japan as a single island, but it actually is four large islands and thousands of smaller ones. The volcanic and mountainous terrain boasts lush forests and heavy rainfall, much of it from monsoons, and the scarce farm land is used predominantly for rice. As one would expect, fish plays a major dietary role, both fresh and preserved.
In the third century BC, Korea’s already developed rice growing techniques were passed to the Japanese by the Yayoi, a migrating tribe that settled in Japan. Rice came to be used for more than eating, including paper, fuel, wine, building materials and animal feed.
During the development of Japan, the Chinese contributed soy sauce, tea, chopsticks and imperial rule. Other influences arrived in Japan via Korea, including Buddhism, which, despite the pre-existing Shinto and Confucian religions, became the official religion in the sixth century. For the next 1200 years, meat was officially forbidden to the Japanese people,
Then in the sixteenth century the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, came looking to corner the trade market with Japan. The westerners introduced fried foods, which is why the breaded, fried tempura seem so very un-Japanese; while the Japanese enjoyed this type of cooking, it was not something that evolved naturally. Tobacco, sugar and corn were also brought by the traders.
Around 1600 (and lasting until 1868), Japan’s shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (of James Clavell’s famous novel, “Shogun”) feared the Europeans would spark great wars; so he closed the ports and expunged the foreigners. During this period of isolationism, Japan’s culture became even more deeply rooted. The main religions of Buddhism and Shinto emphasize the seasons and this came to be reflected in the foods served. In fact, it is because of Buddhism that meals feature five flavors and colors, respectively being: sweet, spicy, salty, bitter and sour; and yellow, black, white, green, and red.
US Commodore Perry forced the Japanese to renew trade with the West in 1854, and soon a new Japanese ruling order took power. Interestingly, the new Emperor Meiji staged a New Year’s feast in 1872 designed to embrace the Western world; it was completely European in detail and for the first time in over a thousand years, the people publicly ate meat.
“What makes Japanese dishes Japanese?”
If we asked you to think of one Japanese food, what comes to your mind?
Sushi, raw fish, tempura, tofu? Good.
With Japanese restaurants and Sushi bars popping all over the world these days, Japanese food is no longer considered as one of the world’s unsolved mysteries it once was (we hope!).
In fact, more number of people are recognizing Japanese food as one of the world’s healthiest cuisines.
With rice and abundant marine products at it’s mainstream, the traditional Japanese diet is impressingly low in cholestrol, fat, and calories, and high in fiber.
No wonder Japanese people have the highest longetivity rate.
Anyway, like all other cuisines, Japanese food is a product of the culture that produced it.
But what exactly does it take for the dish to be genuinely “Japanese”?
Here, we picked out some of the distinct characteristics which makes Japanese cooking Japanese.
Enviroment, Climate & the Diet
From the snow-capped mountains of northern Hokkaido to the sandy shores of Okinawa, there lies some distinctive differences in diet and cooking styles between the regions of Japan. On top of all the high mountains and oceans which divided up the country, the difference of abundant product within each region helped to devolop the contrast as well.
Despite the differences, though, there lies a common ground. As you may already know, Japan is an island country. Where ever you might be, you’ll find that there are plenty of fishes and other marine products. With the climate perfect for growing good crops of rice, the Japanese diet consists of rice as the staple food, with fish and veggies forming the nucleus of the side dishes. The main seasoning here is “shoyu” (show-you)or also known as soy sauce (heard of Kikkoman’s?) and “miso”(mee-so), both of them made from fermented soybeans and with rice and salt. The meals are carried out 3 times a day, with the basic style including rice, a bowl ofsoup(sui-mono) and two or three side dishes, and the sipping of green tea at the end of the meal.
All in all, when it comes to describing the Japanese diet in a few words, “natural” & “harmony” best fits the description. Whatever dish you make, never kill the natural flavor of the ingredients. The ingredients must be in harmony together to make one dish; the dish in harmony with other dishes to make a meal. Food must be in harmony with nature and the surroundings, including the person who is dining…It is said.
The Relationship with Rice
How many times in a week do you eat rice?
The answer for Japanese is simple. Daily.
Sharing a long and deep relationship with the Japanese, rice is by far the most important crop of all. Rich in carbohydrates and proteins, rice has acted as the staple of the Japanese diet for as long as time has known. Ever since the cultivation of the first crop began nearly 2000 years ago, the yearly cycle of sowing, seed-transplanting, weeding, and harvesting has been repeated time after time until now. Since rice crops were affected by the forces of nature, various kinds of ceremonies were offered to the gods throughout the year as well.
Other than a source of good nutrition, rice had played anotherimportant factor among the old Japanese. From ancient times until the mid-19th century, rice was used as currency for paying taxes and wages. Like the rank of the feudal lords were all measured by how much rice they had, rice was a ruler which indicated one’s economic status. Try to think of banks filled with rice instead of money! Yikes!
But the real reason why the people of Japan treasure rice plants so much, lies in the fact that it transforms itself to numerous amount of products which are essential to people’s daily lives. From white rice,”mochi”(moe-chee) known as rice cakes, “senbei”(sen-bay)the rice cracker, and “miso” (mee-so) for adding flavor are born. Even from the straw part of the rice plant, people have made ropes and sandals and many more.
To the Japanese, rice is not just any food. It formed the phase of the Japanese culture; the identity of Japan.
The Sense of Season
W here else can you feel a more distinctive change in the seasons than here in Japan? Cherry blossoms in full bloom in spring, the leaves colored all bright in the season of fall. People enjoy watching the parade of the changing seasons as well as the change of seasons on their table tops. Yes, when summer comes, it arrives on the dishes as well. Japan’s traditional culture is often described as the seasonal culture for so much resolves around the changing seasons and the sense of season highly valued. With premium placed upon freshness and natural flavor, people love to eat ingredients at their “shun” or “now-in-season” in Japanese. Bamboo shoots, tuna, and herring of spring; bonito of earlysummer; matsutake (a type of mushroom) and chestnuts of the season of autumn. Eating the ingredients at their “shun” is believed to be good for your health, too – and so, we do.
Even the color of the chopstick counts
Before actually eating the food, you must enjoy it with the “eyes” first. Eyes are as large as the stomach. That, is the Japanese way of dining.
In Japan, food and dishes are considered to be a type of art. Although there are no marveling sessions held before the eating, the Japanese people really enjoy the artistic sense and beauty of the displayand arrangement of the food and the choice of receptacles for serving it. Sometimes, even the rooms or the place where the eating is occured are considered as part of the art. More beautiful the food looks, more delicous, it is thought to be.
Now then, what exactly is the aethestic sense when it comes to serving food. A sense of season, a feeling for nature, and an eye for color must be skilfully incorporated. Let’s say it is one of the hottest days of the year and you want to serve something that would “cool-off” the heat. The food is “somen” (so-men) which is white-thread-like noodles dipped in soup. For this, you might want to use a transparent blue glass bowl with blue chop-sticks, some ice cubes , and a green maple leaf floating on top. Harmony. That is the word.