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A history of Japanese cuisine

IMG_0789Japanese cuisine has developed over the past 2,000 years with strong influences from both China and Korea. But it is only in the last 300-400 years that all the influences have come together to form what nowadays can be described as Japanese cuisine.

One of the major influences was the introduction of rice from Korea around 400 B.C. and within a hundred years it had become the staple food of Japan. Korea’s rice growing techniques were passed on to the Japanese during the Yayoi period, as migrating tribes settled in Japan.

Rice later came to be used not only for eating, but also to make paper, wine, fuel, building materials and so on. Soy beans and wheat were introduced from China soon after rice and these two ingredients are now an integral part of Japanese cooking. During Japan’s development tea, chopsticks and a number of other important food related items were also introduced from China.

Religion has also played a major part in Japan’s culinary development. During the 6th century, Buddhism became the official religion of the country and the eating of meat and fish were prohibited. The first recorded decree prohibiting the eating of cattle, horses, dogs, monkeys, and chickens was issued by Emperor Temmu in A.D. 675. Similar decrees, based on the Buddhist prohibition of killing, were issued repeatedly by emperors during the eighth and ninth centuries. The number of regulated meats increased to the point that all mammals were included except whales, which were categorized as fish.

The taboo against the consumption of meat developed further when the Japanese indigenous religion, Shinto, also adopted a philosophy similar to that of the Buddhists. This did not mean, however, that meat eating was totally banned in Japan. Professional hunters in mountain regions ate game (especially deer and wild boar), and it was not uncommon for hunted bird meat to be consumed. However, a lack of animal breeding for meat kept its consumption very low. Indeed, it was only during the fifteenth century and its aftermath that the tradition of eating both the meat and eggs of domestic fowl was revived. Fowls, until then, had been regarded in Shinto as God’s sacred messengers and were reared to announce the dawn rather than as a mere food resource.

Milk and other dairy products have failed to enjoy the same popularity in Europe as they do in Japan. The only Japanese dairy product known to history was produced between the eighth and fourteenth centuries. Cattle were often raised only for drawing carts or plowing fields. To utilize them for meat or even for milk was, until relatively recently, a long-forgotten practice.

The lack of meat products also minimized spice utilization. Pepper and cloves were known from the eighth century and were imported either via China or directly from Southeast Asia, and garlic was also grown on a small scale. But these spices were used mainly to make medicines and cosmetics.

In the absence of meat, fish was a significant substitute and as an island nation, this source of food was abundant and has influenced many of todays most famous dishes. However, before the introduction of modern delivery systems, the difficulty of preserving and transporting fresh marine fish minimized consumption in inland areas where freshwater fish were commonly eaten instead.

Preserving fish also became popular and sushi originated as a means of preserving fish by fermenting it in boiled rice. Fish that are salted and placed in rice are preserved by lactic acid fermentation, which prevents proliferation of the bacteria that bring about putrefaction. This older type of sushi is still produced in the areas surrounding Lake Biwa in western Japan, and similar types are also known in Korea, southwestern China, and Southeast Asia. In fact, the technique first originated in a preservation process developed for freshwater fish caught in the Mekong River and is thought to have diffused to Japan along with the rice cultivation.

A unique fifteenth-century development shortened the fermentation period of sushi to one or two weeks and made both the fish and the rice edible. As a result, sushi became a popular snack food, combining fish with the traditional staple food, rice. Sushi without fermentation appeared during the Edo period (1600-1867), and sushi was finally united with sashimi at the end of the eighteenth century, when the hand-rolled type, nigiri-sushi, was devised.

In the sixteenth century the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, began to introduce foods that were adopted by the Japanese and later became cultural symbols. Fried foods such as tempura might seem to be very un-Japanese as a lack of meat and dairy products in the Japanese diet meant that oil was not commonly used for cooking. However, tempura was enjoyed by many people and has evolved into what it is today. Tobacco, sugar and corn were also brought by the traders.

In 1854 trade was renewed with West and soon a new Japanese ruling order took power. The new Emperor Meiji even went as far as staging a New Year’s feast in 1872 designed to embrace the Western world. It had a European emphasis and for the first time in over a thousand years, the people publicly ate meat. The general population started to eat meat again after the Meiji Restoration which occurred in 1867.

Current Day Cuisine

Today, Japanese cuisine is still heavily influenced by the four seasons and geography. Seafood and vegetables are most commonly eaten. Whilst to some westerners, the food may seem almost bland, freshness, presentation and balance of flavours is of paramount importance.

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