Tamil food link to Japanese cuisine

It has been a long time since I ate a meal of piping hot sambar, rasam with potato fry and vellarika kootu complete with curd rice. When you work close to 9 hours a day and 6 days a week and stay alone, cooking is the last thing on your mind.

You try to cut corners and find the fastest way to replenish your energy. Cooking a nutritious meal that is tasty and melts in your mouth is a complex and elaborate process. Appliances like mixer, grinder and refrigerator have made things considerably easier. Even better are instant mixes that are available in plenty in supermarkets for everything from idli mix to side dishes. They make sure that working women (I’m assuming it is still women you cook for the family) could spend as less time as possible in the kitchen.

But going back few centuries to the Sangam period, probably during the time of our great-great-grandparents or even earlier, the process of making food was as important as the food itself. It was an elaborate affair that took into account the season, your health, weather and of course taste and combinations of different types of food. I also realised, understanding your own culture will lead to interesting discoverries. 

When I was researching Sangam literature related articles on clues about food culture back in those times, I stumbled upon interesting facts. I realised Dravidian food culture is very similar to that of Japanese. The rest of the article compares the two cultures and tells you why there could be a link between the two.

Tamil food culture

Typical Tamil lunch menu on banana leaf. Source: Indiacuisine
Typical Tamil lunch menu on banana leaf. Source: Indiacuisine

Let us first consider Dravidian or Tamil’s food culture. According to the Sangam literature, Tamil food has six types of taste and can be classified into hot and cold. The six tastes are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent. Since rice is the staple food of the people, Tamils ate rice three times a day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Given that ancient Tamils were primarily non-vegetarians, lunch always consisted of vegetables (fresh and cooked), sambar made of lentil, rasam with tamarind base, fish or other meat and curd eaten with rice. It is Tamil custom to eat them in a banana leaf. The top half will have vegetables and other dishes while the bottom half is used for serving rice. It is a common everyday meal. Before every meal Tamil offer thanks to god and ancestors. It could be as a form of offering to God or ancestors. You will also find many women shouting ‘ka ka’ to summon crows to eat the food they have offered. This is the common custom practised by Tamil as an act of offering food to their ancestors, as crows are considered one of them.

But weddings are totally different matter. There is even a common saying that one’s wealth can be determined by amount of food varieties a family dishes out that surpasses in quality and quantity. It is a matter of pride for the family and they are always a costly affair. It does not seem to have changed till date given the rise of all famous caterers who charge anywhere between Rs 5 lakh and Rs 20 lakh for two days.

Next is making food like pickles based on seasons. When I was a kid I remember my grandmother was always on the lookout for ‘vadu maanga’ (small-sized raw mangoes) during summer. She makes a jar full of pickles out of them and I loved it. It was very special delicacy because you get vadu maanga only during summer season. It is just an example of seasonal dish Tamils make. 

There is one other thing that got my attention the most. It is the attitude towards cooking. According to the literature one much throw away all the negative thoughts before they begin cooking. The act must be done keeping in mind the people he/she is cooking for. The focus should be on preparting the food that brings smile and happiness to people.

Japanese food culture

Traditional Japanese meal setting
Traditional Japanese meal setting

You will find all these characteristics in Japanese food culture as well, may be with minor differences. Unlike six tastes, Japanese dishes have five tastes and can be classified into hot and cold dishes. The five tastes are sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami that refers to the taste of glutamates that gives the food pungent and astringent taste.

As I have mentioned in my previous columns Japanese are obsessed with rice. They eat three times a day just like us. The difference might be the way they eat it. We eat rice in the form of idly, dosa and upma but they eat rice as such. A typical Japanese lunch will consist of a bowl of rice surrounded by miso soup (made from beans that might be considered a sambar equivalent), vegetables, fish or meat. Though they eat with chopsticks these dishes are arranged in a certain way. Rice is placed in the front and right next to miso soup. Vegetables and fish or meat dish and pickles form the part of the a typical lunch menu.

Right before eating, Japanese utter the word ‘Itadakimasu’ that roughly translates to ‘Thank you for the food’. It is till date practised widely in Japan.

I’m not going to talk about weddings, as I will have to retype the things I had mentioned for Tamil weddings about food being related to wealth and prestige of the family. So I will move on to seasonality in Japanese cuisine. They are big on seasonality and seasonal vegetables and fruits play a major role in Japanese cuisine. For example sweet potato in autumn and pumpkin in winter. When I was watching anime, you will students stopping by sweet potato carts to savour the taste of autumn. Guess having defined seasons sure does help you enjoy and savour the bounty of each season.

So finally coming to attitude towards cooking. I have been following cooking manga and anime for quite sometime. First things an apprentice is taught is to have an attitude that thinks about people who are going to eat first before the taste itself. One should focus on preparing food that will bring smile and happiness when they finish eating. When you do that, food automatically becomes tasty. That is something ancient Tamils have followed.

When you compare and contrast the ideologies and thoughts behind food like I just did, you cannot help but feel that there is a close relation between the two regions. Though not many know, there have been lot of studies done by Professor Susumu Ohno on cultural similarities between Tamils and Japanese society in the areas of birth, marriage, death and language.

I read the book written by Ohno and that is probably what prompted me to do a bit more research in this particular piece. This is in part due to random googling about ancient Tamil culture and inference from manga and anime, especially ones based on food. Though it might  be just a small piece that adds forms that complex web of culture, I hope there will be more to come about cultural similarities Tamils and Japanese.


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