As the tempura stands today

The story as published in the Hindu Metro Plus dated July 27, 2018

From Buddhist philosophy to pasta, a look at the cultural influences that have left their imprint on Japanese cuisine through the centuries

Japanese cuisine is gaining prominence around the globe. The food scene in the US is not complete without sushi and the omnipresent ramen shops. India is warming up to Japanese food as well, as is evident from mushrooming Japanese restaurants in major cities. As you skim through food aggregator apps you will find that there are close to 250 restaurants in India serving Japanese cuisine.

The global boom is in part due to an increasing awareness about Japanese food, which uses less oil, fat and a combination of fish, meat and vegetables that is considered healthy. The boom is corroborated by the ‘Survey of overseas consumers concerning Japanese Food’ conducted in 2012 by the Japan External Trade Organization. It covered consumers in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, the US, France and Italy, and revealed that Japanese cuisine is favoured among foreign cuisines due to taste and health.

But what we see now as Japanese food is not the original diet followed during the Edo Period (1603-1868). It is recent, influenced by the Chinese and the West, as Zenjiro Watanabe, a retired researcher and now a head of a history laboratory states in his research paperThe Development and Expansion of the Japanese Diet.

Watanabe said in the paper: “What the world today considers ‘Japanese food’ has only existed from approximately fifty years after Japan began its modernisation.” Traditional Japanese cuisine consists of rice, fish, vegetables and grains, and were devoid of “chemical seasonings and instant or frozen ingredients,” the paper states. Meat, which is an important part of the cuisine, was for a vast period of time banned, as Buddhism made inroads into Japan. It became a norm only when Christianity began to be popularised.

Then, as the island nation opened up for trade post the Meiji era (1868-1912), the port city of Yokohama saw Chinese and Westerners coming to trade. With them emerged a new pattern of food consumption. Import of oil and meat from the West became more mainstream. European side dishes such as curry were eaten with rice. According to Watanabe, this helped the Japanese achieve nutritional balance in food and it is now claimed to be one of the healthiest diets.

The process, however, happened over the span of a few centuries, between the beginning of Westernisation in Japan and the 1970s’ economic growth.

This is how the journey to attain nutritional balance began. Initially, to improve the nutrition level, Japan encouraged intake of milk and animal proteins, though in small proportions. However, the diet of meat and animal fat quickly became standard ingredients in the Japanese diet, following the Second World War. All these resulted in lesser consumption of rice, which reduced by half, as it was no longer the primary component of Japanese food by the 1960s.

It is during these times that foreign foods that were just a part of the diet integrated into Japanese food culture. Just like Minekichi Akabori, a Japanese cooking-school pioneer during the late 1800s, noted in his cookbook, Western dishes introduced during the Meiji period, such as tempura and curry, were no longer considered foreign foods. They were assimilated in Japanese food culture and enjoy a status on a par with sushi.

Influenced by the West

Tempura, deep-fried vegetables and meat dipped in a batter consisting of flour, eggs, sugar, salt and sake, was probably one of the earliest to be adopted into Japanese culture. It was introduced by Portuguese missionaries and merchants, who resided in Nagasaki. Today, in Japan, the mainstream of tempura recipes basically originates from ‘Tokyo style (Edo style)’ tempura, which was invented at the food stalls along the riverside fish market in the Edo period.

Curry is another popular dish that has foreign origins and was introduced in the Meiji period. It was introduced in Japan by the British when India was still under their colonial rule. However, the curry is different from Indian curry. For one, Japanese curries are thicker and use minimum spice, with a base of onions, carrots, potatoes and meat such as pork belly, beef or chicken. They are usually eaten only with rice. On the other hand, Indian curries have different layers. They could be thick or thin, and use different varieties of spices that differentiate one from the other.

Daisuke Hosoda, a Japanese language teacher, confessed that he loves Indian curry more than Japanese curry, as the former has better flavour. The dish has become a ubiquitous part of Japanese diet. A manga ‘Addicted to Curry’, written by Kazuki Funatsu, is all about curry, and contains recipes for curry variants, such as mutton curry, kai phenang and even a milk panneer curry.

Jun Arisue, a Japanese language instructor working for the Japan Foundation in Chennai, told me in a conversation that Japanese stew dish nikujaga was adapted from British stew and is a common home-cooked dish. The story goes that Tōgō Heihachirō of the Japanese Imperial Army ordered naval cooks to create a dish similar to beef stew in the British Navy in the 19th Century, and that is how the dish was born. It is made of meat, potatoes and onion stewed in sweetened soy sauce and vegetables.

Foreign touch

Other dishes such as sukiyaki , pork cutlets, and ramen , that are mainstream now, were once introduced by foreigners. Yuko Shimizu, a Japanese language teacher, said Italian dishes are popular as Japanese dishes, for they have their own way of embracing foreign foods, though they might not be considered typical Japanese food. One such dish is pasta Napolitan, which is unique to the Japanese food culture.

In the television series Shinya Shokudo or Midnight Diner , based on the manga of the same name, you could see customers favouring Napolitan for pasta, which is nothing but spaghetti with tomato ketchup as base.

“It is the typical Japanese way,” Shimizu said. “Where else will you find tomato ketchup being used as a base?” she asked, chuckling.

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