Food in Ancient Japan

Food in Ancient Japan

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Food in Ancient Japan

During its two centuries of isolation, Japan developed a distinct cuisine of their own. At this time, very little meat was consumed. This can somewhat be attributed to the Buddhist ban against the killing and eating of animals. However, it was also because there was simply not enough room on the small water covered plots of land that the peasants farmed. Most Japanese villages maintained 2 or 3 water buffalo, but they were badly needed for plowing and too valuable for eating. At the same time, chickens were raised for eggs and there was not an overabundance of them.

The Japanese peasant diet was a poor one, but the calorie intake was substantial. As abundant as white rice was it was only enjoyed by half the population. It was normally not consumed by the peasant population because they paid their taxes in white rice. The Tokugawa shoguns encouraged the peasants to eat the “lesser” grains of barley, wheat, and millet. These grains were cooked in porridge form with an assortment of herbs. It was also common for peasants to forage for wild plants including tubers, bark, acorns, edible grasses, wild berries, beans, seeds, and nuts. Almost every type of flora or fauna that was edible was consumed. Peasants also ate grasshoppers, crickets, grub worms, and other insects. They cooked with a wide assortment of herbs such as parsley, cayenne pepper, ginger, marjoram, sage, dill, anise, and fennel.

During the 1700's a wide variety of new foodstuffs appeared. During this time period the Zen Buddhist vegetarian diet was the dominate choice. At this time steamed buns, bean paste jelly, miso, soy sauce, and green horseradish, and tofu became Japanese staples. Fish was also popular even though it was not an approved food item by the Buddhist religion. The wealthy had a much more elaborate choice of foods to choose from during this century. They ate wild boar, wild dog, venison, badger, wolf, and fox. Basically, anything that could be hunted was eaten.

The sweet potato saved the lives of millions of Japanese during the famines of 1730's and the 1780's. Almost every part of the plant was eaten. It was high in carbohydrates and could be stored for long periods of time. In addition, the Japanese ate entire squashes, melons, pumpkins, gourds, as well as other types of vine crops.

Typically, peasants ate two meals a day. Samurai enjoyed as many as three meals a day. Meals usually consisted of a main course, soup, and one vegetable. The soup was usually miso or broth with a little egg or sea weed added. The vegetable was usually pickled.

The Japanese used rice for a wide assortment of staple products. It was grounded into flour, crackers, noodles, dumplings, and pounded into rice cakes. They also made savory dishes with beans or legumes. They cooked peas, beans, and snow peas, and again they ate every part of the plant. They made cooking oil out of sesame, safflower, grapeseed, and wild nuts. Most of the cooking oil was consumed in the cities because rural peasants preferred to roast or boil. The most popular drinks during this time period were tea and hot water. The ancient Japanese believed that by boiling the water it would become free of contaminants that potentially could make them sick.