Japanese cuisine: a 19th century invention?

Conference by Alexis Markovitch, contract doctoral student at Inalco.

The idea of ​​Japanese cuisine is an invention of the 19rd century and, if it did not exist before, it was built on an ancient cultural base.
When you ask Google for images of Japanese cuisine, sushi, tenpura, ramen et gyoza.

Sushi can be found from the 8thrd s. but have nothing to do with what we can consume today! Originally, the narezushi was a preservation technique that came from Southeast Asia; it consisted of preserving fish in vinegared rice and was very strong in taste. It's at the beginning of the 19rd s. what appeared nigiri-zushi, consisting of a ball of vinegared rice topped with raw fish that is dipped in shōyu (soya sauce).
La tenpura, which is a frying of fish, shellfish or vegetables, appears at 16rd century in contact with the Portuguese. Portuguese merchants consumed tempêro consisting of fish coated in batter which was immersed in boiling oil during fasting periods. The Japanese took advantage of the recipe by adapting it and expanding the possibilities (shellfish, vegetables).
Le rāmen is a dish of wheat noodles presented in broth with a garnish. Originally, it is a Chinese recipe which only arrived in Japan in the 1910s-1920s.
Similarly, gyozas are an adaptation of jiaozi manchous, ravioli filled with meat and vegetables and were not integrated into the Japanese culinary repertoire until the 1930s, when Japanese populations were sent to the mainland to form the puppet state of Manchukuo.
These examples are representative of cultural exchanges throughout time that have been adapted, but establishing the image of Japanese cuisine with just these elements is quite simplistic.

Japanese cuisine offered by Google.

Iizuka Eitarō, The Cooking Guide: Introduction. the cuisine of Japan, China, Korea and the West as well as Japanese hygienic cuisine. 1887.

Ban Genbei, The three cuisines: Japan, West, China – The banquet of delights. 1887.

In Japanese, there is a term nihon ryōri, meaning "cuisine of Japan", which was created in 1887. Until then, there was no word for a homogeneous cuisine representative of Japan. It first appears in The Cooking Guide: An Introduction to the Cuisine of Japan, China, Korea and the West as well as Japanese Hygienic Cooking (1887) by Iizuka Eitarō and in The Three Cuisines: Japan, West, China – The Banquet of Delights (1887) by Ban Genbei. This term nihon ryōri was invented after and in opposition to that of western cuisine seiyō ryōri which has existed since 1872, i.e. 15 years earlier. The latter was used as a generic term, a bit like we do for Asian cuisine today, and referred to specific cuisines from a few targeted Western countries (mainly England, the United States and France). The idea of ​​“Japanese cuisine” was thus born as a response to the surge in the importation of numerous Western cultural elements. The Japanese government, which saw unequal trade treaties imposed on it by the great Western powers during the second half of the 19rd century makes the renegotiation of the latter a priority. To do this, he wants to show that Japan can be a “civilized” nation and is implementing a policy to create a modern nation-state which is based, among other things, on the notion of common culture. In this process, we see the emergence of cultural movements aimed at establishing a national culture and cuisine is a large part of this, just like the arts, clothing fashion or literature.
On the other hand, if the term “Japanese cuisine” appeared at the end of the 19rd century, it is interesting to note that at this time, recipe books do not offer any precise definition of the term nor do they present the same cooking recipes. The proposed term thus seems self-evident, but in reality it is vague. Gradually, a sort of regularity will be established and we will see the foundations of Japanese cuisine appear, which are based on three main bases.

 Shōjin riyōri (virtue cuisine) is a cuisine based solely on plants and which, today, is practically only found within Buddhist temples. The wordhōjin comes from Buddhist vocabulary meaning a spiritual virtue itself comes from Sanskrit vīrya (efforts to overcome the negative spirits of desire leading to suffering). In Japan, the origin of the first official restrictions on the consumption of meat dates back to 675, when Emperor Tenmu forbade, by an imperial edict, the eating of meat from certain animals: beef, horses, dogs, monkeys. and chicken. This treatise is undeniably linked to the arrival of Buddhism in Japan during the VIe century with the aim of reducing the practices of certain local rites involving the sacrifice of certain animals. Historians point out that the two most consumed meats at the time, wild boar and deer, were not part of these restrictions and deduce from this that there was also a political scope aimed at establishing control over prestigious meats and to reduce the sacrifice of livestock used for harvesting. From the Heian period (794-1185) we see two terms appear:  bi mono (elegant, refined thing) which designated fish and meat dishes, and shōjin mono (pure, virtuous thing) which corresponded to fairly sober dishes that were consumed on a regular basis and were composed of plants. This distinction is only made among the Japanese political and religious elite. You have to wait until the 17thrd century to see the emergence of the notion of virtue cuisine, a term invented and marketed by cooks from the capital (Edo), which will spread more widely among the population. Several cookbooks on this subject such as The collection of Japanese and Chinese Vertu cuisine in three volumes (1698) by Yoshioka Bō were then published. During the Meiji era (1868-1912) we used the term shōjin ryori (virtue cuisine = vegetable cuisine) in opposition to namagusa ryōri (debauched cuisine = animal cuisine). At the beginning of the 20rd century, the consumption of beef in particular is associated with practices imported from the West that conservatives condemn. Several political discourses then emerged and established a representation of the Japanese body as being able to be satisfied with cereals, vegetables and sometimes fish, unlike Western bodies which must eat meat to function normally, which would give Japan a considerable advantage in an economic point of view in the long term and one day would allow it to surpass the Western powers.

YOSHIOKA Bō, The collection of Japanese and Chinese Virtue cuisine in three volumes. 1698.

Modern example of tray cooking (Honzen ryōri).

Honzen ryori (tray cooking) is a way of serving a meal (a complete dinner) in a very ritualized way, in which specific dishes are plated and served on four-legged trays, called zen. This type appears from 14rd century in the warrior elite of society and consists of bringing the different trays, at the same time, in front of the guests. On a painted scroll, The Comparative Merits of Sake and Rice (16rd century), we can see the first phase of the shikisankon (the three ceremonial services) which consisted of three sake services. We can make out a character, seated on the left, holding a large bottle of sake which he will pass to all the guests. These services were accompanied by small, delicate and aesthetic dishes. After this first phase, we changed rooms and carried out the kondate, entire meal served on several platters. On the painted scroll, three trays are placed in front of each guest and we can see, from behind, a young woman assigned to serving sake. There were several versions of this tray service, three trays being a fairly simple formula, but there were five and seven trays, which, for the last one, represented around thirty dishes.

Scroll on the comparative merits of sake and rice (Detail). 16th century. ©BNF.

Tray layout diagram. ©Alexis Markovirch.

It is a luxury cuisine reserved for special events and used as a way to demonstrate one's power and wealth to one's guests. The diagram illustrates how the trays are arranged and the order in which consumption is done. We started with the central platter with a bowl of rice, soup, macerated vegetables (tsukemono), vinegared raw vegetables sometimes garnished with raw fish (Strategies) and fish simmered in broth (Tsubo). After a service of sake, we moved on to the second platter including a soup, a simmered vegetable or tofu (hira), small pickled vegetables (choku). Once again, a service of sake preceded the third platter where we found a soup, small vegetables in vinegar (sashimi), fish meat balls accompanied by vegetables (wan). The fourth platter presented a grill, often fish or bird. The fifth platter included a set of several small dishes (hikimono) which were eaten as appetizers or which were given as gifts to take home. The evening ended with the shun which was a kind of big drinking session and which could last until the morning. THE shun was accompanied by games, theatrical performances, poetry competitions, musical performances, etc.

Festive reception (Kaiseki ryōri).

Daigo Sanjin, Ryōri hayashi shinan (The practical guide to cooking), 1801. Difference between Kaiseki cuisine and Honzen cuisine.

This cuisine is present in culinary books from the 20rd century but extremely simplified in order to be consumed by the middle strata of society. Another difference is that we bring the dishes one by one. We finish the meal with tea accompanied by some cakes. It is interesting to see that at this time, people were trying to reappropriate and simplify elite cuisine to establish one of the great bases of Japanese cuisine.

Kaiseki ryori (Festive receptions and tea cooking) can refer to very sophisticated cuisine consisting of many dishes that are served successively. This type of cuisine is established in Japan, from the 16rd century, in luxury restaurants in Edo. A special feature of the kitchen kaiseki is that it is built around tea.
A second writing literally means "pocket stone" to designate the frugal menu served in the austere style of the chanoyu (tea ceremony). The association of ideas comes from a Zen practice: the monks cheated their hunger by putting hot stones in the pocket of their clothes, at stomach level. This name was established with the disciples of Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591), who codified the tea ceremony and established a simplified form of cooking kaiseki always reserved for the social elite. A menu served in 1544 included wheat bran bread (fu), from the roots of aralia to miso and aralia roots in vinegar (thigh), rice, a broth with horsetail and tofu (Tsukushi). This form of meal is also called ichiju sansai (a soup and three dishes) which consists of a soup, rice, vegetables or raw vegetables, a simmered dish, a grilled dish and tea accompanied by sweets. It is this formula which is used in the books of the 20rd century to designate the “typical Japanese meal” through the notion of washoku. It is interesting to see that the term washoku appeared thirty years after that of yoshoku (Western meal) and, as for “Japanese cuisine” is a neologism from the end of the 19rd century.

Modern example of tea ceremony cuisine (Kaiseki ryori).

Washoku presentation diagram. ©Alexis Markovitch.

This process of creating a national cuisine based on older concepts adapted to the conditions of modern societies is done in particular through cookbooks and we see an explosion of publications between the end of the 19rd century and the beginning of the 20rd century. The idea of ​​creating a new Japanese cuisine then took shape as we can see in Nihon ryōrihō taizen (The great book of Japanese cuisine),1898, by Ishii Jihei which is still considered today as a bible of Japanese cuisine. Although retaining the main categories, we are seeing completely new dishes appear. This cultural construction also involves associations and schools which are formed to develop and spread in Japanese homes a new way of cooking based on old patterns but with a new approach. A certain number of highly publicized cooks of the time also conveyed this new image of a national cuisine through articles, books or even during radio broadcasts.
It is interesting to see that rural cuisine is completely left aside, as is street food or that of ethnic minorities.

Alexis Markovitch recommends reading The Invention of Tradition by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger as well as The French gastronomic myth by Alain Drouard to encourage reflection on our representations of “traditional cuisines” which are in reality only modern creations involving important social, cultural and political processes.



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