KANSAI Close-up

[Columns]Are ancient foods the origin of today’s Japanese cuisine?

 Some say the main attraction of Japanese cuisine culture, recently designated as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, is Kyoto cuisine, while others say that Osaka’s food culture represented by kuidaore (lit. to ruin oneself by extravagance in food) culture should also be considered significant. Could Nara, which has a history longer than both Kyoto and Osaka, be considered the root of today’s Japanese cuisine? Naoya Shiga, a novelist active during the Taisho (1912–1926) and Showa eras (1926–1989), once said that there was nothing delicious in Nara, whereas research on and reproduction of ancient foods based on the excavated mokkan (ancient wooden tablets for writing information on) are progressing. I had an opportunity to taste the reproduced ancient foods with excitement.
 
 The menu consisted of five dishes: suwayari, hojishi, kuromai, togashi, so and an alcoholic drink, shiroki. My first experience of ancient foods started with a sip of shiroki as an aperitif. The ancient sake was slightly clearer than today’s unrefined sake but its flavor was less deep. Of course I had been reminded not to drive after drinking it; nevertheless the alcohol content of this sake does not seem to be very high. The next was suwayari (dried salmon) to go with the sake. Hojishi (dried deer meat) with a texture similar to that of beef jerky allowed me to taste a faint but deep flavor when chewed. Kuromai (lit. black rice), made from glutinous rice, is black and shiny as suggested by its name. When in your mouth, it has a bouncy texture. Togashi is rice cake with slightly sweet red bean paste inside. Lastly, so, also known as a “cheese of ancient times”, was faintly sweet.
 
  “These are light-flavored overall, similar to the flavors of the Kansai region’s foods. This may be because salt and sugar were valuable then,” I analyzed inwardly as I finished it up, motivated by its rareness.
 
 At the food tasting, Akihiro Watanabe, a mokkan expert from the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, explained the ingredients written on the mokkan. On approximately 120,000 mokkan tablets excavated from historic sites including the site of Prince Nagaya’s residence located within the World Heritage Site Heijo Palace, names, amounts and production centers of foods brought from all over the nation to Heijo-kyo, the then capital city of Japan, have been written, and they were therefore called nifuda-mokkan (lit. label wooden tablets). Since Heijo-kyo was far away from the sea, the foods brought in were mainly preserved dried seafood, for example, abalone from Awa and Ise, bonito from Suruga and Izu, and wakame seaweed from Awa, Hitachi, Shimousa and Nagato Provinces.
 
 I visited the laboratory of Takeshi Yamazaki, who researches human, fish, and animal bones at the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties. People of the Nara period (710–794) mainly ate meat of deer and wild boars. Cattle and horses were not eaten but used as labor force such as carriers; nonetheless according to the Nihon Shoki (the second oldest book of classical Japanese history), eating cattle, horses, chickens, dogs and monkeys were often banned, and Yamazaki thinks that this proves that such meats were in fact frequently eaten. “Apparently, people even ate meat of bears, raccoon dogs, foxes and crows. A mark of a knife on the head of a sea bream has been found, and there also seems to have been the art of cooking where bones were cut into pieces in order to make soup stock,” he said. According to Yamazaki, milk was drunk as is or processed into so. So is not considered cheese to be exact, because there is no description of a fermenting process in the cooking processes of so written in the Engishiki (an ancient book about laws and customs).
 
 Mokkan, thus, tells us of various types of ingredients used in ancient times and allows us to assume that people (the nobility and other aristocrats) enjoyed a fairly wide variety of meals. The problem is that we cannot figure out how they cooked. Apparently, a seasoning called hishio (a seasoning made from salt and malted rice by fermenting) was often used. Since fresh vegetables could be gained around Heijo-kyo, detailed information about vegetables has not been written on the nifuda mokkan, hence, information about vegetables at the time is unknown. In the Man’yoshu, the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, which consists of more than 4,500 poems, there is only one poem about matsutake mushrooms (one of the most expensive and valued mushrooms in Japan), which goes, “On Mt. Takamado of Nara, matsutake mushrooms have grown thickly, and are smelling nice” (2233, Vol. 10). Whether matsutake mushrooms were as valuable then as they are today is unknown.
 
 Ryotaro Shiba, a famous Japanese historical novelist, said, “If the word ‘meal’ needed to be defined in a complicated way, I would say that Japanese cuisine was established in the Muromachi period (1336–1573). Before then, processed foods may have existed but there had not been meals (Rekishi no kosaten nite, Kodansha paperback).” If he is right, were the menus that entertained noble people’s tongues 1,300 years ago, two times earlier than the Muromachi period, merely processed foods? Although some criticize commenting that the Japanese ancient art of cooking should not be called Japanese cuisine but barbarous cuisine, I think that is a little too harsh.
(Takahito Sato)
 
 
image
Ancient foods eaten by the author
image
So, also known as ancient cheese