The History of Japanese Medieval Food

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Rice is an important part of Japanese cuisine.
Image Credit: Izumi T/Moment/GettyImages

The Japanese people have a rich and lengthy cultural history, and one of its most intriguing facets is culinary history. Many Japanese people place high importance on remembering their past and honoring their ancestors. As a result, medieval Japanese culinary history has strong links to today's menus; in fact, many of the favorite foods consumed by medieval Japanese people communities are still beloved today. The traditional diet of Japan has changed very little even over centuries, with consistent staples including rice, noodles and fish as the foundation of the national cuisine.

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Foundations of Japanese Food Traditions

The Japanese diet has been influenced by the location and topography of the nation, as well as by religion. Because Japan is an island nation, it is only natural that seafood would play a large role in the diet of many Japanese people. The Japanese to this day eat much less meat as compared with many Americans or Europeans. This is partly because Buddhist principles were a great influence on the Japanese and Buddhists generally frown on the consumption of animal flesh.

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The Role of Rice

Arguably the major staple of the Japanese diet for centuries has been rice. Rice was introduced to Japan by a group of people known as the Yayoi roughly 2,000 years ago. The Yayoi originally hailed from Korea and northern China. Rice was ideally suited to Japan due to its climate. In addition, rice cultivation can be done on less than an acre of land, making it easy for a family to tend to its rice crop.

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Rice was one of the most important medieval foods in Japan for nobles as well as workers. During the medieval period, land was owned by nobles or shogun, thus, wealthy people were entitled to a share of the rice crop.

The Origins of Tempura

When the Portuguese first made contact with the Japanese during the 1600s, a great deal of cultural and gastronomical knowledge was exchanged. The concept of tempura, or deep-fried battered cooking, was something the medieval Japanese developed after coming into contact with the Portuguese. Medieval food thereafter included cooked tempura-style items including seafood and vegetables.

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Vegetables and Fruits are Timeless Staples

Vegetables were an important part of the medieval Japanese diet, especially for the peasants. As for peasants the world over, meat was often too expensive to be a regular medieval food in Japan. Vegetables such as bok choy, soy (edamame) and root vegetables such as lotus root or radishes were eaten during the medieval period and are still eaten today.

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Umeboshi, the Japanese term for pickled plums, were also eaten during this period, as were mandarin oranges and Asian pears. Hardy root vegetables would have been eaten by peasants with enough land to cultivate them. However, rice was still the mainstay of the peasant diet, and the poorest of the poor would have eaten little else.

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Sushi was a Medieval Food

The fascinating history of sushi shows that various types of sushi were among the medieval foods eaten in Japan. Sushi originated elsewhere in Asia and arrived in Japan around the eighth century. Nare-sushi was the ancestor of the sushi we know today and was made of salted fish wrapped in fermented rice. The rice was often discarded prior to consumption.

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Nare-sushi was eaten in Japan for many years, but by the Muromachi period a new type of sushi was becoming popular: seisei-sushi. This was raw or partly raw fish wrapped in rice, eaten fresh. In the Edo Period, which lasted from 1603 to 1868, haya-sushi became popular. This dish is made with unfermented rice tossed in vinegar with fish or vegetables added.

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Medieval Kamakura Banquets

The Kamakura period lasted from 1185 to 1333. During this period, the samurai rose to prominence and usurped the power of the nobles. The court banquets of this period featured a large menu that might consist of dried abalone, jellyfish, pickled plums and seasoned rice.

The Introduction of Tea

Tea was introduced to Japan from China at roughly the same time as rice, and played an important role among key medieval foods and drinks. Tea cultivation, along with the practice of drinking tea to aid digestion and meditation, was embraced by Buddhist monks in Japan around 600 to 700 CE. The most popular tea in Japan in green tea, which is known to have many health benefits.

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