The History of Japanese Medieval Food

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The Japanese people have a rich and lengthy cultural history. Many Japanese people place high importance on remembering their past and honoring their ancestors. So it comes as no surprise that many of the favorite foods consumed in Japan's medieval era are still beloved today. The traditional diet of many Japanese people has changed very little: staples such as rice, noodles and fish are the foundation of the Japanese diet.



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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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 because of the climate. In addition, rice cultivation can be done on less than an acre of land. A family could easily tend to the rice crop. During the medieval period, land was owned by nobles or shogun. Thus, wealthy people were entitled to a share of the rice crop.



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 Japanese developed after coming into contact with the Portuguese. Items often cooked tempura-style include seafood and vegetables.


Vegetables and Fruits

Especially for the peasants during the medieval era, vegetables were an important part of the diet. Like peasants the world over, meat was often too expensive for a peasant family to afford. 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. 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.


Umeboshi, the Japanese term for pickled plums, were also eaten during this period, as were mandarin oranges and Asian pears.


Sushi was eaten during the medieval period. 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. 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.


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, known as ?ban, had a large menu consisting of dried abalone, jellyfish, pickled plums and seasoned rice.



Tea was introduced to Japan from China at roughly the same time as rice. The most popular tea in Japan in green tea, which is known to have many health benefits.