Centuries-old Japanese cookbooks give a peek at dinner tables of samurai

Centuries-old Japanese cookbooks give a peek at dinner tables of samurai Iwase Bunko Library

TOKYO —

One thing that surprises many recent arrivals to Japan is that chefs put as much effort into the presentation of their food as they do the flavor. This has got to be a recent development though, right? Being able to take the time to delicately craft your meal into a feast for the eyes is a luxury that must be born out of the ease and convenience of a stable, technologically advanced, modern society.

It turns out, though, that Japan’s appreciation for the aesthetic qualities of cooking stretch back hundreds of years, as proven by these dishes made from centuries-old cookbooks.

While Japan has plenty of cooking shows and recipe-sharing websites, the desire to prepare meals that look as good as they taste predates both television and the Internet, and for that matter, even the use of electricity in Japan. So during the Edo Period, the last era of feudal government, aspiring chefs turned to cookbooks to learn the tricks of the trade.

Since Japan was still under a policy of political and cultural isolation at the time, these texts focused on traditional Japanese dishes. One of the most popular Edo cookbooks was the “Tofu Hyakuchin,” or “One Hundred Unique Types of Tofu,” which was published way back in 1782.

The cookbook’s author is listed as Suikyodojin Kahitsujun, an obvious pen name given its outlandish length even by the ostentatious standards of the time. True to its name, the cookbook contains 100 different tofu recipes, including whirlpool tofu, which is made by wrapping a layer of “suizenji” seaweed around a slice of tofu.

For those looking for a little visual trickery, there’s also egg tofu, which is actually a ring of cream-colored bean curd surrounding a cross-section of carrot which stands in for the yolk. Even more vibrantly colored is the ice tofu, which is mixed with agar to provide consistency and shape.

The castella tofu may not look so outlandish to Western eyes, but to Japanese citizens at the time, its fluffy texture, evocative of the castella cakes introduced by Portuguese traders, gave it a high novelty factor. The dish’s appearance is the result of soaking the tofu in sake overnight, then boiling it for four hours.

Some recipes earned a spot in the Tofu Hyakuchin purely on the merit of their flavor, though, such as this miso pickled tofu, the cooking process for which imparts it with an almost cheese-like richness.

The cookbook was released during the first extended period of peace following centuries of civil war in Japan, and was an immediate hit with cooks caught up in the cultural renaissance taking place at the time. One reason for its success was that it offered more than just recipes, also going into the history of tofu and explaining how the bean curd itself is made. “The Tofu Hyakuchin” was so popular that a follow-up with even more tofu recipes was later published.

Tofu wasn’t the only thing on an Edo Period dinner table, of course, and the 18th century cooking enthusiast could also find texts on how to cook with ingredients such as sweet potato, eel, or the citrus fruit yuzu. Proving that marketing has always been an important part of a successful business venture, many of these cookbooks were bestowed with impressive titles. After all, what shopper would go for something ordinary like How to Cook Vegetables when he could instead pick up a copy of the “Daikon Isshiki Ryori Himitsubako,” or “The Complete Box of 100 Secrets for Cooking Daikon Radish.”

Its most eye-catching recipe is for chain daikon, a set of interlocking rings cut out from a single radish, as shown in this illustration.

Another specialized cooking tome dealt entirely on how to cook with sea bream, the highly prized saltwater fish regularly served at celebrations, since its Japanese name, “tai,” is similar to the word “omedetai,” or congratulations.

“The Tai Hyakuchin Ryori Himitsubako” (Box of 100 Secrets for Cooking Sea Bream) shows how to make a dish called “tai no tororojiru.” The chef begins by grilling the sea bream whole, then removing the skin and bones before grinding the fish into a paste with a pestle and mixing in the sticky, grated yam called “yama imo.”

But while sea bream is a highly prized, and highly priced, ingredient, Edo Period cookbooks didn’t ignore humbler cooking components.

“The Manbo Ryori Himitsubako” may not mathematically deliver on the promise inherent in its name, which translates as The Box of 10,000 Secret Cooking Treasures. It does, however, provide a whopping 103 egg recipes, including one for reversed eggs, with a yellow outer player and white core.

Finally, there’s some good news for those of you wanting to try your hand at Edo Period cooking. “The Tofu Hyakuchin” first edition may have come out more than two centuries ago, but reprints are readily available from online booksellers for about 1,500 yen, making a copy far cheaper than building your own time machine to travel back to the age of the samurai.

Source: Naver Matome

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  • 1

    SimondB

    Not sure there are 100 ways I'd want to eat either daikon or tofu. Fairly interesting article but why do Rocket News always have at least one or two cringingly embarrassing lines in otherwise adult stories? Today's example:* reprints are readily available from online booksellers for about 1,500 yen, making a copy far cheaper than building your own time machine to travel back to the age of the samurai.* Yes, of course.

  • -1

    TrevorPeace1

    The article leads with "One thing that surprises many recent arrivals to Japan is that chefs put as much effort into the presentation of their food as they do the flavor."

    Pardon me? Before I visited Japan for the first time I did the research thing - food to culture. If you're a recent arrival to Japan and don't already appreciate the preparation, presentation and taste of the food, go back home.

  • 5

    Strangerland

    Pardon me? Before I visited Japan for the first time I did the research thing - food to culture. If you're a recent arrival to Japan and don't already appreciate the preparation, presentation and taste of the food, go back home.

    Why, because everyone who comes to Japan should have the same interests as you, or they don't qualify? Can you please point us at this rule book of things that you have determined we need to know to qualify?

  • 2

    JeffLee

    "If you're a recent arrival to Japan and don't already appreciate the preparation, presentation and taste of the food, go back home."

    I certainly did my research, but I was still surprised at things like sheets of green plastic(!) in my bento or gold leaf powder in my tea.

    Similarly, the lovely and extensive habit of using cheap and hidden "filler" material, for example, cornflakes to occupy the bottom third of an ice cream a sundae was a big surprise! The attention to such detail is amazing, but not necessarily welcome, that's for sure.

  • 9

    TokyoGas

    Wish they would have posted one complete recipe as a sample.

  • 3

    onetimezone

    An interesting idea would be to have an Edo period party with the food as the central theme. I wonder if there's an English edition to the book?

  • 0

    ReformedBasher

    Good article. I don't have any problem with the humour either. Rocket News is a refreshing break from gloom and doom, and lighthearted jokes are in line with their upbeat nature.

    Keep up the good work Casey. Your stories are good.

  • 2

    Raymond Chuang

    What I find interesting is that these Edo-period books show that much of what we know as washoku, or traditional Japanese cuisine, mostly date from the 1700's and later. Indeed, both nigiri and maki style sushi are Edo-period inventions. Many historians claim that thanks to the unification of Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate, it ended the many civil wars that wracked the Japanese home islands and despite the issues with social stratification, resulted in a period of economic prosperity that led to the expansion of styles of washoku.

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