The Japanese Table
Japan's Distinct Food Cultures: East and Westby Naomichi Ishige
Small as it is, the Japanese archipelago offers up an amazing variety of regional cuisines and specialty foods that reflect each area's history, traditions and way of life. This second article in our series on regional food cultures focuses on some culinary differences between eastern and western Japan.
Soba and Udon
Although Kyoto was Japan's political and economic center since ancient times, the rise of a flourishing urban culture in Edo (Tokyo) from the seventeenth century onward led to the development of taste preferences distinctive to that area, centered on the customary use of ordinary soy sauce and dried bonito flakes as a stock base. Soba (noodles made of buckwheat) was long considered inferior to udon (wheat noodles), but became established in its own right, while many other foods for which Edo was known, such as tempura and sushi, became popular.
Edo-style food culture spread first through eastern and northern Japan, and eventually came to influence the entire country after the city, renamed Tokyo, was designated the nation's capital at the beginning of the Meiji era (1868-1911). Western Japan, home to long and established traditions, has remained largely impervious to such influences and has maintained its own unique food culture to this day.
Two of the most notable differences between the food cultures of east and west are revealed first by the tsuyu (soup) in which soba and udon noodles are served; and second, by methods of cooking eel.
Those who say, "I can't bring myself to eat noodles in Tokyo. The soup has so much soy sauce it looks like coffee," are from western Japan. An easterner's rejoinder might be, "Those westerners don't know how to eat soba. The soup they serve it in has no flavor." Udon noodles, predominately eaten warm in a bowl of soup, are popular in western Japan, while soba, generally dipped in a flavorful sauce, is a more widespread part of the diet in eastern Japan.
Extending methods of preparing their favored noodles to those of the other type, easterners eat their udon in a broth based on soba soup and westerners eat soba in a broth made like their udon soup.
The soup for soba is made by flavoring stock prepared from dried bonito shavings with ordinary soy sauce and mirin (sweet rice wine used for cooking), while udon soup is made using konbu (kelp)-based stock flavored with light color soy sauce. The chief differences in flavor preferences between eastern and western Japan are thus between dried bonito flake-based and konbu-based stock, and between ordinary and light color soy sauce.
One manufacturer of instant noodle products makes two versions of the same line of goods, one based on dried bonito stock flavor for sale in eastern Japan and the other based on konbu stock for sale in the west.
The ordinary soy sauce commonly used in eastern Japan is reddish brown, aromatic and rich in flavor, while light color soy sauce used in western Japan is lighter both in color and in flavor.
Foods prepared with ordinary soy sauce turn a darker hue and their inherent flavor and fragrance yield to the stronger taste and aroma of the soy sauce. Thus the soup in which soba is served tends to be a dark maroon color, have a strong fragrance and assert a strong, distinctive flavor of its own. Udon soup, on the other hand, is pale in color and less assertive in flavor, serving to bring out the natural taste of the noodles placed in it. In contrast to the soup remaining after consuming soba, which is much too salty to consume on its own, people often drink up the flavorful remaining udon soup after they finish the noodles.
Even in western Japan, light color soy sauce is not used for anything and everything; sashimi is dipped in ordinary soy sauce, for example. It is widely believed, however, that the subtlety of light color soy sauce brings out the colors and natural flavors of ingredients.
Unagi no Kabayaki
Some Japanese consider kabayaki the best form of eel (unagi) cuisine in the world. The eel is slit in half down its length and deboned. It is spread flat with the skin left on, dipped in a sauce made of mirin, sugar and ordinary soy sauce, and broiled over a charcoal fire.
In western Japan, the eel is split along the belly and broiled without removing the head. Then it is dipped in sauce and broiled again. The head is removed and the eel cut into two or three pieces prior to serving. In eastern Japan, the eel is split down the spine and the head removed immediately. The body is cut in half and skewered. The skewered pieces are broiled, then steamed, then dipped in sauce and broiled again.
Eastern-style kabayaki became popular in Edo from about the beginning of the nineteenth century. Until that time, the methods of cooking eel were probably similar to those still practiced in the west. The story goes that residents of Edo adopted the practice of filleting eel down the spine because slitting the belly was too suggestive of seppuku (ritual suicide), a sensitive subject given that the city was home to the shogun and therefore carried a sizable samurai population.
Though the area halfway in between Osaka and Tokyo once marked the boundary between eastern and western styles of cooking eel, eastern-style kabayaki has recently begun to supplant western kabayaki even in the west. Apparently eastern-style eel, which is softer and has less fat than its western counterpart thanks to the process of steaming, is better suited to modern tastes.
Naomichi Ishige, born in 1937 in Chiba Prefecture, is an anthropologist and authority on the history of food. Formerly associate professor and professor at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, he served as its director-general from 1997-2003 and is now professor emeritus. Among his many works are Shokuji no bunmeiron ("Of Meals and Civilization"), and Bunka-menruigaku kotohajime ("First Steps in the Study of Noodle Culture").