The Japanese Table
The Japanese-Style Meal: From Tradition to Futureby Ayako Ehara
This final installment about the Japanese-style meal considers the renewed attention being focused on traditional vegetables and methods of preparation, and how these can help us consider how to eat better now and in the future.
Japanese Traditional Diet Revival
From around 1980, Japanese eating patterns underwent major changes. The quantity of rice consumed began to decrease as Japanese turned increasingly toward the Western-style diet. Intake of meat and fats rose. These changes altered the balance of what had come to be considered the ideal eating patterns of the Japanese-style diet.
A survey conducted in 1981 found that 74 percent of Japanese ate rice for breakfast, 24 percent had bread and two percent had noodles or other; when the same survey was held in 2006, the figure for rice was at 53 percent, while those consuming bread had risen to 42 percent, with noodles and other at five percent. These findings revealed that, of those who ate rice for breakfast, eight percent had only rice, omitting the usual accompanying miso soup and side dishes, while as many as 42 percent of those eating bread for breakfast ate nothing else, indicating a particular lack of nutritional balance.
Renewed appreciation for the traditional diet centering on rice is part of the attempt to remedy the continuing deterioration of the national diet. The focus on mass production, mass consumption, the globalization of food culture, and fast-food eating has begun to shift toward a revival of traditional eating patterns, local production and consumption, along with renewed recognition of the merits of regional food specialities.
Traditional Foods for the Future
What people think of as "traditional food" probably varies quite a bit from one person to another. It was defined at a discussion forum as "foods and dishes normally eaten by Japanese until around the end of World War II (1945)." "Traditional food" also comprises food that has been passed down with various adaptations that reflect distinct eras and regional tastes.
These regionally distinctive agricultural products and foods have evolved in the context of the local climate and way of life, and we hope that the valuable aspects of these dietary legacies continue to be handed on. Such foods may not necessarily be suited to the universal palate, however, and therefore some have vanished from the marketplace in this age of mass production and consumption.
But for those ingredients and recipes that have been kept alive in local areas, people delight in their taste and feel a sense of fondness. Renewed appreciation for characteristic local foods reminds people of their wealth of local folk wisdom and helps to strengthen bonds of community identity.
Shojin ryori is vegetarian cuisine that originated in Buddhist temples, based on religious dietary mandates. It spread beyond temple walls to inspire numerous dishes featuring vegetables, such as shira-ae (vegetables dressed with tofu-based sauce); gan-modoki (deep-fried balls of tofu with vegetables); and nasu no shigi-yaki (pan-fried Japanese eggplant coated with miso paste). These are seasonal vegetarian dishes prepared using oil—each one colorful, flavorful and nutritious. Some even have vivid names that evoke fish or fowl: gan means wild goose and shigi is snipe.
The basic eating pattern comprising rice with soup, side dishes and pickles has been passed down for more than 800 years—the prevailing pattern in Asian countries where rice is the staple. The use of seasonal farm products, and foods prepared from them, along with moderate amounts of fish, shellfish and meat, make possible a comparatively diverse diet that is also nutritionally balanced.
Revival of Foods from the Past
Among traditional vegetables, those of Kyoto are particularly well known. Kamo nasu ("round" eggplant), kujo negi (scallions) and mibuna (leafy greens) are named after the areas in Kyoto where they were grown originally. Kintoki ninjin ("ruby red" carrots) and ebi-imo ("shrimp" taro) are additional examples of the area's unique vegetables that are sought-after beyond the immediate Kyoto vicinity. This popularity is due to the widely admired Kyoto cuisine which features these local vegetables, and whose delicious taste conjures up elegant images of the old cultural capital.
In an effort to reawaken recognition of locally grown foods, the northern prefecture of Yamagata encourages participation in the preservation of the local practice of growing hoya kabu (turnips), a vegetable similar in appearance to the daikon, but much smaller. These projects follow the century-old custom of burning off fallow land, planting seeds and harvesting, and culminate in a taste-testing event.
Recent initiatives have also been seen in metropolitan areas featuring "Edo-Tokyo vegetables," wherein urban farmers cultivate vegetables such as komatsuna greens and Nerima daikon—grown in the Tokyo area since the eighteenth century—and make them available to local restaurants.
Some of these projects involve university students who have created new recipes using these vegetables, and the publication of cookbooks that feature these recipes. Recently, I was involved in the development of a box lunch made with ingredients grown, caught or produced in the environs of Tokyo, using recipes found in cookbooks dating from the Edo period (1603-1867).
Those foods of the past that have endured are still valued today; and while each individual effort to preserve a favorite traditional food may seem insignificant, through these efforts we may invigorate our lives and reaffirm comradeship in the enjoyment of good and nostalgic flavors—a meaningful tradition to pass on to future generations.
Ayako Ehara was born in Shimane Prefecture in 1943. She graduated from the Faculty of Home Economics (currently, Department of Human Life and Environmental Sciences) at Ochanomizu University. She holds a Ph.D. in Education and taught for many years at Tokyo Kasei-Gakuin University, where she is currently professor emeritus and guest professor. She is also chairman of the Japan Society of Home Economics, Division of Food Culture. A specialist in food culture, the history of food education and cookery science, Dr. Ehara is the author and editor of many publications, the most recent of which is Nihon Shokumotsu-shi (The history of food in Japan).