The First European Description of Japan, 1585|
6 The Japanese way of eating and drinking
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1. We eat everything with our hands; the Japanese—both men and women, from the time they are children—eat with two sticks.
Europeans at the time ate mostly with their hands; a knife might be used to cut meat and spoons were used to eat gruel, soups, stews, and pudding. It was customary to wash your hands before and after eating, and books of manners advised against petting the dog or cat during dinner. During the sixteenth century napkins started showing up on European tables and the table cloth became more decorative than functional, meaning you no longer used it to wipe your hands. It was the wealthy and aristocrats who were likely to own silver forks and spoons, although they too mostly used their hands.
The Jesuits and most other Europeans were dumbfounded by the skill with which the Japanese ate with chopsticks. To quote Valignano: “… there are no tablecloths, napkins, knives, forks or spoons. All they have are two small sticks, called hashi, which they manipulate with such cleanliness and skill that they do not touch any of the food with their hands nor let even a crumb fall from their plate on to the table.”
Bread was indeed a staple for many Europeans, although it was not always an inexpensive food item. The price of wheat-flour often skyrocketed in early modern Europe, in part as a function of poor harvests and steady growth in Europe’s population. When Frois was a child in Portugal, the grain harvest fell below expectations one year in three; after 1530 the demand for wheat increasingly outstripped supply.
Perhaps the most fundamental principle underlying Chinese and Japanese cuisine is the fan-cai principle, which dictates that a good meal should include a proper balance of carbohydrates (i.e. rice, bread, or noodles) and protein and fiber (meat/fish and vegetables). As Frois suggests, rice satisfied the fan half of the principle. In Japan during the 1970s one frequently encountered a different distich: “We Japanese eat rice, you Westerners eat meat.” This was also true in the sixteenth century, as Europeans, apparently of all classes, ate a good deal of meat, and the Portuguese perhaps more so, owing to their extensive game preserves and uncultivated lands. Eggs, butter and cheese also were an important source of protein for Europeans, and thus the olfactory adjective that the Japanese used with reference to Europeans was “butter-stinking” (bata-kusai).
In the fifth century the Merovingian king, Meroavaeus, ushered in a new custom for Europe’s elite; where previously Romans reclined, Europeans now sat upright in a chair or on a bench at a table, or what was actually a board laid across two trestles. In Frois’ Portugal and most of Europe it was common for guests to pair-up around the table and eat with their hands from the same bowl or dish, thus the Portuguese idiom signifying that two people are good friends: “comer com alguém no prato” ([they] eat from the same plate). It is still common practice in parts of Portugal and Spain for friends and family to literally share one large salad, with everyone diving in from wherever they are sitting, albeit with forks rather than their hands.
The lacquered tables used by the Japanese were small—“Tea-trays, with legs like dachshunds”—and were brought from the kitchen by the woman of the house as easily as a waitresses carries trays of food. Writing around 1880, Isabella Bird observed that each person was served from four to twelve dishes or bowls of edibles. In Japan, today, this manner of eating is only true for some traditional-style restaurants. At home, most people eat around a Western-style table. In Korea, however, food is still often served in the manner described by Bird.
Wealthy Europeans actually sat at tables with what amounted to several tablecloths. The bottom-most cloth hung down like a swag and was used as a communal napkin. On top of this cloth were one or more “over cloths,” which were sequentially removed before each new dinner course. As noted, during Frois’ lifetime napkins became somewhat popular, again particularly among the wealthy. Arguably, most Europeans lacked the resources to buy tablecloths and napkins and continued a medieval tradition of wiping their mouths with their clothing, the back of the hand, or a piece of bread.
Japanese tables were generally four to eight inches from the floor or tatami. Japanese reliance on chopsticks and consumption of bite-sized edibles made napkins unnecessary. Actually, the Japanese found napkins disgusting, apparently because the Jesuits re-used them or washed them irregularly.
In sixteenth-century Japan men began meals in the sei-za or “proper-seat” position (knees on the floor and sitting back on the heels), but rarely ate entire meals that way. They switched to the informal cross-legged style described by Frois. Both then and now, women almost never sit cross-legged; they sit more or less formally all the time.
Note that this is a rare instance in the Tratado where Frois reversed the order of the distich, presenting the Japanese custom first (perhaps Frois had grown fond of this particular Japanese custom). Elites in Portugal were accustomed to eating twice a day: “dinner” around mid-day and a light “supper” in the evening. Dinner was the main meal of the day and usually came in three separate courses, which might include items such as sausage, boiled and fricasseed chicken, and roasted meat or poultry (lesser nobility or peasants might have two or one main course, respectively). A clerical sumptuary edict from England in 1541 indicated that archbishops might have up to six kinds of meat at a meal, bishops no more than five, deans and archdeacons four, and all other clergy no more than three.
Frois’ fellow Jesuit, Rodrigues, noted that the Japanese had five different types of formal banquets, including a “banquet of three tables,” where each guest was provided with many different items rather than merely one item constituting a course. In Frois’ time, people eating formally in Japan always began with a few morsels of rice followed by a sip of soup (shiru), repeated thrice over. Details of formal three-, five-, and seven-table banquets were provided by Rodrigues. For example:
in the banquettes of three tables … there are twenty dishes and they include four shiru … with five tables they serve twenty-six dishes, among which are included six shiru … with six tables or trays, there are thirty-two dishes, among which are included eight shiru, that is five of fish, one of shell fish and two of meat; one of these is crane …
During the 1980s in Japan, tables full of dishes became a popular type of television quiz show—not one show mind you, but a genre found on channel after channel, day and night. A personality would be shown eating, and game-show participants would be asked either to guess the next dish he or she (usually a very pretty she) would reach for, or, harder yet, give the order of the first five or so items.
European banquets of the sixteenth century were equally elaborate, structured events, although as Frois suggests, the presentation of food came more in courses than all at once. A banquet held in 1529 for the Duke of Ferrara featured at least seven courses; the 104 guests dined on everything from antipasto to suckling pig, served on 2,835 plates. The first course at the wedding feast for Portugal’s Prince Afonso and Princess Isabel of Spain, in 1490, began when:
… there came to the head of the table a large golden cart which seemed to be pulled by two huge roasted whole steers, with gilded horns and hooves; the cart was completely filled with a large number of roasted whole sheep with gilded horns; the whole thing was on such a low contraption, with little wheels underneath where they could not be seen, that the steers appeared to be alive and walking.”
7. We can eat just fine without soup; the Japanese can not eat without soup.
European peasants certainly ate their fair share of pottages and soups, but as Frois suggests, soup was not central to Mediterranean cuisine. The Japanese believe that slurping soup at intervals during a meal rather than as a separate course helps other food go down, so to speak. While fancy restaurants still serve fish and fowl in shiru, as described by Rodrigues above, today this soup is almost always either a cloudy fermented bean-curd soup or one of a number of clear suimono—literally “sucking-thing” soups. The ingredients of both are almost entirely vegetable, but tiny shellfish (asari or shijimi) in the shell are often added to improve the flavor of the former, which is called miso-shiru (well known to health-food devotees in the West). In Japan it receives as much good press as wine in France. Hardly a week goes by without the publication of a new study showing some new medical benefits (never the opposite; see #57, below) of miso.
8. Our table service is made of silver or pewter; in Japan the table service is made of wood lacquered red or black.
Europeans used pottery and wooden cups and bowls to consume liquids like soup or ale. Large slices of bread, called trenchers or manchets, commonly were used as “plates.” The bread absorbed juice from meat or fish and was consumed at the end of the meal or given to the dog or to the poor, as alms. By Frois’ time, Europeans also were using round wooden or pewter plates under or instead of manchets. The sixteenth century also witnessed mass production of earthenware and more expensive porcelain, which was durable and non-porous. Wealthier Europeans or religious such as the Jesuits were likely to have table service of pewter; the truly privileged had silver or even gold.
Lacquered wood has a hard and durable finish that results from the application of a varnish of tree resin to which iron oxide and other pigments have been added (thus the often-seen red and/or black). Unlike many ceramics, lacquered wood is light as well as non-porous. It also has advantages over pewter or silver in that it conducts little heat. Today in Japan most ostensibly wood-lacquered bowls and spoons (rarely plates) are made of plastic.
9. We use earthenware pots and porringers to prepare and cook food; the Japanese use pots and pans made of cast iron.
Clay pots and porringers were no doubt used by Frois’ mother and grandmother to prepare caldeirada (fish stew like bouillabaisse) or various bean-and-pork dishes (cozidos) that are the ancestors of Brazilian feijoada (“re-introduced” to Portugal and found today on restaurant menus throughout Portugal).
This contrast and the one that follows suggest that the gentry in Japan relied heavily on cast iron cookware. Japan nevertheless has a long history of fine cooking utensils made of clay as well as iron. Long before Frois wrote, the cracked stew pot was a popular trope for a widow or woman whose virginity was a distant memory. Today it is common in Japan to see stews slowly cooking in earthenware rather than metal pots.
During the sixteenth century many Japanese homes had an irori, a square, sunken hearth that functioned much like braziers in Iberia and the fireplace set in the wall, which was becoming common elsewhere in Europe. The irori provided warmth and heat for cooking using cast-iron pots that were suspended over the coals using a tripod that looks something like a wrought iron stool, minus the seat, turned upside down.
One of the things that made Jesus so radical was his commensality, particularly his acceptance of women at the dinner table. Although the Romans encouraged women to eat with men, it was hardly as equals (women serving or entertaining enhanced the meal). By the sixteenth century probably most European men and their wives ate together, although in parts of Iberia, Germany, and France it was common for the men to eat separately (served by women or servants), while the women ate in the kitchen or standing up.
In Japan, as in Europe, the two genders were not considered equal and women joined men at the table mostly in a serving capacity. This was particularly true for the gentry (as per Chapter 2, #53). Among the common folk or peasantry, husbands and wives often ate together.
As the twentieth century began, this matter of men and women eating together became part of Japan’s national agenda to Westernize and thus gain the respect of the world powers. Yet even today, husband and wife still eat and socialize together far less than they do in the West. The reason, however, has perhaps less to do with traditional segregation of male and female. Japanese working and commuting hours are usually so long that people eat and socialize with their colleagues. The married man who perseveres until he gets home to eat with his wife, might well eat dinner at midnight! (This is especially the case with small companies, where male employees work more hours than is reflected in official statistics.)
Going without meat was a big part of life in Christian Europe. In Frois’ Portugal there were around sixty-eight days a year when Christians were forbidden to eat meat. In Provence, the number was closer to 150. Marques notes that seafood such as whiting, eels, mullet, sardines, flounder, mussels, and crabs were a regular part of the Portuguese diet.
The “raw” fish preferred by the Japanese was not as raw as one might imagine. In Frois’ time the Japanese dipped the fish in boiling vinegar or fermented it in a mustard sauce (karashi). Interestingly, few Japanese today seem to realize that pickled or fermented, i.e. semi-raw fish, was once the norm. The diverse and extremely appealing sushi that the West recently has come to know and love was one of many gastronomical developments of the Edo era (1615–1868). The advent of refrigeration expanded the possibilities for sushi yet further and have made it a world-class food. Vinegary o-sumono still survives in the sushi shop repertoire and is not all that different from the pickled herring that the Dutch made a huge industry during the fourteenth century. Still, for many Jesuits in Japan—many of whom were from Iberia—having to eat “raw” fish was a “continual torment.”
13. Among us, all fruits are eaten when they are ripe, except for cucumbers, which are eaten green; the Japanese eat all their fruit when it is green, except for cucumbers, which are eaten very yellow and ripe.
Fresh as well as dried and preserved fruit (e.g. biter orange, cherries, peaches, figs) were very popular in Mediterranean Europe, including Portugal. According to Marques, the Portuguese seem to have particularly enjoyed pairing fruit and wine, often in the evening as a light meal.
The Japanese pickled most fruit, with the apparent exception of the cucumber. The Portuguese must not have exercised one iota of influence on Japanese taste in fruit, for the first British ambassador after the “opening” of Japan (1854), Sir Rutherford Alcock wrote:
Every tea-garden in the vicinity of Yeddo [Edo] tries to rival its neighbour in the beauty and size of the peach blossoms,—but it is very difficult to get good peaches to eat. They are all habitually plucked unripe. It does not seem to me that the Japanese have any idea what ripe fruit means. They certainly never treat themselves to it, and after two years’ practice, my market coolie could never be made to understand what constituted ripeness.
Today in Japan one finds ripe nectarines as well as peaches, but no green fruit, with the exception of the large green “plums” that go into ume-shu, or “plum liquor.” There are also smaller but apparently similar “plums” that are pickled in vinegar and dyed bright red, sold under the name su-momo, or “vinegar peach.”
It makes sense to cut a melon crosswise, particularly if it has not been turned and thus tastes differently on the top and bottom. A lengthwise cut would be best for long melons with a flavor that varies from stem to butt, so to speak.
During the last half of the twentieth century most Japanese gave little thought to which way to slice a melon, as melons of all types were generally very expensive. Despite the high price, they were almost never sold piecemeal at the grocer’s. Fruit was mainly sold to be presented as a gift: one melon or a few apples when visiting a house; a watermelon beautifully bound for carrying up a mountain to a Buddhist temple; a platter including pineapple and citrus as well as melon for a funeral display or a wake. Only well-to-do families regularly ate fruit, the exception being tangerines when they were in season.
The Japanese leave a portion of the stem on their melons (much as Americans do with their pumpkins), which hides the navel and thus makes it unrewarding to sniff the top of the melon. The stem is typically in the form of a “T” and it is profoundly satisfying to the Japanese because that “T” is found upside down in the Chinese character for “melon.”
Europeans viewed the plant and animal kingdoms in terms of a “great chain of being,” which implied that various foods had qualities (e.g. hot versus cold, coarse versus refined) and particular social value. Melon was considered a “cold” fruit that should be eaten at the beginning of a meal. As Frois notes, the savory flesh was eaten while still on the rind.
Although the Japanese tend to completely prepare their food before eating, watermelon is an exception: slices are eaten with rind in hand, as Americans usually eat it. Smaller melons, persimmons and pears are first peeled and then cut into bite-size pieces, which are picked up with either chopsticks or a large bamboo toothpick.
Europeans once used the juice from unripe apples and grapes for a condiment called verjuice, evidently very sour, for a sour-puss was called verjuiced. Where today we use wine or vinegar for salad dressing, deglazing, and sauces, Europeans of the Middle Ages and early modern period often used verjuice.
Pickled grapes are not common today in Japan, although we have no doubt that Frois tells the truth, for there is little that the Japanese have not pickled at one time or another. The pickling tends to be heavy on salt, for vinegar is only used for a few items; also, chili, sugar, and other spices are not used as much as they are in most of Southeast Asia. Today, green grapes—not unripe, but genuinely green—are eaten in Japan and are used to make a fine muscat wine.
It perhaps goes without saying that a covered dish keeps food hotter, for longer, particularly when you are passing dishes around a table in the informal “French style.” Bread that is covered and not allowed to breathe becomes chewy and difficult to eat, particularly for those with poor teeth (common in Frois’ Europe); better to allow it to go nearly stale and use it as a manchet.
The Japanese were (and are) as particular about their rice as Europeans were (and are) about their bread. Rice is usually served in a covered pot so it is piping hot. (In a good restaurant today soup is also carried out covered; this apparently is a later development.)
The cultivation of sugar in America, particularly Brazil, during the sixteenth century made it possible for more and more Europeans to enjoy “dessert”—finishing a meal with tiramisu, cakes, pies, and other sweet things. Previously, Europeans had to be content with food flavored with sugar or served with sauces made from raisins, grapes, figs, almonds, and prunes. Okada explains the Japanese love of things salty as a result of an abundance of salt in Japan, while sugar was an expensive import. Perhaps it is true that sugar was harder to come by in Japan relative to Europe, but the paucity of interest in most ripe fruit makes one wonder whether some other factor may be involved. The European craving for sweets might be related to the consumption of bread or pasta, both of which have a sugar content that is low relative to the rice eaten in Japan (unlike the indica variety of rice common in the West, which is short-grained and glutinous). Moreover, Japanese sake is very sweet. Isabella Bird’s translator, Ito, told her that all who abstain from sake crave sugar.
Even today, the Japanese claim to be astounded by the sweetness of Western pastries, and yet their own traditional cakes that are served with tea astound us equally, for they seem to be of solid sugar! Then there is Japanese bean jam, an, which is mentioned in Rodrigues’ 1620 dictionary and tastes very sweet. Moreover, almost all fruit in Japan seems to be advertised as “sweet” (amai)—a curious thing for people who supposedly do not care for sweet things. We who love some tartness in our fruit find it hard to get a merchant to tell us the truth, for merely requesting such fruit (“tart” and “sour” are a single word and never fail to draw a grimace in Japan) is to suggest he might have inferior merchandize. That the use of “sweet” as synonymous with “good” and “tasty” in Japan—contrary to Frois’ assertion—is no modern development is proven by Issa’s haiku portraying peasant children innocently learning a lie as their very first word from their siblings who are selling bad persimmons, crying out “Sweet! Sweet!”
Still, to be fair to Frois, it is possible that during his time in Japan the new trade with Europe and the increased trade with China marked the beginning of significant changes in Japanese taste. He certainly was correct about the Japanese love for things salty, owing perhaps to the Japanese disinterest in other strong spices. Salt, in the guise of soy sauce, miso, and pickles, made sense for a hardworking people who sweated a lot and ate little meat.
This is not a general contrast but appears to apply to etiquette in a tea hut, a place where a male host did the preparation and serving and then cleared the tables. One reason why noblemen took such an interest in what Europeans thought of as “chores” was that doing these things is the art of the tea ceremony. At the same time, the dogu, or tea ware, which are the supporting props, were fragile and often the host’s most valuable possession—the equivalent of a vintage automobile that a corporate executive in the West might sully his hands on and then proudly offer rides in to friends and family.
It is reassuring to read that “our” ancestors regularly washed their hands before and after eating. But then one reads Erasmus’ account of a German inn that he visited where he was horrified to find people washing their hands in a filthy bowl of water. The experience apparently contributed to Erasmus’ De civilitate morum puerilum (1530), a work that sought to remake all of European society through new standards of cleanliness and “appropriate” behavior (e.g., “it is boorish to plunge your hands into sauced dishes.”).
With respect to the Japanese, Frois might have noted the exception of the tea ceremony, which dictated that guests wash their hands before holding and admiring the host’s priceless tea service (much as one washes their hands out of respect when entering some Shinto shrines).
Once cooked, the Japanese immediately submerge their noodles in cold water to preserve their “hips” or what the Italians refer to as their bite (al dente). Long before instant ramen, Japanese noodles were quicker cooking than most pasta. Some, such as somen, were and are as thin as a hair. Although all Japanese noodles may be eaten cold, Frois may have had in mind soba, or buckwheat noodles, and possibly even udon, which are made from wheat and are generally slightly thicker and square-edged. Today somen is almost always eaten cold, soba about half the time, and udon rarely. (The Koreans have far more varieties of cold noodles, perhaps because they are heated sufficiently by chili peppers.)
Most Westerners forget or are unaware that tomatoes originated in the New World. In 1585, pasta with tomato sauce was unknown or a recent innovation (note that the tomato, potato, and maize all took time to gain wide acceptance in Europe). As Frois suggests, it was far more common for Mediterranean Europeans to serve pasta with raisins and spices such as cinnamon (reflecting Arab influence) and to eat it dry (meaning no sauce) with the fingers!
The Japanese often include some sweet sake and, less frequently, mandarin orange slices, in their sauce for somen. Thus, Frois’ contrast seems a bit stark, unless, as suggested above, the Japanese developed something of a sweet tooth after Frois’ time. Today, as in the past, the Japanese use a very potent sort of horse-radish (karashi) to flavor some noodle dishes. Presumably this is what Frois meant by mustard (mostarda).
The last European item, blancmange might be unfamiliar. Roberto de Nola’s famous 1529 cookbook, Libro de guisados, manjares, y potajes, referred to blancmange as “the king of dishes.” While recipes varied, it generally was created by boiling fatty chicken meat along with rice flour, rose-water, sugar, goat’s milk, or white almond and saffron until the chicken looked like melted white cheese. The dish was topped off with a sprinkle of fine sugar.
Feral dog was eaten in a dish that today is called sutamina (food for increasing one’s stamina) by men doing fighting or heavy labor outdoors, and by people of either sex suffering from natsu-yase, or “summer thinning.” The Chinese character for “thin” includes the “sickness” radical, for wasting away was a real disease in Japan for both men and women. Today, Japanese of both sexes—but mostly men—eat liver and leek or fatty eel on rice for their sutamina, but no wolf (see #41 below).
As Frois knew, having eaten with the rulers of Japan, crane was a favorite banquet food of the nobility, in part because the bird was a symbol of longevity. Frois apparently never ate with Europe’s rulers or he might have known that they also served crane, not to mention stork, plover, peacock and a few other exotic birds (the Judeo-Christian “great chain of being” cast birds, particularly high-flying birds, as appropriate for European elites).
Okada quotes Japanese literature confirming all of the foods mentioned by Frois except cat. He believes Frois mistook tanuki (“raccoon dog,” Nyctereutus procyonides vivverinus), weasel, or something else for cat. However, considering the fact that cat skin was used for making shamisen banjos (see Chapter 13) it is not unlikely that some part of the cat was eaten. The irony here is that if cat was eaten anywhere, it was in Europe. Again, de Nola’s cookbook includes a recipe for roasted cat that purportedly tasted like rabbit or veal, although the author advised against eating the brain “lest the diner become crazy in the head.”
As regards raw seaweed, this is perfectly ordinary food, but one rarely hears about seaweed; the Japanese refer to it as sea grass (kaiso). Japanese people no more eat “seaweed” than we eat “land weed.” The Japanese eat specific varieties of marine algae: nori, ishinori, konbu, wakame, mozu, hijiki, etc. Most of these are processed or cooked, but many varieties of raw “seaweed” (the names of which are only known by gourmets) are served on a sashimi platter. The Portuguese term limos da praia, or “beach slime,” suggests the texture of only two of the six varieties mentioned above. The Portuguese language does not differentiate algae from seaweed, although limo most often refers to slimy algae, whereas algas marinas, or marine algae, is a term generally associated with seaweed, a cover term for a variety of different algae.
In the old country hotel where one of us (Gill) spent his first few months in Japan, smoke quickly became the call to breakfast, which consisted of fish that was always burnt. As most of the part singed black is the heavily-salted skin, which is discarded anyway, burnt fish is not as crazy as it seems. From reading Frois it is apparent that the Japanese have had many centuries of practice at it. It should be noted that Frois probably was referring to either salmon or sweetfish (ayu) when he referred to the truta (‘trout’) of Japan. (Since at least the eighth century the Japanese have used tame cormorants to catch the ayu, who swim upriver to spawn.)
Imagine coming home to a “hot one” rather than a chilled glass of vinho verde. Sake lovers explain how the heat brings out this or that quality of the sake, but the wariness the Japanese had, and still have, for all cold drinks may be more explanatory. Some thirty-five years after the Tratado was written, Rodrigues noted that while everybody now drinks warm wine all year round, the “true and ancient custom” was for warm wine to be drunk only from September to March (from the ninth day of the ninth moon until the third day of the third moon); the rest of year it was drunk cold.
The Japanese were not alone in heating their wine; drinking wine warmed by the fireplace or diluted with warm water was popular among all classes in all seasons in France and Iberia. Many Iberians today share the Japanese distrust of chilled drinks, believing they are bad for the throat; warmed wine is still popular in certain parts of the Peninsula (e.g. Galicia) during the winter months.
Southern Europeans considered wine, particularly diluted with water and enhanced by spices, the perfect drink. (Besides tasting “good,” particularly during the winter months, spiced wine was thought to have medicinal properties such as aiding with digestion.) With respect to Japan, “all” is a bit of an overstatement, as some rice wine was or is flavored with fruit and turned into plum or persimmon wine. Some of the best persimmon wine is made at Zen temples, just as the Benedictine order is renowned for its Bénédictine, which is made from over two-dozen plants and spices (but no grapes).
There was no physical reason for using two hands. To receive something with both hands shows that it is not taken lightly, and to continue holding a cup with two hands bespeaks sincerity. Frois might also have noted that the Japanese poured wine with the arm held straight out and rigid, with the second hand holding the pouring arm as well. This idea of propriety through stiffness is still understood in Japan, as is two-handed drinking, although today both are rare (today one might see two hands being used by an older married couple or the winner of a Sumo tournament).
Again, Frois is concentrating on formal drinking, where men sit back on their feet with their knees pointing forward. Men did not always drink like that and seldom do so today. This distich is a further reflection of the Jesuits’ concern with mastering the elaborate formalities of the Japanese nobility.
On special occasions such as New Year’s, the Japanese use new, unglazed cups, which are then discarded. This custom apparently was in imitation of the Emperor, who reportedly used cups only once. Because every day is not New Year’s day, this distich is misleading. Rodrigues wrote that the Japanese used five kinds of cups to serve sake to their guests: lacquered cups (gilded or plain); two of simple earthenware; one that was half or completely gilded or covered in silver (both inside and out); and another that was of earthenware but also gilded and silvered. Even more remarkable, these last cups were served on a three-legged tray that looked like:
“… a jagged seashore, with its entrances and exits like the bays and capes of a shore, … painted entirely blue, or the colour of the sea, and decorated with various patterns of flowers or small trees, especially the pine which grows along the coast …”
While intoxication and “competitive drinking” may have been deemed sinful in Europe, it did not stop many people from drinking to excess. Long after Frois was dead and buried, Europeans were still celebrating feast days or other holidays with impromptu drinking bouts. According to Schivelbusch, were it not for the widespread adoption of coffee in the eighteenth-century, countries such as Germany may never have become industrial power-houses.
Generally speaking, the Japanese do not drink sake during or after meals. Simply put, the Japanese generally drank to drink—and still drink to drink. Japanese men take pride in their drinking and many would not refuse a challenge to a drinking match. Frois’ fellow Jesuit, Rodrigues, was dumbfounded:
It is also astonishing to note the various devices and means which the devil has taught them to encourage much wine drinking … They not only concoct a thousand kinds of tasty sakana (these are appetizing things to eat which encourage a man to drink) as incentives, but they also sometimes summon women dancers and singers and other types of depraved people, who, when they drink, challenge whomsoever they wish to partake as well; … Things sometimes reach such a pass … that some of them challenge others to drink wine from hand-basins …
32. Among us, it is considered disgusting to drink from a soup, meat, or fish bowl; in Japan it is very common to empty one’s soup bowl and drink from it.
Another way to put this would be: We flavor our food with a little wine; they flavor their wine with a little food. Today, as in the past, the most popular variety of sake in Japan is Junmai-shu, which is highly acidic. This acidity may explain why it would taste good when drunk from the shell of a crab or a soup or fish bowl (also acidic), while wine, particularly red wine, would not.
Frois was so busy contrasting the crude materials of the Japanese sake cup and, worse yet, the yucky manner of drinking from “dirty dishes,” that he forgot to contrast the thimble-sized sake cup with the huge (by Japanese standards) tankard preferred by many Europeans.
33. Our everyday drinking water has to be cold and clear; among the Japanese, it has to be hot and should have tea powder that has been beaten into the water with a straw brush.
The Japanese seldom drink plain water; tea is arguably their main source of water. Frois, however, describes but one way of making tea, using the expensive bright green powder now identified with the tea ceremony. Tea ordinarily was lightly steeped.
Frois might have written a more generally applicable description of how the Japanese drank water: “The water has to be hot and served either as tea, as medicine, flavored by barley, or be the left-over water from cooking noodles.”
Until recently, most Japanese of middle-age and older have worn heat wraps to keep their belly warm. Many still do. If ordinary cold water was, and still is, believed to be bad for digestion, cold spring water was considered quite capable of bringing on a stroke. In poetry, cold water came to be associated with the phrase inochi-tori-ni naru, a term meaning that indulging in something will cost you your life.
34. Among us, the burnt rice at the bottom of the pan is thrown out or given to the dogs. in Japan it is served as a dessert or it is placed in the hot water that is drunk at the end of the meal.
Okada explains that this is, in part, a reflection of Japanese respect for rice, which was considered more than a food. During Frois’ time, a nobleman’s fiefdom was valued and described in terms of potential rice harvest rather than acreage. Still, rice was not the sacred=imperial=Japanese object that it became later, when neo-Shinto nationalists argued that the only rice in the world worthy of the name was Japanese rice (japonica), which was derived from the body of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu-omikami. While the Japanese, facing imports, can still get excited about their rice, the stuff at the bottom of the cooker or, worse, the bowl, is no longer consumed religiously. Despite the high price of rice in Japan, a surprising amount of old rice ends up in the bowls of the wan-chan and nyan-chan, the dogs and cats of the house, respectively.
Frois is here contrasting formal meals. As noted above, the Japanese do not generally drink sake with dinner. Avila Giron wrote: “About halfway through the meal, along comes a page with hot wine in a flask, but does not pour it unless the diner holds out his cup, which, in Japan, may be no other than the bowl which covered the rice.” But even formal occasions offered more diversity in methods of drinking than Frois’ contrast suggests.
36. Among us, one does not drink out of the porcelain [bowl] from which one has eaten soup or rice without first washing it; the Japanese dump the soup out of the rice bowl and then drink hot water from it.
This contrast regarding water parallels the observation made in #32 above regarding sake, which is drunk in the same manner. One contrast naming both liquids would have been sufficient.
37. Our quills for [cleaning] our teeth are very short; the sticks used by the Japanese are sometimes eight to nine inches long.
Europeans used feather quills as disposable toothpicks. During Frois’ time toothpicks of gold or silver became fashionable in Europe and were worn on hats and jackets. Japanese toothpicks were generally between three and fourteen inches in length. The short ones used today, called “fingernail toothpicks” (tsuma-yoji), first became popular during the Edo era (1608–1868). Japanese toothpicks are rectangular rather than round and are almost always made of bamboo. Arguably, anyone who has used both prefers the Japanese.
As noted above (#31), Christian Europe frowned on drunkenness, although as Montaigne pointed out, this did not stop Europeans from imbibing. “The Chinese and Japanese,” on the other hand, “do not consider drunkenness in banquets and revelries as something wrong, although they will not countenance violent intoxication, but this is rare among nobles.” Let us add Koreans to this happy company.
As previously noted (#2), the Japanese often spoke disparagingly of Europeans as “butter-stinking” (bata-kusai). Although the Japanese have acquired a taste, if not a fondness, for milk and flan (see footnote 10), they still eat relatively little sour cream or plain yogurt. Perhaps the higher incidence of lactose intolerance among Asians explains the Japanese dislike of dairy products.
40. We season our food with various spices; the Japanese use miso, which is rice and rotten grains mixed with salt.
Spices were indeed central to the cuisine of Europe’s rich and powerful, not to mention the Portuguese economy (the crown of Portugal reaped enormous profits from ships returning each year from India laden with pepper). The famous European chef, Cristoforo da Messibugo (d. 1547), used spices such as cinnamon, cloves, ginger, pepper, nutmeg, mace, and coriander in over 80 percent of his recipes. As noted, spices also were added to wine to increase its shelf life and were understood as having medicinal properties (e.g. spiced food was good for the elderly but might produce lust in others).
The miso spoken of by Frois here refers to the same bean curd used for soup. Fish might be marinated in miso, roasted eggplant flavored with a particularly sweet variety, and so forth. To a spice lover, Japanese miso is too plain, probably the plainest in Asia. Korean miso is more like a pungent French cheese and the Chinese have many wonderful fermented seasonings. But when it comes to the most instant form of miso—soy sauce—the Japanese variety surpasses most others by remaining simple. Even today, Japanese cooking entails limited spices, but the Japanese, like Americans, eat a lot of mild ethnic foods from around the world.
The linkage to “medicine” clearly suggests that Frois knew that dog was not usually eaten by the Japanese, but rather was “medicine eating” (kusurigui) to beat the summer thinning mentioned in the discussion of contrast #24 above. The best known medicine eating, however, was a males-only, late fall barbecue of “mountain whale” (wild boar) or venison, which was said to restore the body’s heat.
42. Among us, rotten fish tripe is considered an abomination; the Japanese like it a great deal and have it as an appetizer.
The Japanese once salted and aged many varieties of fish tripe and roe. Today, shiokara, or “salt tripe,” almost invariably means the guts of squid (often mixed with strips of squid flesh). There is, however, a far more expensive fermented tripe, konowata (sea cucumber guts), which for centuries was a tribute item delivered annually to the imperial court. Konowata is still considered one of the top gourmet foods in Japan, although not all Japanese would eat it.
The Japanese do not pay much attention to eating and drinking noises. The correct way to eat noodles or drink soup is to slurp loudly, because it is the best way to experience or savor the combination of broth and noodle, not to mention avoid getting scalded. Quick eating generally has been considered good etiquette among this job-oriented culture. Samurai, in particular, took pride in eating and defecating quickly. Even today, a noodle shop in Japan gives fast food a new meaning. One feels like using a stopwatch at some of these “slurpers”!
As far as sake goes, since the usual sake cup holds only about half a shot and the alcohol content is as low as wine, men are not adverse to tossing them back, and the Japanese do often gulp aloud when they drink, simply because they are unconscious of such noises, having never been trained to avoid them. One could well imagine that this would look indecorous to a wine-sipping European.
What the Japanese do, even today, is grimace. Europeans and Americans generally think a good drink should be mellow. Among the Japanese, strength is a desired characteristic of a drink. Thus a grimace showing that a drink hit the spot is the traditional way to express gratitude. (It is no wonder the Japanese are fond of American Westerns, as grimacing is precisely what cowboys do when they reach the saloon and knock down a whiskey.)
This is not your average weekday dinner, but a party of men. After sitting for a good while on tatami, it feels good to move a little. Moreover, the song and dance of traditional Japan, unlike most of Europe, can easily be performed by individuals (see Chapter 13).
In Japan, guests bring gifts and hosts thank them for taking the trouble for coming, rather than the guest thanking the host for hosting the affair. It makes sense, for the guest is the one who has to travel. But Frois may have a particular situation in mind. Okada believes that Frois was referring to ceremonial tea etiquette. The Jesuits became rightly preoccupied with this etiquette because it was important to the nobility and samurai class whose favors they courted. As noted in the critical introduction, one of the rules drawn up after the Bungo Consultation mandated that all Jesuit residences and even missions have a special room near the entrance door for ceremonial tea, and also a tea attendant (chanoyusha) who was to be continuously on duty.
The Japanese roast fish or boil it; they rarely fry it. Deep-fried konbu (kelp) is rare today, except, paradoxically, in tempura, something the Japanese adopted from the Portuguese. Fried seaweed of all kinds remains very popular.
Japan’s oldest anthology of poetry, the Manyoushu (ca. 768), has several poems about noble poets who go fishing and meet goddesses in the guise of fishing girls. But the Japanese have nothing like the “Compleat Angler” tradition found in the West. One reason for this is suggested by another poem in the same anthology by Okakura, which speaks of the sinful nature of cormorant fishers. Buddhism, with its strong taboo against the taking of life, was spreading throughout Japan at that time, and soon poets and other good people no longer fished, or at least they did not fish and boast about it.
In the twentieth century, however, the number of Japanese anglers multiplied as fast as good streams were ruined by developers, with the comical result seen in photo magazines: unbelievable crowding (more fishermen than fish).
This unfair likening of the Japanese to livestock would seem to reflect Frois’ encounter with the destitute in Japan, who relied on the last crops of the year—turnips and radishes (called daikon) as a condiment to season their miso during the winter. Of course, the poor in Europe, of whom there were many in Frois’ time, ate just about anything, including all manner of plant roots and leaves (everything from dandelions to turnips).
Frois may have been referring in this distich to Japan’s oldest form of sushi, called narezushi (fermented rice and carp). Then there is kusaya, which Kenyusha’s Japanese-English dictionary defines as “a horse-mackerel dipped in salt water and dried in the sun, which has a very characteristic odor.” As previously noted, most sushi in Frois’ day was “aged” or allowed to ferment for four or five days in the fall or spring, or for a day or two in the summer. Like natto (fermented soy beans that have a slimy texture like okra), in winter one literally had to sleep on it in order to make it ferment in a house with no central heating. This may seem strange but one of us had an east-European neighbor who slept with his home-made yoghurt for the same reason!
52. In Europe it would be considered vulgar for an honorable citizen to sell wine in his house as if it were a tavern; in Japan highly respected citizens sell it and portion it out with their own hands.
Then, as now, European nobility or bourgeois pretenders left the actual sale of wine or grapes from their vineyards to hired hands or negociants. In Japan, a “liquor store” is seen as innocent as any other store. At the time Frois wrote, most sake was sold by dosô, money-lenders who operated out of earthen rooms or “stores” that provided protection from fire and thieves. There were up to 300 of these stores in operation in Kyoto circa 1585. The question is whether Frois’ “respected citizens” means the owners of the largest of these stores, or, as Okada suggests, major merchants who got into the sake business, selling sake alongside the dosô. That these “respected citizens” portioned out the sake with their own hands may well reflect the “hands-on way” of doing business that still characterizes Japanese commerce. In Japan as well as in China and Korea, business owners often go out of their way to meet and greet clients and customers, rather than entrust such tasks to an employee.
Chicken, duck, and geese were eaten by Europeans, in general. Game birds and spectacular fowl (e.g. crane, stork, peacock) often were focal points of banquets and feasts hosted by European nobility. Roosters were Japan’s pride. Although elsewhere in Asia the bird’s combativeness was particularly valued, the Japanese seem to have valued the rooster’s long tail (for which they were bred) and their diligent time-keeping. Ducks actually were common in some rural areas and made a significant contribution to the health of rice paddies by oxygenating the water and eating insects. Although their wings were clipped, perhaps they were not managed closely enough for Frois to consider them honest-to-goodness domesticated animals, or he never lived in an area where they were bred and consumed.
Europeans ate pastries that were both sweet and savory (i.e. meat pies). As noted, fresh as well as dried and preserved fruit were very popular in Portugal and were sometimes used as a filling in milk turnovers. In Japan, Frois probably was treated to yûmiso, which is made by stuffing sweet miso inside a hollowed-out yuzu, or citron (also called a “Chinese lemon”), which is lightly braised. (The scent of the citron skin is heavenly!) Although yûmiso is still common in Japan today, Western-style pies are more common, as are continental pastries, particularly cakes (Japanese “pastry shops” or wagashiya are mostly places where you buy beautifully wrapped treats to bring as gifts when visiting someone).
Restaurants in Portugal (e.g. Fialho in Evora!) are still renowned for their roast pork, especially from black hogs that root for acorns in the cork oak forests of the Alentejo region, to the south and east of Lisbon.
This contrast would seem to suggest that sashimi, in the modern sense of the word (fresh and raw slices), was a part of Japanese cuisine in the sixteenth century, although pork (cooked or raw) was not something eaten by most Japanese. When one considers the incredibly diverse swine culture of their Chinese neighbors, Japanese forbearance is nothing short of miraculous. Indeed, perhaps Japanese attitudes toward pork were at some level meant to signal their distance from the Chinese. The Jesuits in Japan initially raised pigs and goats and purchased cattle that were slaughtered on their premises, but this largely stopped once it was realized that the Jesuits were seen by the Japanese as “slobs with little upbringing” (sucios y de poca criacion).
Europeans, and the Portuguese in particular, had access to and often preferred various spices over salt. They also ate a lot of pork products such as ham that were preserved with salt, perhaps explaining why a lack of table salt was a small inconvenience. Going without salt was considered such an excruciating experience in Japan that there was even a custom of fasting from salt (shiodachi). Even today, all Japanese children learn in school the tale of a sixteenth-century Japanese noble, Uesugi Kenshin, who decided not to cut off his rival’s access to salt, famously saying, “Wars are to be won with swords and spears, not with rice and salt.”
Now we know why Frois noted the absence of salt in Japanese rice. The Portuguese home remedy for diarrhea still makes sense as there is a good deal of soluble fiber in rice that helps ameliorate the problem of watery stools. It is worth mentioning parenthetically that our medical profession continued to eliminate salt from the diet to treat bowel disorders (malabsorption) until the advent of the Space Age, when they finally discovered that some salt in sugar water facilitated absorption of the latter.
As far back as antiquity, Mediterranean peoples relied on the red and grey mullet (the red mullet is still a Portuguese favorite). Mullet roe was appreciated in Japan, but mullet itself was mostly eaten by the poor.
Yet one more difference in manners to be added to #31, #38 and #43 above. The Japanese today are not quite so belch-positive. While a burp is not so strongly disliked as in the West because of the generally greater tolerance for body noise (as opposed to less tolerance for body odor, which Frois never mentions), it is not particularly welcome at a Japanese table.
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