The surprising history behind your favourite Japanese cuisine

Sushi
Photo by Louis Hansel | Unsplash images

Japanese cuisine is known the world over. Famous for its use of unique, nutritious, fresh and mouth-watering ingredients, as well as its remarkable presentation, traditional Japanese food is one of the most prized and popular cuisines in the world. So much so that Japanese food has even been added to UNESCO’s ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ list.

It’s no wonder that Tokyo, the capital city of Japan, has more restaurants than any other city in the world, as well as the most Michelin-starred ones. On most of their menus, you'll find some of the dishes we're about to delve into.

So let’s take a look at the fascinating and surprising history behind some of Japan’s most famous dishes.

Sushi

Sushi is one of the most popular international dishes and its history dates back to somewhere between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC. Along the paddy fields of the Mekong River in ancient southern China, the humble origins of Sushi began.

The farmers who worked the land alongside the river developed narezushi, the original form of Sushi. Created out of necessity, they required a way to preserve the fish they caught. They began stuffing the fish with rice, rubbing them in salt and placing them in barrels to ferment. When it came to consumption, the rice was often disregarded when the fish was eaten. The practise gradually spread across Asia, initially as humble street food for the poor before finding its way into loftier areas of society. Eventually, it arrived in Japan sometime around the 8th century AD.

The Japanese preferred to eat the rice with the fish and so reduced the fermentation process, aided with the invention of rice vinegar in the 12th century. This dish became known as namanare. During the 17th century, a third sushi dish came along, haya-zushi. This ‘fast sushi’ rid of the fermentation process completely, mixing the rice with vinegar before serving with fish. The dish became unique to Japanese culture.

During the 19th century, legend has it a chef known as Hanaya Yohei from Edo (Tokyo), developed the form of sushi we know of today. Known as nigirizushi, a fish was placed atop a small mound of rice tossed with vinegar. The concept was a hit and after the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 displaced many nigirizushi chefs, the dish spread across Japan with them.

With the creation of modern refrigeration, sushi made of raw fish could now reach people across the world.

Tempura

Tempura is a Japanese dish of battered seafood, fish or vegetables. Originally from Portugal, tempura arrived on Japanese shores by accident during the 16th century in the form of peixinhos da horta – a dish made up of battered and fried green beans. Three Portuguese sailors headed for China were blown off course and instead set foot on Japan becoming the first Europeans to do so.

The name tempura comes from the Latin phrase quatuor anni tempora, which refers to the Ember Days, quarterly periods of prayer and fasting in the Christian calendar when no meat is consumed. Peixinhos da horta was often eaten during this period, becoming a good replacement for meat.

Over the centuries the Japanese lightened the batter and mixed up the fillings, turning anything and everything into tempura. The result was a completely new, original and uniquely Japanese dish.

Ramen

It is Japan’s national obsession, almost like a religion to many people in the country. Is has become an international icon of Japanese culture and although the popular noodle soup has been exported across the globe, tourists still flock to Japan to enjoy authentic ramen in the country that made it famous. There are even museums in Japan dedicated to the history of this renowned dish.

Although every region in Japan has its own variation of ramen, at its core are the wheat noodles. These noodles originated in China and how they made the leap into Japan is still up for debate, but they likely found their way into the country sometime between the late 19th century and early 20th century.

The first ramen shop opened in Tokyo in 1910 but it took until the 50s for ramen to be embraced and lauded as a national dish. It was during this same decade that one of Japan's greatest inventions took place; the creation of instant noodles. Suddenly anyone could make instant ramen by simply adding boiling water.

Today, it's estimated that around 100 billion servings of instant ramen are consumed globally every year.

Miso Soup

Around three-quarters of the Japanese population eat miso soup at least once a day, making it one of the most frequently consumed foods in the country. Made from traditional flavours, the soup is one of the foundations of Japanese food. Although the delicious and highly nutritious soup can now be found all over the world, it came from very humble beginnings.

It’s believed the soup was introduced to Japan well over a millennia ago, sometime during the 6th or 7th century AD. It was brought to the country by Chinese Buddhist monks in the form of a dish called hishio, a mixture of soybeans and salt that was either eaten as is or spread onto other foods. The Japanese turned the dish into a paste creating miso and sparking a culinary revolution.

From the 12th century onwards, the Samurai embraced the energy-giving properties of miso paste and began mixing it with a savoury broth leading to the birth of miso soup. Its nutritional values, as well as its simplicity, made it a staple during times of financial hardship. In the centuries that followed, the soup’s popularity spread across the country and was being enjoyed by the rich and poor alike.

It has remained on the Japanese table ever since.

Umami

Many in the western world are taught in school about the four tastes – salty, sweet, bitter and sour. However, western science has now embraced a fifth taste called umami. The word umami derives from the Japanese word umai, which means ‘delicious’ and can best be described as a savoury taste. It was discovered over a century ago in 1908, by a chemist and professor at Tokyo Imperial University called Kikunae Ikeda.

The story goes that whilst consuming a seaweed dish, Ikeda noticed he was experiencing another taste that was distinct from sweet, sour, bitter or salty. He had discovered glutamate, a common amino acid found in all protein-containing foods such as meat, fish, cheese, milk and many vegetables. He labelled the taste of glutamate as umami.

When your taste buds detect the presence of umami the human brain is informed that it’s eating something that contains protein, an essential part of the human diet.

Since its discovery, umami has become a global phenomenon, inspiring chefs across the world and spawning multiple cookbooks.