No presentation on Japanese food could be considered complete without talking about rice wine and tea, Japan’s traditional and honored national drinks of old.
Sake – Kampai!
Sake is literally the drink of the gods and is found in the finest Japanese restaurants as donations at Shinto Shrines. It is made from rice, steamed, fermented, and mixed with pure water. Sake is best-drunk young, and dependent on the season and where it is from is served warm or cold.
“Chado, the Way of Tea, is based upon the simple act of boiling water, making tea, offering it to others, and drinking of it ourselves. Served with a respectful heart and received with gratitude, a bowl of tea satisfies both physical and spiritual thirst.” Sen Soshitus, Ura Senke Grand Tea Mater XV.
Tea, and in this case, O-cha (green tea), is as integral to culture in Japan. Its health benefits are considered part of the ‘proper’ education. All these factors ensure that this ancient art form thrives even in modern-day Japan.
History of Tea in Japan
The earliest ritual involving tea came from China to Japan as a part of Buddhist meditation in the 6th century. Later, in the Kamakura Period (1185 – 1333), a Japanese priest named Eisai introduced tea seeds, which became the source of much of the tea grown in Japan today.
In the 12th century, a new form of tea, matcha, was introduced. This powdered green tea, which derives from the same plant as black tea but is unfermented, was first used in religious rituals in Buddhist monasteries. By the 13th century, samurai warriors had begun preparing and drinking matcha, and the foundations of the tea ceremony were laid. By the 16th century, tea drinking had spread to all levels of society in Japan.
The most famous and still revered historical figure in the development of the tea ceremony is Sen no Rikyu. His teachings led to the development of new forms in architecture and gardens, fine and applied arts, and to the full development of sado. The principles he set forward – harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility – are still central to tea ceremony today.
It further developed into a “transformative practice,” and began to evolve its own aesthetic, in particular that of wabi. Wabi (meaning quiet or sober refinement, or subdued taste)” is characterized by humility, restraint, simplicity, naturalism, profundity, imperfection, and asymmetry [emphasizing] simple, unadorned objects and architectural space, and [celebrating] the mellow beauty that time and care impart to materials.”
Through virtue of a long culinary past, highly influenced by Korean and Chinese practices, the Japanese have developed a sophisticated, yet simple cuisine highly customized to the change of seasons. The traditional Japanese diet is no doubt one of the healthiest in the world and thankfully tofu, miso, sushi, green tea, and soba are now familiar to people outside of Japan.
The basic concept of fish preparation in Japan is suggested by the following proverb: “Eat it raw first of all, then grill it, and boil it as the last resort.” The taste and texture of fish is best appreciated when it is very fresh and eaten raw.
Sashimi is the heart and soul of Japanese cuisine. Some consider it to be the piece de resistance of every Japanese meal. Sashimi becomes the material used to create a landscape of food, like a miniature Japanese garden but richer and more sensual. Haiku insists on using the finest and freshest fish as possible.
In Japan the word sushi refers to a broad range of food prepared with sumeshi, vinegared rice.
Sushi is not only the most famous Japanese food, but also one of the most popular among Japanese and non Japanese. Sushi comes in many forms: the classical nigiri zushi (small rice balls with fish and other small pieces of food on top), gunkan zushi (seafood in small cups made of sushi rice and seaweed), norimaki (sushi rolls), temaki zushi (sushi rice, seafood and other food in cones made of seaweed), chirashi zushi (seafood spread over sushi rice), inari zushi (sushi rice in small bags of deep fried tofu) and many more. But one ingredient is always present: sushi rice, cooked Japanese rice flavored with sushi vinegar.
Sushi was originally a means of preserving fish by fermenting it in boiled rice where the fermented fish was eaten and the rice discarded. Sushi without fermentation appeared during the Edo period (1600 – 1867) with the use of vinegar to sour the rice, and sushi was finally united with sashimi at the end of the eighteenth century, when the hand-rolled type, nigiri-sushi, was devised. And since has evolved into an artful, unique dining experience. In its earliest form, dried fish was placed between two pieces of vinegared rice as a way of making it last. The nori (seaweed) was added later as a way to keep one’s fingers from getting sticky. This can be eaten as is, or is often dipped into shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) and then eaten. Much care is put into the creation of the dish and the man methods of preparing the food indicate the importance of appearance.
Rice was introduced to Japan from China in 300 B.C.E., salting fish 200 B.C.E., storing fish 100 C.E., fermenting fish with rice in 200 C.E. and by 1500 C.E. contemporary style sushi was bourn.
A few of the sources:
(“Introduction: Chanoyu, the Art of Tea” in Urasenke Seattle Homepage).