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Japanese Food

Please remember that China and Japan are two separate countries.  Japan imported a lot of items and culture from China but just because they had something in China does NOT mean Japan picked it up!  In some cases Japanese food is closer to Korean food, but again one can not assume too many similarities.

Japanese Food Timeline

Food Preparation Methods

Common Ingredients Pre-1600

Food Presentation

Eating Methods

Japanese Food References and Cookbooks

Instructions for Japanese Feast attendees (from the 2002 Sword and Chrysanthemum SCA event)

Timeline (a work in progress)

(Mostly from Ishige if not noted otherwise)

Jomon Era (8000 - 400 BCE)
8000 BCE shellfish (like clams), fresh & dried fish
2000 BCE buckwheat, wheat, foxtail millet, millet (no grains were grown on a large scale, however), ryokuto bean, gourds, perilla (beefsteak plant), acorns, walnuts, Japanese chestnuts, horse chestnuts, deer, boar, dried tuna and bonito (katsuo-bushi = dried shaved  bonito)
400 BCE salt from seawater, sansho, rice, koji fermentation to make alcohol from rice
Yayoi Era (400 BCE - 250 CE)
domestic pigs, barley, deccan grass, soybeans, adzuki beans, melons, peaches
200 CE Chinese account described diet of shellfish, fish, rice, millet, raw vegetables. It said they had ginger, citrus fruits, sansho and myoga (wild ginger) but do not know how to use them in cooking. It also said the Japanese were fond of alcohol.
Kofun Era (250 - 710 CE) 
fermentation technology introduced from China that allowed invention of shoyu (soy sauce) and miso
400's Korean named Susukori gave brewed alcohol to Emperor - introduced new brewing method.
694-710  Excavated pottery marked "carp shiokara" - shiokara = fish, shellfish, or squid pickled with 25-30% salt in watertight container. Used as a side dish.
600's Nihon Shoki contains description of Empress Shinko making kamaboko (grilled fishcake) link
Nara Era (710 - 794)
600's-834 Japanese cultural embassies were sent to China to absorb culture - brought back many foods & preparation ideas which were copied.
togashi (Chinese cakes)
dairy products introduced but never caught on. Emperor and court used dairy products like medicine.
700's chewed rice mash alcohol
Heian Era (794 - 1192)
700's-900's narezushi (matured sushi)- salted freshwater fish and boiled rice sealed in jar. Rice was discarded and fish was sliced and eaten as savory food or mashed into paste.
815 tea served to the Emperor by Eichu, a Japanese man who had studied in China for 30 years.
900's 15 types of sake were known at court
Kamakura Era (1192 - 1336)
wide use of suribachi to make walnut and sesame paste - popularized vegetable aemonos
Muromachi Era (1392 - 1568)
  spread of umeboshi from Zen monastaries to the samurai class
1400's other types of sushi developed - salted fish and boiled rice sealed for shorter time
Momoyama Era (1568 - 1600)
Edo Era (1600  - 1868)
1600's Sweet potato, alcohol from sweet potato
1673 Oysters cultivated in Hiroshima (Hosking 68)
1800's making fruit wines

Food Preparation Methods:

Popular food preparation in the 9th Century (other than rice):

yakimono - grilled meat or fish
nimono - simmered
mushimono - steamed
atsumono - soups of chopped vegetables, fish, or meat
nikogori - jellied fish (simmered with seasonings)
namasu - raw fish in vinegar sauce
aemono - seaweed or fish in strong or thick dressing
tsukemono - salt pickles

It is important to remember that while most European fare relies very heavily on oil in its cooking methods (sauteeing, frying, deep frying) Japanese cuisine relies heavily on water for steaming and simmering. There was really only one fried food before the Portuguese introduced breading and deep frying (early tempura). It was called "Chinese Cakes" or togashi and consisted of a flour-based dough that was deep fried in sesame oil as a sumptuous dessert for the rich. Even tempura didn't really catch on widely until the 18th century, due to its heavy, oily taste.

A typical Heian banquet was primarily fish and wild fowl with few vegetables. One description listed (Ishige 74):

himono - dried food, i.e. salted salmon or pheasant, dried abalone simmered (nimono), dried & grilled octopus (yakimono)
namamono - fresh food, i.e. raw fish, shellfish or fowl served plain (sashimi) or in vinegar dressing (namasu) or grilled (yakimono)
kubotsuki - fermented or dressed food, i.e. jellyfish or fish aemono, salt-fermented fish or giblets (shiokara)
kashi - desserts, i.e. togashi Chinese Cakes, pine nuts, dried chestnuts, acorns, jujube, pomegranate, peach, apricot, persimmon, citrus fruit.

All the food was set out in individual portions on a banquet table ahead of time; more cold dishes than hot. After the main feast was done, a less formal drinking party commenced, with loads of sake, konton noodle soup, other hot soups, and elaborate fish or fowl dishes, such as grilled fish stuffed with nuts and seaweed (tsutsumiyaki) or a pheasant cooked in front of the guests.

Common Ingredients Pre-1600:

Animals that existed in Japan but weren't eaten for much of the period because of Buddhist prohibitions against eating animals (things in the sea don't count as "animals"): various birds (incl. quail, duck, pheasant), deer, monkey, boar, bear, oxen

Eggs: duck, quail

Fish: carp, sea bream, salmon (sake), trout, yellowtail (hamachi), mackerel, bonito (dried & shaved), sardines and other small fish, fish eggs, fish fry, various parts of fish i.e. ovaries

Shellfish and other sea creatures: abalone, clams, scallops, crab, shrimp, octopus, squid, jellyfish, sea squirt

Sea vegetables: konbu, wakame, nori, agar-agar, hijiki, many other kinds

Grains: LOTS of rice, millet

Beans: green soybeans (edamame), other soybeans (used for tofu and miso), adzuki beans

Vegetables: daikon radish, root vegetables similar to carrots and turnips (kabu, komatsuna), burdock root (gobo), potato-like roots (satoimo, satsumoimo), sweet potato (yamaimo), edible grasses, Japanese eggplant, bamboo shoots, chrysanthemum greens, asian spinach, mustard greens, Chinese cabbage (hakusai)

Mushrooms: shiitake, maitake, matsutake, enokitake, shimeji

Fruits: ume (acidic member of the apricot family, usually pickled with red shiso or made into umezu, juice), peaches, pomegranate, persimmons, citron, yuzu

Nuts: Gingko nuts, chestnuts, pine nuts, walnuts, acorns


sansho - seed pods made into "pepper", young leaves called kinome
bonito flakes (katsuobushi)
many different types of seaweed
sesame seeds (gomi)
tamari - period soy sauce was actually closer to tamari because modern soy sauce is made with a lot of wheat
hishio - general term for fermented products, could be made from fish, soybeans, barley,and other ingredients
sake (brewed from rice)
mirin (sweet rice wine)
umezu (from ume fruit)
ginger (shoga and mioga)
ponzu (from citron)
shiso (perilla or beefsteak plant)
mitsuba (trefoil)

Some definitely post-1600's foods: 

wheat flour bread and noodles (udon)
chickens (first raised for eggs, not considered food source)
cows, milk, cheese - milk was a rarity; considered medicinal along with sugar

Food Presentation:

The presentation of food has always been very important to the Japanese; it's not just a sushi thing. Formal meals were always served in individual portions, each carefully arranged visually.

Some typical treatments include:

Heaping mound with garnish on top
Fan of slices or long skinny items with garnish at the base of the fan shape (although base of fan does not necessarily face the eater)
Odd number of items lined up with garnish at side
One single perfect-shaped item with garnish on top or at side
Item on a leaf

Examples of garnishes:

Mound of sesame seeds or fish eggs (roe)
Edible leaves - chrysanthemum, kinome, shiso
Citrus peel in various shapes
Curls of root vegetables
root vegetables cut into shapes - leaves, flowers

The placement of dishes in front of the diner is also very important. For various types of meals there are specific locations for specific dishes. This can be compared to the modern western placement of glasses and eating utensils when setting a table.

Eating methods:

The Japanese were described by a Chinese visitor in 200CE as eating with fingers from a dish with attached base. 

In the Nara period ambassadors to China brought back with them eating methods and etiquette that lasted through the Heian era. This included eating with chopsticks (hashi), which filtered to the lower classes and has remained the primary eating method to this day. The Chinese used spoons for serving dishes and eating rice and soups, but the Japanese customs of individual portions, eating sticky rice and bringing the bowl directly to the mouth for drinking soups made the spoon unnecessary. Court banquets modeled after the Chinese included metal and glass dishes and metal spoons for eating rice and liquids but those materials were too expensive for the average person and so their use died out with the decline of the courts. 


All content copyright the author, Jennifer Munson munson.jennifer@gmail.com The author makes no guarantees for instructions and recipes on this site; neither does she accept responsibility for their outcomes. Verbatim copies may be made for educational purposes only provided they contain original copyright marking.

This page created September 4, 2002

Last updated August 02, 2005