Food. Like most other nations, the Japanese take three meals a day,—one on rising in the morning, one at noon, and one at about sunset. Much the same sort of food is partaken of at all these meals, but breakfast is lighter than the other two. The staple is rice which is replaced by barley, millet, or some other cheap grain in the poorer country districts,—rice with fish and eggs, and minute portions of vegetables either fresh or pickled. Beans are in particular requisition.
Buddhism has left its impress here, as on everything in Japan. To Buddhism was due the abandonment of a meat diet, now over a thousand years ago. The permission to eat fish, though that too entailed the taking of life, which is contrary to strict Buddhist tenets, seems to have been a concession to human frailty. Pious frauds, moreover, came to the rescue. One may even now see the term "mountain whale" (yama-kujira) written up over certain eating-houses, which means that venison is there for sale. The logical process is this:—A whale is a fish. Fish may be eaten. Therefore, if you call venison "mountain whale," you may eat venison. Of course no actual prohibition against eating flesh, such as existed under the old regime, obtains now. But the custom of abstaining from it remains pretty general; and though beef and pork were introduced at the time of the late revolution, the fondness for them soon waned, as did that for bread which was the rage among the lowest class in 1890. The piles of loaves then displayed at every little cook-stall in Tōkyō, for the delectation of jinrikisha-men and other coolies, have vanished and been replaced by victuals of the orthodox Japanese type. Probably the poor quality of the bread, and the nasty way in which the meat was cooked, had much to do with this return to the ancestral diet.
Of beverages the chief are tea, which is taken without sugar or milk, and sake, an alcoholic liquor prepared from rice, whose taste has been not inaptly compared to that of weak sherry which has been kept in a beer-bottle. It is generally taken hot, and at the beginning of dinner. Only when the drinking-bout is over, is the rice brought in: at a long dinner, one is apt never to reach it. When dining quietly in the home circle, the Japanese habitually drink tea only. Besides that drunk out of a cup, it is rather usual to have a little poured over the last bowlful of one's rice.
The following is a specimen of the bill of fare at a Japanese banquet. The reader must understand that everything is served in small portions, as each guest has a little table to himself, in front of which he squats on the floor:—
Preliminary Course, served with sake:—suimono, that is, a kind of bean-curd soup; kuchi-tori, a relish, such as an omelette, or chestnuts boiled soft and sweet, or kamaboko, which is fish pounded and then rolled into little balls and baked; sashimi, minced raw fish; hachi-zakaa, a fine large fish, either broiled with salt or boiled with soy; uma-ni, bits of fish or sometimes fowl, boiled with lotus-roots or potatoes in soy and in a sort of liqueur called mirin; su-no-mono, sea-ears or sea-slugs served with vinegar; chawan, a thin fish soup with mushrooms, or else chawan-mushi, a thick custardy soup.
First Course (Zembu):—shiru, soup, which may be made of bean-curd, of fish, of sea-weed, or of some other material; o-hira, boiled fish, either alone or floating in soup; tsubo, sea-weed or some other appetiser, boiled in a small deep bowl or cup; namasu, raw fish cut in slices, and served with vinegar and cold stewed vegetables; aemono, a sort of salad made with bean sauce or pounded sesamum seeds; yakimono, raw fish (although the name means "broiled") served in a bamboo basket, but generally only looked at and not eaten; kō-no-mono, pickled vegetables, such as egg-plant, cabbage-leaves, or the strong-smelling radish (daikon), which is as great a terror to the noses of most foreigners as European cheese is to the noses of most Japanese.
Second Course (Ni no zen): soup, raw fish (but only if none has been served in the first course), and rice.
Such banquets as the above are of course not given every day. At smaller dinners not more than half such a menu would be represented. Quiet, well-to-do people, living at home, may have a couple of dishes at each meal—a broiled fish perhaps, and some soup, or else an omelette, besides pickles to help the rice down with. The Oriental abstemiousness which figures so largely in travellers tales, is no part of Japanese manners at all events. To make up for the comparative lightness and monotony of their food, the Japanese take plenty of it. It is the custom, too, to set food before a guest, at whatever time of day he calls. On such occasions soba is in request a sort of buckwheat vermicelli, served with soy and the sweet liqueur called mirin; or else shiruko, that is, rice-cakes with a sauce made of red beans and sugar; or sushi, rice-cakes plastered over with fish or with seaweed on which vinegar has been sprinkled. Even when these things are not given and among the Europeanised upper classes they are now mostly abandoned—tea and cakes are always set before every guest. Many of the Japanese cakes and sugar-plums are pleasant eating. They atone to some extent for the absence of puddings and for the poorness of Japanese fruit. Japanese dishes fail to satisfy European cravings. Imagine a diet without meat, without milk, without bread, without butter, without jam, without coffee, without salad or any sufficient quantity of nicely cooked vegetables, without puddings of any sort, without stewed fruit and with comparatively little fresh fruit, the European vegetarian will find almost as much difficulty in making anything out of it as the ordinary meat-eater. If Dr. Johnson had ever partaken of such a dinner, he would surely have described the result as a feeling of satiety without satisfaction, and of repletion without sustenance. The food is clean, admirably free from grease, often pretty to look at. But try to live on it—no! The Japanese, doubtless, being to the manner born, prefer their own rice and other dishes for a continuance. At the same time, they by no means object to an occasional dinner in European style, and their appetite on such occasions is astonishing. Experts say that Japanese food, though poor in nitrogen and especially in fat, is rich in carbon, and amply sufficient to support life, provided the muscles be kept in action, but that it is indigestible and even deleterious to those who spend their time squatting on the mats at home. This would account for the healthy looks of the coolies, and for the too often dyspeptic and feeble bodily habit of the upper classes, who take little or no exercise. A foreigner forced by circumstances to rely on a Japanese diet should, say the doctors, devote his attention to beans, especially to the bean-soup called miso. Fortunately of this dish—and of this only—custom permits one to ask for a second helping (o kawari).
There is a circumstance connected with Japanese dinners that must strike every one who has seen a refectory where numbers of students, monks, soldiers, or other persons under discipline are fed, the absence of clatter arising from the absence of knives, forks, and spoons. A hundred boys may be feeding themselves with the help of chopsticks, and yet you might almost hear a pin drop in the room. Another detail which will impress the spectator less favourably is the speed at which food is absorbed. In fact, some classes—the artisans in particular—seem to make a point of honour of devoting as little time as possible to their meals. To this unwholesome habit, and to the inordinate use of pickles and of green tea, may doubtless be attributed the fact that hara ga itai ("I have a stomach-ache") is one of their commonest phrases.
Most Japanese towns of any size now boast what is called a seiyō-ryōri, which, being interpreted, means a foreign restaurant. Unfortunately, third-rate Anglo-Saxon influence has had the upper hand here, with the result that the central idea of the Japano-European cuisine takes consistency in slabs of tough beefsteak anointed with mustard and spurious Worcestershire sauce. This culminating point is reached after several courses,—one of watery soup, another of fish fried in rancid butter, a third of chickens drumsticks stewed also in rancid butter; and the feast not infrequently terminates with what a local cookery book, unhappily disfigured by numerous misprints, terms a "sweat omelette."
- Since about 1893 or 1894, small quantities of excellent peaches and pears— presumably from American stock—have been raised at Kawasaki, near Yokohama, to supply foreigners tables. None such are to be obtained in the country at large. The native nashi, though generally translated "pear," is quite a different fruit—round, wooden, and flavourless; the native peach is first-cousin to a brickbat. Of the apple, which only became common towards the close of the nineteenth century, a fairly palatable variety is grown. There are few cherries (despite the wealth of cherry-blossom), no raspberries, no currants, scarcely any gooseberries, no mulberries although the land is dotted with mulberry-bushes to feed the silkworms), no tropical fruit of any sort. Figs are scarce and poor, grapes not abundant except in the single province of Kōshū, strawberries neither good nor abundant, plums and apricots mediocre, the Japanese medlars (biwa) not to be compared with those of Southern Europe. The best fruits here are the orange, one or two kinds of melon,—and for those who like it—the persimmon, though it, too, shares in the woodenness and coarse flavour characteristic of Japanese fruits. Probably two causes have led to the result here noticed. The first is founded on the climate, the best-flavoured fruits being produced in dry climates, whereas in Japan the heat and wet come together, and make the fruit rot instead of mellowing. Thus European stock, which has improved in America and Australia, rapidly deteriorates in Japan. The second cause—itself partly dependent on the first is that the national taste for fruit is unformed, fruit never having been here regarded as a regular article of diet, and circumstances having accustomed the Japanese to prefer that such fruit as they do take should be hard.