Japan The gastronomic paradise and its Indian connection
NEW DELHI, (IANS) – From the most delicate gyozas of Gion to the fun izakayas of Hiroshima-a city that transformed its tragic past to become the center of nightlife, to Tokyo’s modern sushiyas, Japan is a foodie paradise, offering near-perfect bites, whether it’s street takoyaki or a royal kaiseki meal that you booked yourself in for. However, an Indian from Tokyo may question the wisdom of kare raisu!
Curry rice in Japan is a staple, but for anyone high on the complexity of Indian spices, kare is a pale imitator of flavors from the subcontinent. In fact, Japanese curry is distinctly Japanese (and should be considered as such without referring to Indian cuisine) – gooey, sweet, and with virtually none of the spices we recognize as Indian.
At best it is reminiscent of some of the Indian Chinese sauces we serve in India. But whatever its taste, kare has Indian or Anglo-Indian roots.
In the Meiji era of the 19th century, as Japan opened up to outside influences after following nearly 200 years of Edo period isolationist policies, a class of Western foods were absorbed into the long and deep culinary traditions Japanese inspired by Buddhism.
Kare, along with the likes of korokke (croquet), katsu (cutlet) and scotch (which fueled the entire Japanese whiskey revolution in the mid-20th century), are part of this Western tradition of “yoshoku”.
Although Japan’s civilizational ties with India are long and date back to the early days of Buddhism and Buddhist travelers who passed through India, China and Japan, curry entered Japan via the British. When British Royal Navy officers were posted to Japan, they brought with them the idea of curry powder – a British invention – and curry rice dishes popular with Anglo-Indian officers.
These were taken over by the Imperial Japanese Navy and soon curry rice became popular as a mess food, gradually changing in form to become more “Japanese” in terms of flavor and ingredients used. The wheel has now come full circle with popular “katsu curry” all over the world, from Italy to Hawaii and Delhi to Chennai!
But long before the curry connection, the food of Japan – so minimalist in the way ingredients are processed and assembled, and the culinary traditions of India that we might call “maximalist” with their flavor combinations of spices in layers shared some commonalities. Buddhism which traveled from India to China to Japan and its worldview, largely in common with ancient Vedic and yogic thought, influenced the evolution of some of Japan’s unique culinary culture, still today seen as full of esoteric ritualism.
You can see the centrality of India in the Japanese worldview until Edo period (1603-1867) coinciding with the Mughal period in India. While India had already established trade contacts with Europe by this time, Thomas Roe arrived as an ambassador from the court of James I of England in Surat in 1615 and spent four years at the Mughal court. of Agra under Jahangir, negotiating trade rights and running into difficulties because of its notorious inability to procure valuable gifts for the Emperor (!) – Japan remained closed to outside influences.
Earlier contact with China and India meant that even then maps depicted only those two countries as the entire inhabited universe. Jambudvipa, a mythical continent mentioned in Indian Puranic literature, was also part of Buddhist cosmology – a vast continent that the ancients considered to be the entire inhabited world. Startling maps from the Edo period recently available online refer to this old idea of jambudvipa – showing only the three regions of India, China and Japan as the world.
In food, too, we can find a reference to ancient Indian thought if we trace the evolution of some dishes you find in modern Japanese restaurants today. One of them is donburi.
A bowl of rice with different elements of fish, meat, vegetables, etc. simmered in a sauce and served over rice, there are different varieties of donburi such as the classic “mother and child” (oyakodon), kaisendon (seafood), unadon (grilled eel) or tendon (tempura don) which all have their specific components and their ways of serving the bowl.
This popular dish, however, has its origins in temple meals during the Edo period. During the early Edo period, which saw increased urbanization, restaurants serving one-bowl meals with rice grew in popularity. These were called ‘kendon ya’, hence the term ‘don’.
But these rice bowl restaurants themselves were successors to earlier meals. In the 14th century, houhan, Japanese food writers and bloggers point out, was a temple meal where cooked vegetables were placed over rice. Vegetables and dried ingredients were chosen in five different colors and arranged nicely on the rice.
Deepening this cultural practice of using five different colors and ingredients harkens back to the Buddhist and ancient Vedic worldview of panchbhutas or panch mahabhutas, or the five elements believed to make up the world (and the human body). To this day, Vedic rituals refer to earth, fire, water, air and space, and Ayurvedic and Buddhist philosophy borrow from this thought.
If houhan had five types of vegetables above rice, symbolizing all the elements of the material word in harmony, ritual foods such as “panchamrit” or literally “five amrits” in India (raw milk, curd, honey, ganga jal and tulsi leaf) symbolizing different properties of matter may be equivalent to this bowl.
Of course, when you’re enjoying modern Japanese cuisine, those thoughts may be far from your mind. But then, if food is part of larger cultures, the civilizational links manifest themselves in the evolution of gastronomy.