The foundation of modern-day cuisine in Japan was heavily influenced by the customs developed during the Edo Era. A period of economic and social growth, people began eating three meals a day instead of two, while incorporating the holy trinity of Japanese flavor (soy sauce, mirin, and sake). Food stalls were also introduced to feed busy commoners on the go. While some practices diminished over time, many continue to thrive today.
History of Edo and its people
The Edo Era began in 1603 when the Tokugawa shogunate established Edo as the capital in what is now modern day Tokyo. Lasting for 265 years, it was the most prolonged and systematic feudal military government in Japan.
Overcrowded city: Nagaya-housing as a solution for residents from all walks of life
People typically lived in long quarters of wooden housing callednagaya(lit. “long house”). The average room was 10m² and was often shared with three to four people. Each room had an earthen floor area with a hearth for cooking, and atatami mat used for both eating and sleeping.
Teishoku (meal sets) became popular with meals known as ichiju-issai(lit. “one bowl of soup and one dish) consisting of miso soup and a side dish plus the staple bowl of rice and pickles. With limited space, people often utilized street vendors known asfuriuri (lit. “swing sell”) orbotefuri (street merchants who carried wares hanging from a pole), who sold vegetables, basic condiments (soy sauce, sake, mirin, and oil), and ready-made foods.
Edo people: a.k.a. the "gourmet" and the introduction of Edo fast food
The Edo Era changed the perception of food from a means of survival to something for enjoyment. "Gourmets" began influencing food culture. Cookbooks, side dish rankings, and a seasonal food calendar known as the Hatsumono calendar were printed, allowing people to keep track of current and upcoming seasonal food.
Food stalls and restaurants were present throughout the city accommodating both the Edo people (who were often hasty and picky gourmets) and travelers. Satisfying their appetites were:
Tachi-gui Soba (Standing soba)
When the 1657 Great Fire of Meireki burned down most of Edo, eating-out became popular, andsoba (buckwheat) was a great solution for quickly served food. It first appeared as a round-shaped dumpling calledsoba-gaki but was later transformed into noodles served in a hot broth made of soy sauce and bonito flakes.
Edo-Mae Sushi (Edo style sushi)
Sushi originally began asEdo-Mae Sushi (Edo style sushi), consisting of red vinegar rice and a slice of fish from Tokyo Bay. The fish was either flavored in salt or vinegar, simmered, or soaked in a soy-sauce marinade to avoid spoiling.Edo-Mae Sushi was two to three times larger than the average modern sushi and was seen as a complete meal on the go.
Tempura was influenced by the Portuguese dishtempora: fried vegetables or fish battered with flour. Cooking oil became less expensive as production increased during the Edo period, andtempura stalls began to appear throughout the city. Edo-styletempura was served on skewers and often consumed as a snack. Mild in flavor,tempura was dipped in atentsuyu sauce made of bonito broth, mirin, sugar, and soy sauce.
Kabayaki (Grilled eel)
Eels were abundant in the Sumida River and Tokyo Bay, and were originally enjoyed whole, grilled on a skewer and served with either a miso paste or salt. Later, eels were cut-open into rectangular pieces and glazed with a sweet soy sauce (soy sauce, mirin, and sugar), known askabayaki.
Although these dishes were introduced during the Edo Era, they provide the roots of Japanese cuisine and are a way of connecting to the past. The dishes may have changed over time, but the experience is one we share with the people from the Edo Era.
Born and raised in Japan, Mary Hirata McJilton is a graduate of the University of Minnesota. While earning her degree in Global Studies and a minor in Political Science, she worked at a Japanese restaurant, was actively involved in a Japanese student group that hosted Japanese food events, and interned at Slow Food Minnesota. These experiences nurtured her curiosity around food culture and sustainability. With characteristic serendipity, she spontaneously meets new people wherever life takes her, expanding her repertoire of original Mary-stories that she loves to share over meals. In her downtime, she enjoys cooking with herbs and vegetables that she grows herself on her cozy balcony, and refreshing the Italian she learned from a stint studying abroad.