by Josh Schlachet
The Poetics of Healthy Food in Edo Japan
Urugome ha / uchi wo oginai / katsu wo tome / kiryoku wo mashite / kiniku shozuru
Rice fills you up
Satisfies your hunger
Increases your energy
And creates your skin and flesh
In the grand scheme of Japanese poetic achievement, this ode to rice may seem rather prosaic. Yet the author likely composed it for a reason quite different than displaying lyrical mastery. By the middle of the Edo period (1603-1868), chefs, doctors, and others began to adopt a variety of creative means to spread ideas about what a healthy diet should look like, bending genre conventions to serve as conduits for dietary advice.
The didactic poem—designed to educate as much as entertain—was an especially powerful example, offering concise snippets of knowledge in an easily digestible format. Despite the contemporary global popularity of the three-line, 5-7-5 syllable haiku, the longer waka (literally “Japanese poem”) has been the more historically significant style, consisting of five lines, 5-7-5-7-7 syllables each. “Japanese Poems on Food” (Shokuhin kokka), a 1787 compilation of food-related poetry, borrows the waka style to sing the praises of healthy foods and warn about the dangers of eating the wrong things. This month’s installment of Flavors Past offers a taste of these poems and hopefully a glimpse into how some iconic ingredients fit into Japan’s culinary history.
Satsuma imo / hii yashinaite / jin wo mashi / kyoboshi kiryoku wo / oginai to shire
Sweet potatoes are known to
Nourish your stomach and intestines
Improve your kidneys, and
Compensate for low energy
Sweet potatoes earned their reputation as balls of energy and nourishment when they helped stave off starvation during the Great Famines of the Edo period. When grain was scarce, areas that grew sweet potatoes like the southern island of Kyushu could provide more food to their residents. Today, many still associate sweet potatoes with hearty meals, right down to the trucks selling hot roasted spuds on the side of the road.
Sushi ha yoku / oketsu oba kasu / nou aredo / tonsan wo nashi / eki ha nage mono
Sushi helps poor blood circulation
Though it can be useful
It causes indigestion
And has no real benefit
We think of Japanese food as among the healthiest cuisines in the world (for good reason), but eating right is not always intuitive, and past impressions of some dishes may come as a surprise. Even sushi, perhaps the most iconic of Japan’s healthy foods, was sometimes looked upon with skepticism during the Edo period. Sushi (in any form that we might recognize) was quite new at the time, and the potential dangers to your stomach of eating lightly vinegared (or later raw) fish before refrigeration were real. Recognizing food as healthy is a process, and today the idea of sushi having “no real benefit” is nearly unthinkable.
Kakigai ha / uchi wo totonoe / katsu wo tome / shugo no hanketsu / tandoku wo chisu
Oysters settle your stomach
Satisfy your hunger
And cure overheating and
Redness of the skin after drinking
This poem on oysters too may surprise us. Absent are any concerns over freshness, handling, or contaminants, many of which stem from more recent questions of water purity. The sense of healthfulness of oysters is overwhelmingly positive, and it seems they could come in handy after a long night of celebration.
Sobakiri ni / suica oushin / tanuki no mi / kurumi yamamomo / furo ni imu beshi
When eating soba noodles
You should avoid watermelon, yellow fish
Tanuki meat, walnuts, and mountain peaches
And do not take a bath
“Japanese Poems on Food,” like many dietary guides of the time, concludes with a section on foods to avoid eating in combination (kuiawase). Soba noodles, far and away the most popular fast food of the Edo period, carried a strange and durable taboo. Make sure not to dip yourself in a hot bath after eating them—the noodles may continue to swell in your stomach causing bloating and maybe even an explosion. Alas, the very same reason why many of the best ramen spots still don’t allow take-out. Happy and healthy eating to all this holiday season, and please keep an eye out for a special New Year’s edition of Flavors Past next month.
Josh Schlachet is a Ph.D. candidate in Japanese cultural and culinary history at Columbia University with a focus on the history of food and health in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He got his start in food at the Culinary Institute of America and followed his passion to Kagoshima and Tokyo, Japan. The Gohan Society’s mission is near to Josh’s heart, and he wants to thank every one of you for your interest and support.