Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Japanese Dinner, 1887

I am always interested in the dining experiences of travelers (“foreigners,” if you will) – and the further back in time, the more interesting, I think. In the nineteenth century, not too many Westerners had eaten Japanese food. There is a wonderfully comprehensive description of such a meal in Strange teas, dinners, weddings and fetes; (1887.)


The dinner was given at the Koyokan, a club-house in the city of Tokio, so called from the abundance of maple trees by which it is surrounded; koyo meaning the red maple leaves of autumn, and kan meaning house.

We took off our shoes at the door, and those who had not been sufficiently provident to bring with them a pair of wool slippers, entered in their stocking feet.

We were at once greeted by our host and hostess. Japanese ladies do not often act the hostess at a dinner-party, but usually remain in the back-ground. Our friend, however, having travelled considerably in America and Europe, was advanced in his ideas, and gave his wife a wife's place.

Several beautiful Japanese girls were in waiting who at once conducted us to a spacious dining- room on the second floor.

Going out on the long piazza adjoining, we saw in the distance the bay with its calm blue waters and white-winged boats ; and to the right Mount Fuji, her peerless head losing itself in ambient clouds; while at our feet lay a bewildering maze of dwelling houses, shops, and temples.

The floor of the porch was polished smooth as marble, and the patterns in the lattice work were graceful combinations of maple leaves.

As we re-entered the dining-room our first impression was that of a vast empty apartment. The only visible signs of preparation for our coming were the cushions upon which we were to sit, and the hibachi or fire bowls, over which we were to toast our fingers. We sat down upon the mats, trying hard to fold our limbs under us a la Japanese, but our attempts were for the most part very awkward.

Then came some introductions. Our host had invited two friends to meet us, Mr. and Mrs. Suyita. Mr. Suyita, being a Japanese of the old school and very ceremonious, bowed low, so low that his honorable nose quite kissed the floor; and remembering that when we are in Turkey we must do as the Turkeys do, we endeavored to salute him in the same formal manner.

At length recovering our equilibrium we resumed our old position on the mats, tried to look comfortable, and began to study the details of our surroundings. The cushions upon which we sat were covered with beautiful dark-blue crepe relieved here and there by branches of maple leaves, the rich October coloring making a striking but exquisite contrast with the more sombre back- ground. The mats were marvellously fine, and so clean that one might suppose our party the first that had ever assembled there.

At one end of the room just above the toko-no-ma, or raised platform on which all the ornaments of the room are placed, was a kakemono, or picture scroll, the work of a celebrated painter named Isanenobu, and very old. On this platform stood a large vase of brown wicker work so wondrously fine that at a little distance it appeared like an elegant bronze. In this vase were branches of flowering plum and cherry arranged as only Japanese know how to arrange flowers. The ceilings were panels of cryptomeria, and without either paint or varnish, were beautiful enough for a prince's palace.

This immense room was divided by sliding doors into three apartments. The doors were covered with paper. Here, too, was the prevailing pattern, for over the rich brown background of the paper were maple-leaf designs in gold and silver, and above the doors were paintings of maple branches with foliage of scarlet, maroon, and every shade of green. On the opposite side of the room was another raised platform. Here also were two large vases, and in them branches of flowering shrubs, some of which were covered with lichens. A bronze ornament of rare workmanship stood between, for which many a seeker of curiosities would give hundreds of dollars.

Soon beautiful serving-maids entered and placed in front of us trays on which were tea and sweet-meats. In Japan the dessert comes first. The trays were ornamented with carvings of maple leaves, the tea-cups were painted in the same design, and the cakes themselves were in the shape of maple leaves, with tints as glowing, and shading almost as delicate as though painted by the early frosts of autumn. We ate some of the cakes and put some in our pockets to carry home. It is etiquette in Japan to take away a little of the confectionery, and paper is often provided by the hostess in which to wrap it. The native guests put their packages in their sleeves, but our sleeves were not sufficiently capacious to be utilized in this way. I have been told that at a foreign dinner given to General Grant in Japan, some of the most dignified officials, in obedience to this custom, put bread and cake, and even butter and jelly, into their sleeves to take home.

After our first course came a long interval during which we played games and amused ourselves in various ways. At the end of this time dinner was announced. Once more we took our places on the cushions and silently waited, wondering what would happen next. Soon the charming waiters again appeared and placed on the floor in front of each visitor a beautiful gold lacquer tray, on which were a covered bowl of fish soup, and a tiny cup of sake. Sake is a light wine distilled from rice, and is of about the strength of table sherry. A paper bag containing a pair of chopsticks also rested upon the tray; and taking the chopsticks out, we uncovered our soup and began to look around to see how our Japanese friends were eating theirs. We shyly watched them for a moment. It looked easy; we were sure we could do it, and confidently attempted to take up some of the floating morsels of fish; but no sooner did we touch them, than they coyly floated off to the other side of the bowl. We tried again, and again we failed; and once again, but with no better success. At last our perseverance was partially rewarded, and with a veni-vidi-vici air we conveyed a few solid fragments to our mouths, drank a little of the soup, and then covering our bowl, as we saw others do, we waited for something else to happen. In the meantime large china vessels of hot water had been brought in and our host kindly showed us their use. Emptying his sake cup, he rinsed it in the hot water, and then re-filling it with wine, presented it to a friend who emptied his cup, rinsed and re-filled it in the same way, and gave it in exchange for the one he received.

The next course consisted of fish, cakes made of chestnuts, and yams; the third, of raw fish with a very pungent sauce; the fourth, of another kind of fish and ginger root. After this we were favored with music on the ningenkin. This is a harplike instrument giving forth a low weird sound, utterly unlike anything I have ever heard called music. The fifth course consisted of fish, ginger root, and "nori," a kind of seaweed.

After this we had more music, this time on the koto. The koto is also something like a harp in appearance. The performer always wears curious ivory thimble-like arrangements on the tips of her fingers, and to my uneducated ear, the so-called music is merely a noise which any one could make. We were next favored with singing. This, too, was low and plaintive, bearing about the same resemblance to the singing of a European that the cornstalk fiddle of a country schoolboy bears to the rich mellow tones of a choice violin. This same singing, however, is regarded as a great accomplishment in Japan. The singer on this occasion was a rare type of Japanese beauty, fair as a lily, with hands and feet so delicate and shapely that she was almost an object of envy. Her coiffure, like the coiffures of all Japanese women, was fearfully and wonderfully made. Her dress was of the richest crepe, quite long and very narrow, opening in front to display a gorgeous petticoat, and with square flowing sleeves that reached almost to the floor. Her obi, or girdle, was brocade stiff with elegance, and probably cost more than all the rest of the costume. The mysteries of the voluminous knot in which it was tied at the back I will not pretend to unravel. Her face and neck were powdered to ghostly whiteness, and her lips painted a bright coral; altogether she looked just like a picture, not like a real woman at all.

After this came another course consisting of fowl and fish stewed together in some incomprehensible way. There was also an entree of pickled fish. The eighth course consisted of fish and a vegetable similar to asparagus; the ninth of rice and pickled daikon. Rice is the staple dish, and, according to Japanese custom, is served last. The daikon is a vegetable somewhat resembling a radish. It grows to an enormous size. Indeed it is a common saying among vegetable-growers that one daikon grown in the province of Owari, takes two men to carry it, and that two Satsuma turnips make a load for a pony. This sounds somewhat incredible, and yet it is stated for a fact that a daikon was not long ago presented to the emperor which measured over six feet in girth. These monster turnips are generally sound to the core; and to the Japanese they are an exceedingly delicate and palatable aliment; with us the odor of them alone is sufficient to condemn them.

Last of all came tea which was served in the rice bowls without washing them. The dinner lasted four hours ; and when at the close we attempted to rise from the mats, our limbs were so stiff from sitting so long in this uncomfortable position that we could hardly move.

We put on our shoes soon after, and were then conducted round the grounds. In the same enclosure was a summer rest-house for the Mikado. We looked inside for the shoji, or sliding doors, were all open, and we could see the whole length of the house. Here, as in all Japanese houses, the mats were the only furniture. They were beautifully fine, and the rooms though empty were attractive.

After walking about for a little while we went through a long calisthenic exercise of bows, and with warmest thanks to our kind host and hostess, stowed ourselves away in jinrikishas, and rode off to our homes.

This of course is not a description of an ordinary dinner in Japan. Indeed it was a very extraordinary one given in honor of a party of Americans about to return to the United States. The common people dine with very little formality. Bread, beef, milk and butter are unknown to them. They live principally on rice, fish, and vegetables, served in very simple fashion; and they eat so rapidly that dyspepsia is even more common in Japan than in America.

From the Chinese-Japanese Cook Book by Sara Bosse And Onoto Watanna [Chicago, c1914], here is a nice fish dish:

Tembani of Mackerel (Fish Delicacy)
One good-sized mackerel; one fresh radish; one cupful of syou sauce; inegar; orange or lemon peel; one half cupful of cooking juice.
Clean the fish, and remove all bones. Cut into half-inch dice, sprinkle with salt, and let stand for about half an hour. Wash the radish and cut into thin pieces, then throw it into the salted, boiling water. Boil for about five minutes, then strain off all water and add half a cupful of syou sauce and the same amount of cooking juice. Let all boil up, then add the fish and let it simmer for about twenty-five minutes. Remove from the fire, and before serving add a tablespoonful of vinegar. Place on a hot platter, and sprinkle with grated lemon or orange peel. Serve with boiled rice.
I am always interested in the dining experiences of travelers (“foreigners,” if you will) – and the further back in time, the more interesting, I think. In the nineteenth century, not too many Westerners had eaten Japanese food. There is a wonderfully comprehensive description of such a meal in Strange teas, dinners, weddings and fetes; (1887.)


Anonymous said...

I'm impressed by the number of things referred to by their Japanese names, not some sort of "translation." The recipe sounds interesting - I wonder what is meant by "cooking juice"?

Greg Ralph said...

Thank you for the transcription. The author clearly had a fine aesthetic sense, and very open to new things.

Shay said...

I believe this is the same cookbook that offers a recipe for whale.