I have one of my favourite things to share with you today – a traveller’s food tale from the past. The story comes from The Washington Post of 25th November, 1888:
A JAPANESE DINNER
The Menu Something Astonishing to a Hungry American
TROUBLE IN GETTING A “SQUARE MEAL”
How the Table is Served – No Knives, Forks or Spoons, but Pine Sticks and
Toothpicks – Items on the Bill of Fare.
[The following description of a Japanese dinner is from a recent letter published in the Baldurnsville (N.Y.) Gazette and written by Mr. Otis Bigelow, a well-known Washingtonian, who is making a journey through the Orient. Mr. Bigelow is now in China, and will soon be heard from direct through the columns of THE POST.]
A Japanese table is a bright colored tray about a foot square, with the corners cut off and an edge all around to hold the little dishes, and has legs to raise it about six inches high. Let us imagine a hearty American farmer, accustomed to what he would all a good square meal, seated on the floor of his room, on newly arriving, and hungry for dinner. (This is, of course, in a first-class, purely Japanese hotel.) There being no bell, he properly claps his hands. Away in the distance, or if he occupies the second floor, down stairs he hears “Hay!” (spelled hai) and presently a little maid appears before him sitting on her knees bowing low and then sitting mute and upright. He motions to his mouth and empty stomach and says, “Dinner.” “Hay” says the little maid, but she means yes, and is gone. In a few minutes he sees a beautiful tableau.
Two maids are approaching, dressed in the same authordox fashion, except in the color of their sash, or obi, and one may have a flower sitting upright in her hair and the other a brilliant hairpin instead. The first holds a tray, or table, before her filled with dishes in her outstretched hands. The second clasps with her bare arm a large round lacquered covered box with her right hand on the cover. Both have the same attitude, with their faced inclined toward the guest; their knees bend with the same angle and their skirts cling to their peculiar forms in the same way; both go with a mincing gait with bare toes turned in. The first plants her table before him; the second places her box a little further off. Both sit on their upturned feet and simultaneously bow to the floor.
The tray contains a porcelain bowl, like a coffee cup, with a saucer-like over fitting inside, and is empty; a thin wooden bowl, lacquered, with also a cover of the same, a has soup, made, perhaps, of moss; another bowl, without cover, contains a piece of squid, or cuttle fish, with a thin liquid-like soup; the other dishes are little plates in several sizes, the largest having on it a mat made of smooth sticks of smooth sticks of glass with four or five brilliant colored threads woven through it. It is five inches square and very pretty. On it is a nice, fresh slice of raw fish covered with ice. On the smaller plates are, first, one with three slices of a large green apple; the next has three slices of purple egg plant; the next has three slices of yellow ripe cucumber salted. These slices are neatly placed. Then a larger plate has four brook trout, in a mat form with two or three little sticks thrust through to hold them together. They look nicely roasted. The last plat is a tiny one and is filled with sugar. On the top of a little white mound are three preserved red plums, so nice, red and juicy they make one’s mouth water.
Our farmer opens the empty bowl, and, seeing no bread, hands it out. The maids, after bowing, sit like the images of Amida Buddha in the attitude of contemplation and perfect silence. The maid with the box uncovers it and, taking the empty bowl, places it upon a little tray, fills it with the plain boiled rice her box contains, with a wooden paddle. There are no knives, forks, or spoons to be seen, but one of the maids points to a long envelope, decorated in colors, in a little pocket of which on one side are two toothpicks and inside are two fresh pine sticks, eight inches long by one quarter of an inch thick, a little tapering. If our farmer had been in the kitchen when his table was filled he would have seen a dozen or twenty just like it, and every one arranged in the same way. No American housewife could survey her large table, well filled for her guests, with greater satisfaction than the Japanese does hers.
Let us watch our guest at his meal. He pulls out the chop sticks and tries to hold them between his middle fingers: maid gently places them properly in his hand and he endeavours to eat some of the rice. The sticks go sideways and slip apart, and he spills the rice, and the girls begin to smile out of the corners of their eyes. Then he tries the soup and fishes out some long slippery substance that falls back again, and the girls begin to show their extremely pretty teeth. Then he lifts the bowl of squid and says, “They have given me devil fish, which I pass.” Then he tries a brook trout. “Surely, this looks natural, only they did not take the insides out.” He takes a bit. “Goodness! What is this cooked in?” The maids don’t understand, but say at a venture, “Shoya,” and titter. “Shoya!” repeats the farmer; “I want no more of it.” He then tries several other dishes and then in an agony of despair says, “By George! It is all shoya! I wish they could show me something better.” He takes a mouthful of dry, unsalted boiled rice with his fingers, and the girls laugh. Shoya is the universal Japanese sauce. It takes the place of salt and pepper with us. They do not use salt in any other form, except to cleanse their teeth and mouths. Nearly everything is cooked with shoya, except rice which is boiled plain and is eaten in the place of bread. I visited a house where they made shoya. I think the process is described in a former letter. It consists of one-third each of wheat and beans fermented. A little more than one-third of salt is added and after lying in a tank three years is pressed out for sale.
The plums now catch his eye, and with great effort he spears one with a chop stick, rolls it in the sugar, and prepares for something good at last. Oh! what a face! His mouth twists, tears come in his eyes. The mixture is of intense acid plum flavor, pucker, and salt and sugar. He cannot express his feelings forcibly enough. The maid of the tray flies from the room half scared and bursting with laugher, The maid of the rice box is as well disciplined as “the boy who stood on the burning deck,” she dares not leave until her task of filling the little rice bowl with a addle is done. Besides she had previously served this “foreign barbarian” with tea on his arrival, after pulling off his shoes, and had seen him empty the little tea-pot twenty times while he ate up all the rice four candy with no flavor in it. Our farmer at last consoles himself with a piece of stale and moldy bread he had in his pocket and says, “After all, though I am starving and cannot eat Japanese food, these little maids make this a very charming country.”
When I read these stories, I always wish I had the view of the reverse tourist. Sadly, my lack of language skills prevents me from reading and sharing the opinions of early Japanese visitors to the West. If you have some such information, I would love to hear it, please!
The recipe for the day, inspired by this story, comes from the Chinese-Japanese Cook Book by Sara Bosse And Onoto Watanna [pseud.] published in Chicago in about 1914. Perhaps this dish would have pleased the Big American Farmer of the late nineteenth century?
(Hare, Sweet and Sour)
One good-sized rabbit or hare; one cupful of vinegar; one cupful of syou sauce; one tablespoonful of salt; three tablespoonfuls of sugar; one half cupful of mirin sauce; one tablespoonful of mixed spices; one half pound of fat fresh pork; one dozen red plums; one small lime or lemon.
Take a small hare or large rabbit that has been hanging for at least two days, and after it has been skinned, and the insides removed, wash well in cold water. Cut in quarters and put in a deep dish, covering it well with the vinegar, sugar, salt, and so on, mixed with water. Add the spices also, and a quarter of a cupful of mirin sauce. Cover up well, and let it pickle in a cool place for two or three days; then remove it from the liquid and cut in small pieces. Have ready the fat pork cut in small pieces, and fry. Toss in the hare, and brown. Now have ready a covered China cook dish or casserole, and place in it the hare and pork, adding the syou sauce, a pinch of salt, pinch of the spices, and the quarter cupful of mirin sauce. Cover up tightly, and cook in a slow oven for one hour. Then prepare a dozen large red plums, removing the stones, and add them. Dissolve one teaspoonful of Kanton (Japanese gelatine) and mix with the gravy, taking care not to break the plums. Cook for another five minutes, then place on a hot platter, decorated with slices of lemon or limes, with a plum placed on top of each slice. This is good served either with white-bean cakes or rice.