Trivia on Sushi, Tempura, and Other Dishes in Tokyo’s Food Culture
Sushi is the representative dish of washoku (Japanese cuisine), and Tokyo’s Edomae-style sushi is famous in this genre. But did you know that the pioneers of this dish are actually yatai (stall or cart) sushi shops? Below are some facts about the so-called Tokyo food culture that, surprisingly, even Japanese people do not know!
Tokyo is the heart of food culture, and is where various ingredients and dishes from all over Japan gather. There are four major washoku dishes – sushi, soba (buckwheat noodles), unagi (eel), and tempura – and these dishes have a deep relationship to Edo (currently known as Tokyo), which was the center of culture during the Edo period (1603 – 1867).
During the Edo period, sushi, soba, and tempura were mainly served at stalls and carts, and the Edo townspeople loved them as dishes that had a fast food-like presence. One of the reasons behind their popularity was the fact that the ratio of single men during that era was quite high, and they preferred eating at the stalls because of the convenience and simplicity. A large chunk of Edo was destroyed by the massive fire that broke out in 1657. To restore the area, a lot of workers from rural areas flocked to Edo, and there were many samurai from the provinces that moved there under the Sankin Kotai (system wherein the daimyo (feudal lords) were required to reside in Edo for a certain period of time). Stalls that made eating quickly possible perfectly fit the temperament of the people in Edo, who were known to be impatient.
The term “Edomae” originally referred to sushi that used fish and seafood caught in “Edo no mae = Tokyo Bay (Edo Bay)”. Nigirizushi that had a slice of in-season seafood on top of bite-sized vinegared rice was also called “Edomae sushi” in the past. This style of sushi was born in the Edo period. It was also at that time, when refrigeration technologies and transportation were not yet developed, that methods aimed at keeping the seafood fresh were born – heating and simmering, marinating in vinegar and salt, or soaking in soy sauce and other sauces.
It was also during the Edo period that soba – Japan’s national food – transformed into its current style. Up until then, buckwheat flour was kneaded with hot water, molded into rice cake-like shapes, and then dipped in soup before being eaten. The noodle-shaped “sobakiri” (buckwheat noodles) that has become the base of present-day soba debuted thereafter, followed by boiled soba that is made by mixing buckwheat flour with wheat flour. The way to eat soba in the way of “iki na Edo-ryu” (refined Edo style) is to soak just a little bit of the noodles in the soup, chew 2 - 3 times, and then quickly swallow.
The term “Edomae” was apparently used in reference to unagi (eel) at first. Tokyo Bay was considered as a treasure trove of wild unagi during the Edo period. The eels caught at the mouth of Sumida River and Fukagawa were the only ones that were called “Edomae” back then, and the people of Edo loved them as an ingredient that provided them with plenty of nutrition.
Japanese people began eating unagi around 4,000 years ago, but the kabayaki style that is the mainstream today only spread right around the latter part of the Edo period. Kabayaki is when eel slices are covered in salty sweet sauce made from soy sauce, sugar, and other ingredients, and then broiled over charcoal. In Tokyo, the unagi is broiled after a round of simmering to give its meat a distinctive fluffy and soft texture. Una-don and una-ju – made by putting kabayaki on top of white rice – are very popular unagi dishes.
Tempura came to Japan around 1573 – 1603, together with Christian missionaries. It was originally deep-fried seafood from Nagasaki, and at that time, it was fried without batter, or made into a paste and then fried. The current main style of frying, wherein the ingredient is covered in batter made from wheat flour and other ingredients, came from the West in the 16th century. It was passed on to Kyoto in the 17th century, and then spread as a food stall dish in Edo in the 18th century. Today, it is not only seafood that is made into tempura, as vegetable tempura is also popular.
The dishes listed above can be eaten at specialty restaurants and shops in Tokyo.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.