Thursday, April 9, 2015

Preparations of a Feast - Part 1

Coming up this Labor Day weekend will be my third, and most ambitious, kingdom feast yet. I am doing a period Early Edo feast, inspired by the feast the Emperor of Japan hosted to celebrate the second Shogun of the Edo Period. There are so many facets to this feast that I need to discuss, not just the food but the culture around the food, and my Laurel found the best way to do this would be a series of blogs. She is right, as per normal on things, so I'm starting a multi-part discussion on my feast and my process.

I wanna start this off by discussing Japan as a culture, how it got to this point and what we can glean from the food. One of the things I find fascinating is I can learn so much from a culture based on what/how they eat! In studying the food and meal preparation of this feast I have learned a great deal about Japanese culture and I feel enriched like never before.

The first thing to understanding this feast was for me to wrap my head around the time period this took place. This is just after the end of the greatest Japanese civil war, the Sengoku Jidai or Waring States Period. It was a time of great strife that lasted decades, with clans rising and falling and the whole social structure receiving a massive overhaul by the end going into the Edo period. What we know from that time is that with life in so much turmoil for the populous, many traditions were held tightly to the chest and ritual habits of everyday life became sacred and gained great importance. People NEEDED some stability in their lives, it's a human trait, and that's evidenced by many of the cultural shifts and changes. This also applies to their food.

Beginning in what in Europe would be referred to as the 14th century, the Honzen-ryōri (I'll use just Hozen for short) is a style of meal designed to structure and organize the new warrior culture that arose in the period just before the Waring States. The meal would organize and "tame" the new samurai class of nobility, and into the Edo period this would become THE meal of the nobility. The traditional Honzen would begin with 3 rounds of drinks, and be followed with three round last of food with 7/5/3 courses going down. 

Looking at the typical portions and type of food for the Hozen also reflects aspects of the culture. Nothing on the trays were larger than what a pair of chopsticks could reasonably hold, the soup was mostly thin to allow ease of sipping and almost every dish had an illusion or imagery attached. Ingredients were vegetable, rice (a staple), noodles, fish/marine life and water fowel. Sauces were few and far between, and most food was eaten "fresh" in some form or fashion. 

Knowing this, what can I gleam from the culture based on the food? Their main source of protein being fish, we can see that the Japanese culture will focus heavily on water and will have many myths/cultural stigma involved in such. Fishermen will be well respected, and you can imagine that there is predominately fresh food served to everyone. With each bite of food no larger than what chopsticks can reasonably hold, eating to excess or with great gutso is not a thing easily done. The Japanese developed a cultural stigma with shoveling food, and the Hozen has strict rules on how much to eat of each course before you move onto the next. The lack of sauces imply that the culture honors purity, enjoying and relishing the pure taste of the dish instead of an altered flavor profile. This again is evidence in Japanese culture, an almost isolationism that promotes Japan over all. Fresh food being served regularly is a sign of this purity as well. The over use of illusion food, of artistic presentation being almost more important to amount/quality of the food highlights a culture striving for high arts and trying to separate itself from what it may feel are barbaric roots.

Studying the food nets the same result as studying the culture, a proud people who strove for ideological purity especially after decades of devastating war. A culture which clung to the ideals of its society, and while very expressive in the medium given is rather isolated from much influence at this time. This is a culture that honors art, and struggles to find its humanity admits the warrior struggles of the noble class. This is a people who want to be better, but on their own terms.

Next time, we will discuss more specifically what food will be served, some of its history in Japanese culture and tackling several Japanese food myths.