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The Wages of Peace: Heian-period Japan’s Food Culture Thrives, Transforms
In 784 the Imperial capital upped sticks once more, and made the move, after a decade’s residency in Nagaoka-kyo, to the city that today we know as Kyoto. Back then it was called Heian-kyo, and the city gave its name to the period in which it served as the nation’s political, administrative, spiritual and cultural center, the Heian Period (794 AD to 1185 AD).
It’s name means the ‘city of peace and tranquility’, and for four centuries it was pretty much that. Untroubled by the fractious infighting, bitter rivalries, and regular, devastating civil violence that was to befall the city in later years, Heian-kyo was free to develop under its own terms. The excellent Japan-based journalist, Michael Hoffman, puts it rather nicely. “Four centuries of almost unbroken peace are an odd prelude to a martial tradition as fierce and courageous as any in the world. But so it was. The Heian aristocrat was not bred for war”.
As the 9th century loomed, China’s Tang Dynasty was in decline, and its influence upon Japan weakened considerably. Japan made strides towards individuality across great swathes of culture, and the center of this new thinking, new power, was Heian-kyo. When war is absent, cultures flourish, and nowhere is this more true than in Heian-period Kyoto, and in its food culture.
Spoons were the first to go, ditched even by the common people, in favor of the chopsticks that had once been the prerogative of the ruling elite. The Imperial Court feasts increased in their lavishness and sophistication, as the nation’s aristocratic elite discovered a taste for luxury.
We learn that Heian-period staples included the yakimono grilled fish and meat, nimono simmered food, mushimono steamed foods and soups, and shiozuke pickles. Sound familiar? Fish dishes and game were common, and feasting consisted of rice and soup, and the seasonings of vinegar, salt and hishio, the mugi wheat-based precursor of today’s ubiquitous shoyu soy sauce. Compared to the food available during the Nara years, it was a veritable cornucopia of gourmet thrills.
Alas, little detail was handed down for posterity. In the historical documents of the time, there is relatively little commentary on food and culinary habits, perhaps because, as is common at large, the histories tend to be written by men, whose knowledge of, and interest in, the affairs of the kitchen were decidedly limited.
One fascinating insight into the lives of Heian-era common folks’ eating habits comes from the pen of celebrated poetess, Sei Shonagon, she of ‘The Pillow Book’ fame. Shonagon writes, “The way carpenters eat is really odd. … The moment the food was brought, they fell on the soup bowls and gulped down the contents. Then they pushed the bowls aside and polished off the vegetables. … I suppose this must be the nature of carpenters. I should not call a very charming one.”