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From Jomon to Nara: Feasting at the Ancient Table
One can’t help but feel the Japanese were always destined to enjoy a fabulous food culture. Back in the early Jomon period, circa 7500 BC early residents of the Japanese archipelago were dining on shellfish sashimi before they had even discovered the wheel. Or, for that matter, the table. Archaeologists have discovered remnants of their early meals of hamaguri Venus clams in many coastal areas.
Several centuries later substantial villages had sprung up around freshwater springs, and the post-Palaeolithic plat du jour swelled to include nuts, fruits, wild boar, fish and tubers. They were already eating the modern-day favourites tai sea bream, madai snapper, kurodai black snapper and suzuki sea bass, and creating the sophisticated Jomon cord-marked pottery that gives this period its name.
Just as now, technological innovation significantly changed lives. By 2000 BC Japanese fishermen were using the toggle harpoon. This double-headed spear was near impossible to detach from even the largest of sea creatures, allowing them to hunt whale and dolphin, important sources of food and oil.
It was around this time that they began to eat uni sea urchin, the seafood that Anthony Bourdain would describe, around 4000 years later, as one of his top three Japan dining favorites. Yes, the Japanese have been eating this stuff for four millennia.
It was towards the end of the Jomon Period (which is roughly classified as stretching from 14000 to 300 BC depending on which archaeologist takes your fancy) rice was introduced from mainland north Asia, and the industrious folks of Kyushu began to adopt a way of life markedly different from that of their northern counterparts. They began wet rice farming.
At the risk of stating the obvious, rice is fundamental to Japanese society, culture and cuisine. “The symbolic place of rice in the Japanese meal is signaled by the use of the word gohan to mean either “cooked rice” or “meal”, depending on the context, the Japan Culinary Academy’s authoritative ‘Introduction to Japanese Cuisine’ explains. Even in the 21st Century, a majority of Japanese won’t consider a meal a real meal unless it is accompanied by rice. Those Jomon folk were clearly onto something.