The global popularity of Japanese food has never been greater, as underscored by the recent decision of the United Nations’ cultural agency, UNESCO, to add traditional Japanese cuisine to its “intangible world heritage” list. It’s easy to think that the Japanese cuisine we know and enjoy today has an ancient, dynamic, and delicious history and that Japan has always been a nation of foodies.
In reality, for much of Japan’s history, Japanese food wasn’t that good (unremarkable if not downright awful, in fact) and there wasn’t much of it to go around. That’s one of the central insights of “Slurp: A Social and Culinary History of Ramen – Japan’s Favorite Noodle Soup” by historian Barak Kushner of the University of Cambridge. While Japan’s iconic noodle dish is certainly the centerpiece of this book (it begins with a recounting of Kushner’s first trip to an Ichiran ramen shop), “Slurp” is a broader exploration of the history and dramatic evolution of Japanese cuisine and food culture into the phenomenon that we see today.
In a way, the development of ramen and other modern types of Japanese food was a rather unlikely story from a historical standpoint. For example, meat eating was banned during the 268 year rule of the Tokugawa shoguns that ended in the late 19th century, and was treated as a cultural taboo that probably wasn’t that much different from the way we would think about eating insects or rats. Think about it: so many of the Japanese foods that we know today (including ramen, yakitori and Kobe beef to name just a few) feature meat as a central ingredient. But they not only did not exist until the last 150 years, they could not have existed by law.
One of the key things that changed this was the modernization of Japan starting in the late 1800’s and its opening to the outside world. Indeed, one of the ideas I took away from “Slurp” is the importance of foreign, cross-cultural influence on the evolution of cuisine. Although Japanese certainly benefited from the introduction of such things as noodles and soy sauce from China earlier in its history, the process of culinary contact appears to have been slow and relatively limited, especially during the Tokugawa era when the country was mostly closed to foreigners. The result was a very uninteresting culinary scene. However, the Meiji era opened the flood gates to such contact and caused a gradual but profound change in tastes and food culture, as the Japanese were introduced to Western and Western-style food and large numbers of Chinese migrants brought their cuisine to Japan. Much of what we think of as “Japanese cuisine” today is a complex mix of these various local and foreign influences.
There was also a national security angle to the rise of modern Japanese food culture. Japanese leaders of the Meiji era took the idea “you are what you eat” both literally and seriously. They were concerned about the threat of Western imperialism and believed that Japan needed to up its agricultural production, as well as adopt aspects of foreign cuisine in order to ensure a healthy, strong population that could stand up to foreign encroachment. Japan began to produce and consume a wide variety of products such as meat, dairy (the Japanese affinity for cheese and milk seems significantly greater than any of its Asian neighbors), and a variety of other domestic and Western foodstuffs. Additionally, as the Japanese government began entertaining more visiting dignitaries, there was a conscious effort to improve the cuisine and show that Japan was a civilized country worthy of respect.
I found “Slurp” to be an enjoyable and fascinating read, as a fan of both Japanese food and world history. In addition to ramen, Kushner tells some colorful stories about such things as the introduction of curry to Japan and the relatively recent rise of 100% white rice as a daily feature of the Japanese diet. There’s a lot more in this book that I will leave to you to discover on your own. While Kushner’s prose is easy to follow for a general audience, keep in mind that “Slurp” was written for the academic community, so his deep exploration of certain details may seem a bit pedantic for some readers.
The book recently became available in paperback, making it much more affordable for a broader population than the original hardcover version that was priced more appropriately for university libraries. If you’re interested in Japanese cuisine and how it came to be, you should definitely pick it up.