Sunday, April 08, 2007

Far-away Food

I've been reading two books about food in Japan: the book Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World by Theodore C. Bestor and Rice as Self by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney. Both rice and fish are key foods for Japanese people. The importance of both foods pre-dates modern Japan, but persists in modern Japanese ideas and self-image, I learned from both books. Here are a few more things I enjoyed reading about.

Both rice and fish as food and as agricultural products play a role in Japanese art and literature. The famous prints at left by Hokusai illustrate a rice-harvest scene and a fishing scene.

The association of fish with Japanese culture is reflected throughout the Tsukiji book. The author even points out that there are two Shinto shrines in the vast, modern and bustling market. One of these is dedicated to
"Suijin-sama, the god of water, who is the patron deity of the marketplace and also is enshrined in many domestic kitchens as an essential household god.... the Suijin Shrine is providentially positioned almost directly in a NE-SW line opposite the curve of the sheds housing the wholesalers' stalls and the auction spaces beyond them, in almost perfect alignment with the traditional idea that a deity should protect a place against ill fortune entering from the northeast." (Bestor, p. 89)
Ohnuki-Tierney develops many ideas about the association of rice with the Japanese images of the essence of their culture and identity. She shows how many ways rice is appreciated. Here is an appreciation of the beauty of rice by novelist Junichiro Tanizaki:
"When cooked rice is in a lacqueur container placed in the dark, shining with black luster, it is more aesthetic to look at, and it is more appetizing. When you lift the lid, you see pure white rice with vapor rising. Each grain is a pearl. If you are a Japanese, you certainly appreciate rice when you look at it this way." (quoted by Ohnuki-Tierney, p. 77)
Both books deal with ideas of commerce, historic emergence of markets, and many other topics.

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