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Japan’s Cuisines: Food, Place and Identity by Eric C. Rath is a scholarly book that reveals the great diversity of Japanese cuisine and explains how Japan’s modern food culture arose through the direction of private and public institutions. Rath argues that by focusing on ceremonial and festival foods, and the typical white-rice dinners of today’s middle class and the past’s elites, Japanese’s culinary history is inaccurately portrayed. So, to get the reader to understand even just a fraction of the diverse culinary heritage that Japan’s has to offer, Rath explains contemporary definitions and highlights technical techniques. Each chapter in this book addresses an element of how Japanese cuisine has evolved while keeping its original traditional roots. Readers learn and explore how tea came to be portrayed as the origin of Japanese cuisines, how lunch became a precise gourmet meal and how foods are becoming more localized. Overall, this book reveals how the cuisine from the land of the rising sun shapes national, local, and personal identity.
I focused my analysis on the chapter “The Making of the Modern Boxed Lunch”. This chapters main purpose is the Bento box. It talks about how the most frequent complaint of Japanese cuisine/ bento box is how time consuming and difficult the preparation of food requires. Simmering the food for hours, cutting slices of fish precisely or deep frying in hot oil. The food must not only taste good but must look good and be nutritious. Besides the work that goes into making a proper bento box, we see the history on the original use of the bento box and early travel of food. The chapter then progresses into a brief history of lunch, the art of the lunchbox, the age of bento cookbooks and most importantly school lunches. But overall, we the readers can tell that the thesis of this chapter is “Such an estimation presents bento boxes as expression of the uniqueness of Japanese Culture, but bento have a diverse past, which reveals how difficult it is to achieve the high standards of beauty, variety, nutrition and taste expected for the best bento today”. In a way, we can read into this statement as bento boxes are not your typical lunch boxes that hold food. When an individual opens a bento box there a many different compartments and hidden drawers that case utensils and food, each of these compartments symbolize the elements of complexity, history, and beauty that was put into making this Japanese cultural staple. “Holding a bento mom cried making”. This is a line from a Japanese poem that Rath uses as the very first sentence to set the tone for the whole chapter that show cases the evolution of the bento box and the emotional connection that it has to the Japanese culture.
Today the most difficult bento to create are the ones crafted for kindergarten-age children. Kindergarten bento’s not only have to please a finicky five-year-old but they also must pass the approval of the teachers who require the packed lunches to be visually appealing, healthy and designed so that the child will consume the contents quickly. If the bento boxes were not up to the children’s or more importantly the teacher’s standards, the teachers would ten think that the mother does not love or have enough time to give to her children. This is where most the stress comes from when a mother makes a bento box, now we can see why the poem states that a mother was crying while holding the bento box. While the poem cited above resonates well with the anxiety many mothers face when making bento today the poem actually dates back from an earlier modern period before the education system was establish. Bento’s back then were made for special occasions, picnics, outdoor excursions, and travelling family members of the family working outside the home. We can infer that the mother in the poem was crying because of the un-pleasurable extraordinary event of a loved one or family member leaving on a long and potentially dangerous journey. Even though these two different scenarios show different examples of how the bento box was used, ultimately they both embody the same emotional feeling and purpose, the purpose of love. Back then before modernization began, the culture was very family, military, and work focused so by creating a bento for an individual that potential could be going off to war or a dangerous job showed that you loved them and was willing to put in the effort to make them a complex nutritious meal to prepare them for whatever was about to come.
Now a day with modernization in place we see school education systems in place and the focus of a bento box being for children, but as said before the purpose of it is love so by being able to create a bento for your picky child and be accepted by the teachers shows that you love your child and are a good mother. Lunch wasn’t always a prominent meal in the Japanese culture due to the lack of distinguishing the time of day. In the ancient period, the ruling elite only ate twice a day and was believed that the rest of the population followed the same practice. A turning point that got the idea of lunch rolling appeared when artisans and warriors adopted a midday meal to sustain themselves. By 1914, based off one’s location, agriculture or rural, people were eating anywhere from 3-5 times a day.
What is key to take note of is the reason why the Japanese people would only originally eat twice a day was because they were a simplistic culture that appreciated the labors that the earth gave them, eating more than twice was excessive. But once modernization was put in place and western travelers came over to Japan they were introduced to the westernized way of life. While undergoing westernization the Japanese keep the idea that they must appreciate the fruits the earth gave them so when they eat multiple meals a day it consisted of rice, barley, vegetables, and a protein to provide them with energy and fuel to allow the individuals to return to work. Multiple meals were never seen as treats for the mouth. A bento box is more than just a container that holds food, there is a delicate art that goes into making these well know vehicles for food in the Japanese culture. Wealthy urbanites and samurai in the early modern period devoted extra ordinary attention and resources to their portable meals. Their beautiful containers were made from lacquer, wood, porcelain, metal and bamboo. The finest of examples of these were meant for the highest-ranking warlords, they were typically embossed in gold lacquer.
Besides the elements of which bento’s were mad out of there was also a focus on design, there is one bento called the “hip bento” that was engineered to fit comfortably on the waist so when traveling long distances the food that lied within would not get shaken up. Along with the atheistically appealing look that the bento boxes gave off on the outside there was also an emphasis on the art of how to arrange the food that goes inside. “depending on the occasion: for boxes of food to be sent to other people of those for the doll festival, one should separate the fish from the vegetables following earlier rule, but for pleasure excursions and flower viewing one can do as one wishes and arrange the fish and vegetables together”. In a way, we can see that Japan uses simple elements such as the display of foods to show insight on their social class structure. Japanese individuals that come with elaborate looking boxes and precisely organized food projects the status of life.
Overall, after reading Japan’s Cuisines: Food, Place and Identity by Eric C. Rath I would conclude that there is a heavy focus on trying to find Japans true identity due to all of the evolution through modernization and westernization. One aspect that is very important to the Japanese that helps aid the establishing this concept is through food. The types of food that were originally seen in historical documentation was simplistic rice, barley, vegetables, fish etc. , these types of food are still seen in Japan’s cuisine today, the focus has now shifted from foods primary purpose of providing energy to now food having to have a visually appealing and eye catching look for one to think that is it worthy of eating. I would recommend this book to other readers. This think this book does a great job at incorporating historical elements of specific topics while keeping the information modern and entertaining.
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