In Japan, people who find it difficult to eat hot soups are said to have "cat's tongue."
In the early 1980s, when Indira Gandhi visited Japan, she attended an evening meal hosted by then Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki. A clear soup was served in a dark bowl painted inside with pictures of the bamboo tree. Only a few vegetables and one single pigeon's egg were floated in the broth, leaving the bamboo design visible. Mr. Suzuki asked Mrs. Gandhi what she thought of the presentation. Instantly she replied: "To my eyes, it [the egg] is a full moon shining over a dark forest on a clear night." Japanese officials sat up, completely amazed at the accurate and spontaneous reply.
In Daughter of the Samurai, Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto recalls how in pre-Restoration Japan Samurai were notified that they should commit sebuku. Her father had been imprisoned in Nagaoka Castle following the utter defeat of his family by the Imperialist army. Treated as an honored guest for months by the commander general, he was, on a late spring evening, approached by a young attendant with his evening meal: "Honorable guest, the evening meal is served.' 'Father bowed his head and the little lacquer table was brought and placed before him on the mat. At last the expected message had come. The rice bowl was on the right, the soup was on the left; the chopsticks were standing upright as if to place before a shrine, and the browned fish in the oval dish was without a head.'" Only a last minute pardon saved him as he was beginning the ceremony of death.
Japanese Soup Customs
Japanese soup as a category is known as shirumono--and
includes both clear soups and thick soups (of which the latter is the biggest
category by far).
Clear soup is called suimono, or "something to drink." These are
elegant, sparkling, and generally have 3 tiny solid bits of ingredients
in them--often a bite of seafood, a slice of complementary vegetable,
and a not-necessarily-to-be-eaten thing for fragrance (lemon peel,
pepper leaves, whatever). They're served after the appetizer, as the
beginning of the main part of the main meal; as palate cleansers (like
sorbets); and sometimes in place of the last course of thick soup, with
the rice. People go nuts over them cause they're served in covered
bowls, so you take off the top and snuff in this great aroma and see a
beautifully designed "picture" in the bowl for your pleasure.
Thick soups--generally known by the generic name of shirumono--are made
of stock, miso, and lots of meat/fish/veggie things. And, yes, miso
soup is a hot item for breakfast.
What is miso? It's a fermented bean paste that actually comes in
lots of different kinds, each with its own aroma and flavor, color, and
texture, but all are made the same way--smashing boiling soybeans and
letting them ferment with wheat, barley, rice, or injected yeasty mold.
Then the miso "matures" for months--or even up to 3 years. Red miso is
made with barley and is savory and good for winter soups. Rice mold
misos are yellow, relatively light and sweet. The third type is made
with bean koji and is dark and thick. Miso can last up to a year in
No Japanese meal is complete without at least one soup. The simplest meal consists of one soup and 3 side dishes.
In the cuisine of any country efforts no doubt are made to have the food harmonize with the tableware and the walls, but with Japanese food, a brightly lighted room and shining tableware cut the appetite in half. The dark miso soup that we eat every morning is one dish from the dimly lit houses of the past. I was once invited to a tea ceremony where miso was served. And when I saw the muddy, claylike color, quiet in a black lacquer bowl beneath the faint light of a candle, this soup that I usually take without a second thought seemed somehow to acquire a real depth, and to become infinitely more appetizing as well...."
--Japanese novelist Tanizaki, "In Praise of Shadows" (contributed by Helen Herlocker, Washington, DC, who adds, "It is true...some soups look 'infinitely better' against basic black")
Some traditional holiday soups? Ozoni for the New Year. Whale soup and eggplant at noon on "airing day," when families emptied their godowns and aired out their precious family possessions each year in midsummer. Soup with 7 or 9 or 11 vegetables, plus red rice and red snapper with head, to celebrate a wedding...or Hamaguri no sumashi-jiru (clam soup).
A little off the track, but here is a traditional popular story about almost racoon soup on KachiKachi-Yama: Long long ago there lived a kind-hearted old farmer and his wife. The two made friends with a rabbit that lived in the mountains nearby, and came to love it as if it were their own daughter. In the same area there also lived a mean raccoon, who constantly destroyed the old man's field. This became so disturbing to the old man that one day he captured him.
The old man tied the raccoon up and carried him home. There, he said to his wife, "I'm going back to work in the field. Make raccoon soup and wait for me to come home." The raccoon was startled to hear this. When the old woman began pounding barley for the soup in her mortar, he started to cry, pleading: "Before I die, at least let me help you. When I'm done I promise I'll let you tie me up again. please, please loosen my bonds."
The trustworthy old woman heeded the raccoon's words and let him free. Thereupon he quickly snatched the woman's pestle out of her hand and swung it down hard on her head, killing her. The raccoon then fled back into the hills. When the old man returned from the field he was shocked, and wept bitterly for his wife. The rabbit witnessed all this and swore to take revenge.
Some days later, the rabbit dressed up in pretty clothes and lay in wait for the raccoon. When the raccoon appeared, she said to him: "I need to carry this firewood to the mountains but my legs are hurting. Would you be so kind as to carry it for me?" The raccoon decided to show off to the rabbit and hoisted the load onto his back.
The rabbit then began to strike her flint. The raccoon, unable to see because of the heavy load on his back, asked, "Hey, what's that scratching noise?" The rabbit replied, "It's the sound of the screechy birds from the screechy mountain." Finally, the rabbit ignited the flame and lit the firewood. The fire whooshed upward in a roar. The raccoon asked, "Hey, rabbit, what is that cackling sound?" The rabbit answered, "It's the sound of the cackling birds from the cackling mountain." At last, the flame burned through the wood and reached the raccoon's back. "Ah! Help me!" cried the raccoon. Frightened and scorched, he turned and fled.
The next day the rabbit, appearing in a disguise, prepared a batch of soy bean paste containing red hot peppers. Soon the burn-blistered raccoon came along. The rabbit called out: "This medicine is excellent for burns. Let me rub some on for you." The raccoon was elated and asked the rabbit to apply some to his back. But when the red peppers touched his burns, he screamed: "Ah, Ah, that hurts!" He rolled around on the ground in agony, legs flailing in the air.
After the raccoon's burns healed, the rabbit put on yet another disguise and called him over. "Would you like to go fishing?" "Fishing?" responded the raccoon, "Mm, that sounds good!" The rabbit then said, "Let's build a couple of boats. I'm light so I'll build my boat out of light wood. You're heavy so you need to make yours out of heavy mud." The greedy raccoon was fooled again and did as he was told.
When the boats were finished they set them in the water. The rabbit, leading the way, floated farther and farther down the river. Soon the raccoon's boat became water-logged and started to fall apart. "Ah, save me!" he cried. But far from saving the raccoon, the rabbit began to hack at the boat with her oar. "This is in revenge for killing the old woman!" Helpless, the evil raccoon sank to the bottom of the river.