Reflecting on Japanese Soup
at Cherry Blossom Time
(e-SoupSong 13: May 1, 2001)
ONCE UPON A TIME, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi attended an evening meal in Japan hosted by 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 her accurate and spontaneous reply.
This was the first--and really the only--story I knew about Japanese soups when I arrived in Nobi on April 3, in a shower of cherry blossoms, to experience my granddaughter’s first weeks of life. Then, over the next 20 days, with tiny Wilhemina Jean in tow, mother Virginia, daughter-in-law Angi, and I heeded the call: cherchez la soupe, or rather soup o manabu.
Between feedings and diaper changes, I couldn’t help it--I kept bringing it up: What’s Japanese soup made of; when do you serve it; how do you eat it; can we make it? And perhaps above all: Does it figure largely in Japanese culture and history?
Thus began a journey--mostly on those incredibly efficient Japanese trains--that took us into the homes and hospitality of friends Odagawa, Suchiyo, Sachiko, and tea master Taketani. Not to mention restaurants in Tokyo, Yokosuka, Kamakura, and Nobi. Theaters in Tokyo and Yokohama. Video stores. The pages of seminal books and cookbooks about Japan.
There’s no beating around the sansho bush here: Japanese soups are really really different than soups anywhere else in the world. They taste different. They look different. They have unique things in them. They’re packaged differently. Mrs. Ghandi’s suimono (clear) soup is a good example. So are the myriad shirumono (thick) miso soups. So are noodle and rice soup meals--soba, udon, ramen (actually a Chinese hybrid), and donburis. Likewise one-pot meals (nabemono) like chankonabes--a sumo-wrestler specialty that traditionally never contains beef...because a cow, with all 4 feet on the ground, might foreshadow defeat for the wrestler.
HOW DIFFERENT ARE THESE SOUPS?
Very different. For one, there’s just no other place on earth that makes its all-time favorite soup stock from bonito fish and kelp (seaweed). And not just fresh bonito and kelp, mind you. Oh no: the bonito (katsuobushi) is caught, filleted, simmered, dry smoked for some 2 weeks in fragrant wooden chambers, dried in the sun, and cured with Aspergillus glaucus mold for 6 weeks--at which point it looks just like chunks of wood and is ready to go. Likewise the kelp (konbu, usually Laminaria japonica and chock full of natural, non-headachy monsodium glutamate) is harvested from konbu boats with long forked poles, then spread out on shore to dry--first in the sun, then in drying chambers, at which point they are folded, bundled, and sent to market.
All the soupmaker needs to do is shave pieces of the bonito block with a carpenter’s plane (honest! that, or buy it already shaved), wipe down the konbu, simmer one after the other in the same water, and briefly. Voila: perfect dashi, truly the fond de cuisine of Japanese kitchens--and totally but totally different from the meat, fish, and vegetable stocks of the rest of the world. As you can imagine.
For two, unusual and nearly unique things join dashi in the soup bowl. To name just a few:
All sorts of mushrooms (shiitake, enokitake, shimeji, maitake, the precious matsutake), Japanese radish (daikon) and turnip (kabu), and tofu are common ingredients, too, but they are, happily, becoming much easier to find at the market.
- Miso: steamed soybeans, salt, and rice or barley (that have been cultured with the mold Aspergillus oryzae) that’s fermented for over a year in cedar vats into a glorious and highly nutritious paste.
- Fu: wheat gluten that’s made into light little puffy shapes…that turn into fascinatingly spongy mouthfuls once they hit the dashi.
- Wakame: dried seaweed that hydrates into a delicate but meaty vegetable.
- Kikuna and shungiku: chrysanthemum leaves.
- Mizuna: an herb that looks like dandelion leaves; from the mustard/cabbage family.
- Mitsuba: a showy herb that looks like giant serrated 3-leaf clovers; from the chervil/parsley family.
- Komatsuna: a green that looks like flat leaf spinach; from the mustard/cabbage family.
- Badger: at least in the old days. In Kakushi-Danuki, the Kyogen farce I saw at a classical Noh performance in Yokohama, a Master inebriates his servant Taro Kaja to make him confess to catching the badger he (the Master) wants to make into badger soup for his guests. (In the mood for something silly? Click HERE for details).
WHY SO DIFFERENT?
Because Japanese soups grew from exotic historical roots...but this history is muddled and full of more questions than answers.
Here’s my read of the facts. Japanese cuisine really began in the Yamato Imperial Court of the 6th century. Prince Shotoku, regent of his aunt the Emperor, embraced Chinese Mahayana Buddhism in 593 and with it imported ceremonial and formal Chinese cuisine into his hard-knock land of subsistance food. Newly converted Japanese monks served this new cuisine to the court, but they were selective and transformed it in the process. Miso (from Chinese chiang), rice, tea, and fish, yes. But not other things. Heavy on seaweed, right from the start.
Then Japan’s one and only food revolution occurred (until the recent Western food craze): With the rise of the all-powerful shogun in Kamakura (1185), Buddhist monks lost their powerful Imperial protectors in Kyoto and forsook their fancy ways. New "common man" Buddhist sects led by Honen and Nichiren preached the virtues of a simple diet and discouraged harming any living thing, including fish. Out the window went Japan’s universal fish sauce seasoning uoshoyu (like nam pla/nuoc mam) and in came plant-based soy sauce. The monks encouraged people to eat simple vegetable meals: rice (or barley/millet), salt-pickled vegetables, and miso soup.
And this exact regimen stuck for nearly 270 years--actually was frozen in time. Why? Because when Tokugawa Ieyasu moved his shogunate to present day Tokyo in 1600, he enforced a policy of nearly total national isolation that lasted until 1868. While the rest of the world was busy cross fertilizing itself with new world foods like tomatoes, chile peppers, potatoes, common beans, corn, squash, vanilla, and chocolate, Japan only managed to sneak in white and sweet potatoes. Even when chiles finally made the scene, they were hybridized down to be small and sweet. Squashes too.
How did all this affect soup and the rest of Japanese cuisine? Profoundly. With limited ingredients, with limited food processes (preserving, drying, smoking, pickling), with meditative habits, and isolated from outside influences, Japanese cooks looked deeply into the heart of the food they did have--and created out of it an art form.
What’s important in Japanese soups? NOT just the flavor. There’s Aroma with a capital A and Texture with a capital T. Rarity counts--hard to find things that don’t necessarily taste good. Certainly danger--the poisonous fugu. And expensiveness. But, above all, Simplicity and Beauty...both in presentation and in concept.
Indira Gandhi’s soup, for example. Or novelist Junichiro Tanizaki’s miso soup: "I was once invited to a tea ceremony," he says, "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."
OKAY, WHAT ARE THE SOUPS--AND WHEN ARE THEY EATEN?
Soups that are served as courses of a meal are known as shirumono and include both clear soups and thick soups.
Noodle soups (menrui) are hearty and, hot or cold, are never served as a course. Rather, they are complete meals, often for lunch. Japanese noodle soups come with thin soba buckwheat noodles or thick wheat udon noodles; they use dashi for broth and come topped with meat, egg, vegetables. You can find Soba Houses all over Japan. Ramen--or chuka soba--is made out of Chinese-style wheat noodles and meat broth and is topped with pork, shinachiku (pickled bamboo shoot), and kamaboku (a slice of colored fish paste). Ramen soups are mostly hawked by street vendors, who announce what they’ve got with the blast of their charamelas, the shattering Japanese oboe.
- Clear suimono, or "something to drink," 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). Generally they’re served in black or red lacquer bowls with lids, so that when the lid is removed, you are suddenly suffused with the soup’s fragrance. At 8-course formal dinners, they’re served as the second course--and also as a palate cleanser ("to wash the chopsticks") or as a last course at 9- or 14-course fancy banquets (kaiseki ryori).
- Thick soups, also called shirumono, are made of dashi and miso (which does the thickening)--with additions of sea and land vegetables, eggs, tofu, meats, or seafoods, generally with one ingredient reliably sinking...and one reliably floating. Simple miso soup is eaten for breakfast with rice and pickles (not too much anymore, though--witness my friend Sachiko’s 92-year-old mother in law who starts each day with toast and coffee, eggs, and salad with Thousand Island dressing...after 80+ years of miso soup breakfasts). More complex miso soups are served with 3-dish meals at lunch and dinner (khiju sansai), often ending the meal along with rice and salt pickled vegetables. The most famous miso soup? O-zoni, eaten on New Year’s morning with a cake of grilled sticky rice at the bottom of the bowl.
Rice soups (gohanmono) are also hearty--layering toppings on a bowl of rice, then filling it up to the rice line with dashi.
HOW DO YOU EAT JAPANESE SOUP?
With tenderness, through all 5 senses (maybe 6), and, in the case of noodles, slurping. I don’t think anyone has described--or visualized--the process better than Juzo Itami in his brilliant 1986 film Tampopo. In the opening scene, truck driver Gun (Ken Watanabe) reads from a book to his partner Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki) to pass the time on the road. As Gun reads, the action comes to life on film: a young man is telling, poker faced, about how he learned to eat ramen correctly from a true Master (Yoshi Kato). And please note--no spoons.
"I went out with an old man. He’s studied noodles for 40 years. He was showing me the right way to eat them. ‘Master, [says the narrator] soup first, or noodles first?’
‘First observe the whole bowl,’ says the man, slowly and with great restraint.
‘Appreciate its gestalt, savor the aromas. Jewels of fat glittering on the surface. Shinachiku roots shining. Seaweed slowly sinking. Spring onions floating. Concentrate on the 3 pork slices. They play the key role, but stay modestly hidden. First, caress the surface with the chopstick tips.’
‘To express affection.’
‘Then poke the pork.’
‘Eat the pork first?’
‘No, just touch it. Caress it with the chopstick tips, gently pick it up, and dip it into the soup on the right of the bowl. What’s important here is to apologize to the pork by saying, "See you soon."’
[At this point truck driver Goro interrupts the reading--it’s making him hungry]
‘Finally start eating, the noodles first,’ says the Master.
‘Oh,’ adds the Master, ‘at this time, while slurping the noodles, look at the pork. Eye it affectionately.’
The narrator comments, ‘The old man bit some shinachiku root and chewed it awhile. Then he took some noodles. Still chewing the noodles, he took some more shinachiku. Then he sipped some soup. Three times. He sat up, sighed, picked up one slice of pork as if making a major decision in life, and lightly tapped it on the side of the bowl.’
‘What for?’ asks the narrator.
‘To drain it, that’s all.’"
SO, IS IT EASY TO MAKE JAPANESE SOUPS?
Yes--if you can find the ingredients. Fortunately the foundation of most soups--dashi--is marketed as Hon-Dashi by Ajinomoto in stock granule form and is pretty easy to find. Be aware, though, that it has pure monsodium glutamate in it, though not very much. The good news: zero calories. Click HERE to find a recipe for the real stuff.
I encourage you to try the following soups, all pretty accessible, easy to make, and quite wonderful.
Shirumono (miso) soups (please note: friend Suchiyo advises that she always uses half white miso and half red--and it’s a good idea in miso soups to have one ingredient that sinks and one that floats)
Suimono soups (clear soups)
Gohanmono (rice one-pot soup--eaten as a meal)
Menrui (noodle soups--eaten as a meal)
- Katsudon. In Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, she describes it so: "This katsudon, encountered almost by accident, was made with unusual skill, I must say. Good quality meat, excellent broth, the eggs and leeks handled beautifully, the rice with just the right degree of firmness to hold up in the broth—it was flawless." If you want the recipe--or a good laugh on my efforts to track it down in Japan, click HERE.
ALL THINGS CONSIDERED
- Nabeyaki udon (thick wheat noodles with mushrooms, spinach, and chicken).
- Tamago toji soba (thin buckwheat noodles with peas, eggs, and seaweed).
In the end, I think it all comes back to the story about Mrs. Gandhi. After eating my way through many, many bowls of soup, I am convinced that this ur-food resonates from the very soul of the Japanese people.
What else is the broth but the sea, the firmament, amniotic fluid, the source of life--whether it is dashi made from bonito fish and seaweed or, in the case of Buddhist monks, just from seaweed?
What else are the ingredients in the soup but characters and concepts that reflect on their environment and give it shape and meaning? Miso, the earth; herbs and greens, vegetation; eggs, the life force.
That’s why the noodle soup master in Tampopo treats his ramen like a beautiful friend--viewing it with appreciation, treating it with humor, respect, and affection. That’s why Jippensha Ikku opens his marvelous Tokaido road story Hizakurige with rascals Yojirobei and Kitahachi eating soup in Omori--and why Kawatake Mokuami shows his Edo hero Banzui Chobei, in Kabuki drama, betrayed by his samurai enemy through the image of uneaten soup. And it’s why contemporary author Banana Yoshimoto uses a variety of soups in Kitchen to symbolize the deepest connections between people: Yuichi asks Mikage "Why is it that [this Katsudon I’m eating with you] is so delicious?" "Could it be you’re satisfying hunger and lust at the same time?" "No way, no way, no way!" he said, laughing, "It must be because we’re family."
I give the last word to Toyo Eicho, who compiled Zen capping phrases in the 15th century, poems designed to connect the world of letters with the unexplainable world of Zen experience: "Bread and soup / And cotton clothes / Help you. But the other possessions / May lead you astray."
Many thanks to Mom, Angi, and Billie Jean for supporting my soup habit; to Odagawa, Suchiyo, and Sachiko for their invaluable advice and carefully labeled soup ingredients; and to all who helped introduce me to the fascinating world of Japanese soups.
Best regards, Pat Solley
Sources not noted in text: Ikku Jippensha's Hizakurige (or Shanks' Mare), translated by Thomas Satchell (Charles Tuttle: Rutland, VT, and Tokyo, 1960); Noriko Kamachi's Culture and Custom's of Japan (Greenwood Press: Westport, CT, and London, 1999); Hiroko Shimbo's The Japanese Kitchen (Harvard Common Press: Boston, 2000); Introducing Japan, ed. Paul Norbury (St. Martin's Press: New York, 1977); Richard Hosking's A Dictionary of Japanese Food (Tuttle Publishing: Boston, Rutland, Tokyo, 1972); Zenrin Segoshu, or A Zen Harvest, trans. Soiku Sigematsu (North Point Press: San Francisco, 1988); Tomi Egami's Typical Japanese Cooking (Shibata Publishing: Tokyo, 1959); Soei Yoneda's Good Food from a Japanese Temple (Kodansha International: Tokyo, 1982); Leslie Downer and Minoru Yoneda's Step-by-Step Japanese Cooking (Barrons: Woodbury, NY, 1986); Masako Yamaoka's First Book of Japanese Cooking (Kodansha International: Tokyo, 1984); Harry Guest's Traveller's Literary Companion: Japan (Passport Books: Lincolnwood, IL, 1975); Fodor's Japan (1994); U.A. Casal's The Five Sacred Festivals of Ancient Japan (Charles E. Tuttle: Vermont and Tokyo, 1967).
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NEXT MONTH: MARKETING SOUP 101--How the best Washington, DC, restaurants menu their soups.
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And if you’re inspired to make some healthy soups and don’t feel like making your own stock, I highly recommend using Redibase, a professional soup base for the home cook (www.redibase.com).