Japanese food historians agree that Heian period attitudes towards cuisine were largely a continuation of earlier Nara period customs, and that they are still the foundations of Japanese cuisine today.

There is great emphasis on simple ingredients prepared with a bare minimum of cookery. The slicing of food actually required much more skill than the cooking of it, and in fact it was often not "cooked" at all but served raw. The term for "chef" was "hôchônin", literally, "knife-wielder", who sometimes prepared raw fish in front of banquet guests who could enjoy his skill as part of the event.

Then, as now, the elegant presentation of morsels of food composed carefully and served on small platters was the essential factor. Flavourings and sauces were piquant contrasts to the food itself, and were usually served separately.

Part of this has to do with Japanese way of dealing with a problem: if it cannot be hidden, make it artful. Scarcity of food and occasions of poverty brought forth the presentation of small quantities of food arranged with care in individual bowls framed elegantly by a laquer tray.

Fermented sauces like shoyu (soy sauce) (called "hishio" then) and miso paste were introduced to Japan from China during the Nara period. Deep-fried dumplings made of starch were also Chinese in origin and were called Kara okashi (Chinese treats).

Rice was the staple, (at least for the aristocracy, while commoners or peasants subsisted on barley) but it was usually served in the form of congee. Often other grains and legumes were mixed with it.

There were also noodles. They were called "barley strings" (muginawa), and made of a dough of barley flour rolled into long ropy shapes, the ancestor of soba noodles. The categories of cooking look very much like those one would see at a full course traditional banquet that has been prepared today. There were:

  • Namamono. Raw flesh, also called sashimi. The meat of pheasant, carp, trout, sea bream, sea bass, octopus, abalone, and a favorite, especially in summer, a small river fish called ayu.
  • Atsumono. Soups, such as clear broth with seaweed.
  • Nimono. Simmered foods. Usually vegetables such as carrots, onions, eggplants, radish, and garlic.
  • Agemono. Fried foods, such as deep-fried Chinese starch dumplings. Irimochi were like modern senbei (crackers fried in sesame oil).
  • Mushimono. Steamed foods.
  • Yudemono. Boiled foods.
  • Yakimono. Grilled foods. Vegetables, meats, shrimp, or fish.
  • Tsukemono. Pickled foods. Vegetables or meats preserved by salting or pickling in vinegar.
While forming the basis for Japanese cuisine as it has evolved, there was something peculiar about the Heian era approach to food. While we see very detailed descriptions of the colours of kimono, the seasons, the importance of the quality of handwriting in the literature of the time, few descriptions of meals or of the activity of eating occur. Lady Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji contains barely a mention of the first of these two very corporeal activities and not a one of the other.

Somehow, eating was regarded as somehow vulgar.

And this at a time when there were no real moral prescriptions against wide-ranging sexual activity, homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual.

Interesting. Hm. Would you like some noodles?

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