Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan by Eric Rath

Hungry for more than just a belly full of sushi? Let Eric Rath take you on a thoughtful, historical journey through Japanese food culture.

Author info

Eric Rath is a Professor of Japanese History at the University of Kansas and a leading expert on Japanese food culture. He is also the co-editor with Stephanie Assman of Japanese Foodways, Past and Present, and regional editor for The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets.

In 2013, UNESCO designated washoku (和食), “traditional Japanese cuisine,” as an intangible cultural heritage, marking Japan’s 22nd appearance on the list. January is a time when many Japanese tend to eat more traditional-style foods than Western-style, so you may be seeing many more mentions of washoku in your news feed, and more artful Instagram photos for your food-viewing pleasure. But what is Japanese food, really? Most of us are familiar with several of Japan’s marquee dishes, like sushi rolls, sashimi and tempura. These scrumptious plates have caused many of us to obsessively seek out the best new izakaya and high-end sushi haunts to feed our foodie needs. But if you’re craving a deeper understanding of this much-loved national cuisine, feed your mind with a book by historian Eric Rath—or pick up a copy for an epicurious friend.

Rath’s Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan takes readers on an adventure through the pre-history of modern Japanese cuisine, showing us how its social and symbolic nature developed over time, eventually transforming into the food we eat today. After a broad overview, he spends two chapters exploring personal cookbooks by medieval “men of the carving knife” (包丁人), personal chefs for aristocrats and members of the imperial court, who created elaborate ceremonial cuisine for their well-heeled guests at banquets. The chefs also became the entertainment during “knife ceremonies,” when they would slice up large cuts of fish to create visual food-art for an audience of fancy onlookers. Such dishes were often meant for display rather than consumption, and Rath explores the spiritual and artistic meaning behind these cultural practices.

In the next two chapters, he introduces readers to food culture in the age of the samurai, the era when leisurely entertainment and artistic practice spread beyond the aristocracy and out to everyday folk. In this period, professional chefs, like the medieval carvers, continued to write books—but now they published those records, and they had competition from nonprofessional foodies interested in developing a new kind of popular food culture. The author shows readers how these food-based books fantasized whole new worlds through the symbolic importance of food, whether it be a foreign culture imagined through Iberian-inspired recipes, or fictional recipe books that let your everyday Joe lose himself in a fantasy banquet—kind of like a Barefoot Contessa for eighteenth-century audiences.

The final chapters explain how menus became aspirational lifestyle models encouraging people to take more risks and more pleasure in their eating habits, and how weird food names, like Solid Gold Soup, added a poetic feel to everyday consumption. These quirky, fun, creative publications helped inspire a truly foodie culture, centuries before Japanese food became a UNESCO-designated cuisine. Rath gives his readers an expanded vision of “Japanese food,” introducing us to a time when that category included not just sushi, but also crane, dog, otter and feathery-winged duck. It’s the perfect book for any history buff with good taste.

More by the author

02Japan’s Cuisines: Food, Place and Identity

Discover how the tea ceremony came to be the origin of Japanese cuisine, how lunch became gourmet and how rural regions are asserting their own local food cultures. Ranging from the role of the tea master to bento boxes, from medieval banquets to the spread of Western food, this fascinating book reveals how Japanese food shapes national, local and personal identity.