[Book] Occult aspects of Japanese cuisine

'Nippon Ryouri no Shinzui' by Abe Kouryuu, published by Kodansha in 2006

‘Nippon Ryouri no Shinzui’ by Abe Kouryuu, published by Kodansha in 2006

I was reading Nippon Ryouri no Shinzui [日本料理の真髄] by the Japanese gourmet Abe Kouryuu [阿部孤柳], and learned that occult concepts lie at the heart of Japanese cuisine. Below are some interesting facts I picked up:

  • When you hold a kitchen knife in your hand, the right side of the knife is considered yang while the left side of the knife is considered yin.
  • Likewise, tableware can also be categorized as either yin or yang. A round dish is considered yang, whereas a square dish is considered yin; a shallow container is considered yang, whereas a deep container is considered yin.

  • The odd numbers three, five and seven are considered lucky numbers in Japanese numerology, so the presentation of food also follows rules of threes, fives and sevens. For example, a food arrangement style called sansui-mori [山水盛り] is a recreation of the universe in the form of meal. Mount Meru or Sumeru (the centre of the universe in Buddhist cosmology) is represented by seven pieces of food at the back; in the middle sits five pieces of food; in the front sits three pieces of food. Together they form different “mountain ranges” and thus symbolize the cosmos.
  • Sea fishes are considered yang, whereas river fishes are considered yin. When you lay a cooked fished onto a dish, the back of a sea fish should face the side away from you, whereas the back of a river fish should be facing you.
  • Rice is considered yang and soup is considered yin. Therefore your rice bowl should be placed on the right-hand side and your miso soup should be place on the left-hand side.
  • According to Taoist thought and practices for achieving immortality, one should consume as food something as remote from one’s own biological species as possible. Therefore pigs (which are close to mankind since they are kept as livestock and live in the same community as us) is considered a worse food source than fish, and fish is considered a worst food source than vegetables, fruits and nuts. In other words, the best thing to do is to go veggie.
  • The five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water are assigned to the five tastes of spiciness, sweetness, sourness, saltiness and bitterness respectively. Likewise, they are assigned to different colours of food – green, red, yellow, white and black; as well as to different ways to preparing food – raw, grilling, stewing, steaming and deep-frying.
  • A well-balanced meal or bento should have all five elements represented.

4 thoughts on “[Book] Occult aspects of Japanese cuisine

  1. With feng sui ruling architecture and decoration, it shouldn’t really surprise me that Japanese had similar superstitions for food and cooking.

    I’m tad surprised with all the fish Japanese consume that someone would praise vegan lifestyle. I’m glad. I hope when I go to Japan, I won’t have big problems going full vegan.

  2. @ Ayame

    Well, I wouldn’t use the word ‘superstitions’ to describe these ideas – they are more like a different way of perceiving and categorizing the world. If nothing else, they spell out certain rules of aesthetics and balance.

    • I guess you are right; I just used ‘superstitions’ a. because you used the word ‘occult’ in the title of this post (somehow I connect these two, but I can be wrong since English isn’t my first language), b) you mentioned the placement of foods on the table according to yin & yang, which reminded me of the left-hand writing associated with evil/Satan due to Christian beliefs where ‘right’ is blessed (see division of the ‘sheep’ and ‘goats’ by God during Second Parousia).

  3. Foxy Lady Ayame:

    Occult means ‘hidden’. It seems that there are always two opposing tendencies in any given civilization. When spirituality rules the day, science becomes occult (think the Middle Ages). When science rules the day, then spirituality becomes occult. In any case, I think these ‘occult’ rules have become part of the aesthetic package – you just know that something is not quite ‘authentic’ when you see sashimi pieces in even instead of odd numbers, when you see the miso soup bowl placed on the right instead of the left, when a bento box has only four colours, etc etc…

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