Hilde Lee: Exposure to other cultures influenced Japanese cuisine | To eat

Portuguese ships sailed around the tip of Africa, opening a direct sea route to India and its wealth of spices. Eventually the Portuguese went further east for luxury items, such as Chinese silks and porcelain that could be sold to Europeans.

However, trade with India flourished and it wasn’t long before Portuguese ships appeared in Japan. Was it a love story between the Portuguese and the Japanese? The Portuguese were impressed by the hospitality of the Japanese and their elegant way of eating. The Japanese had very refined manners at the table. The Portuguese still ate with their fingers, as forks were not popular in their country. The ritual of a Japanese meal was very dignified and dark.

There were a few Portuguese dishes that the Japanese found appealing, especially the sweets. A Portuguese cake, a yellow sponge cake, is still popular today. (It was served at a lunch in a mountain inn when I was in Japan three years ago) The Portuguese introduced the bread to the Japanese. The Japanese preferred to associate it with tea.

Although Japanese cuisine today is very different from that of centuries past, some traditions still prevail. Rice is included in almost all meals, even breakfast. Fish provides essential proteins. Western visitors introduced the meat. A kind of pickle accompanies the main meal. Seaweed is part of the main meal, it is also used in sushi, along with some pickled vegetables. The Japanese strive to make every dish – fried, steamed or stewed – an important part of the meal.

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