One Hundred Delightful Tastes of Tofu: How Doable Was an Early Modern Japanese Recipe?

By Sora (Skye) Osuka

Tofu Hyakuchin (豆腐百珍, One Hundred Delightful Tastes of Tofu Recipes), originally published in 1782, is often considered the first cookbook that only focuses on one ingredient and the beginning of the Hyakuchin-mono (百珍物, One Hundred Recipes of Delightful Tastes) series. Harada Nobuo, Eric Rath, and other historians of Japan have argued that cookbooks published during the Edo period were tools for vicarious consumption of cuisines that the reader could not physically obtain. However, when we carefully analyze the contents of cookbooks written in the Edo period (1603-1868), we are surprised that they are filled with the practical knowledge, the latest cooking techniques, ingredients, and utensils of that time. It was also during the Edo period, in which society formed the basis of Japanese cuisine that is still visible in the present day. The role of cookbooks like the Tofu Hyakuchin, not only as symbols of townspeople (chonin, 町人) culture and the culture of play (Asobi, 遊び) but also as a form of collective knowledge of the people who supported culinary culture during this time, cannot be underestimated.

This piece challenges the generalizing discourse surrounding cookbooks during the Edo period by first examining the popularity and accessibility of tofu as food from primary sources aimed for everyday people. Then it analyzes key aspects of Tofu Hyankuchin that separate this text from other cookbooks during this time, such as utensils, specific cut sizes, and measurements of ingredients to highlight the components that could be seen as “practical knowledge” rather than “vicarious consumption.”

Many believe that tofu was not consumed among ordinary people in the first half of the Edo period. In 1500, Shichijyu-ichi ban Shokunin Utaawase (七十一番職人歌合, Matching Songs of Seventy-one Craftsmen) was published. Tofu seller (豆腐売り) is mentioned as the 37th job . In the accompanying illustration, a lady in a black kimono and white headband sits cross-legged on a low platform on a street selling large and small pieces of cut tofu. The author of the painting is believed to be Tosa Mitsunobu (1434-1525). A total of 71 sections and 142 craftsman figures are displayed. In addition to the traditional craftsmen involved in the construction of temples and shrines, more low-ranking people such as female craftsmen, saleswoman, entertainers, and prostitutes who are not directly involved in material or agricultural production, are also included. Through the Shichijyu-ichi ban Shokunin Utaawase, it can be assumed that tofu seller was one of the recognized occupations and tofu was available in the later Muromachi Period (1336-1573).

Shichijyu-ichi ban Shokunin Utaawase [七十一番職人歌合], Tofu seller [豆腐売り] is mentioned at the 37th job, along with Somen (wheat noodle) Seller [御そうめん売り]. Published in 1500. (https://kotenseki.nijl.ac.jp/biblio/100098001/viewer/1)

In the Kansei period (1789-1801) or the early 1800s, ranking tables (banzuke) became popular in Edo. Tofu cooking is mentioned in the Nichiyo Kenyaku Ryori Shikata Kakuryoku Banzuke (日用倹約料理仕方角力番付, Daily Frugal Cooking Method Competitive Ranking Table) which is in the same format as a sumo tournament flier. According to the table, there are two sides: Vegetable and Fish. The highest rank is Ozeki (大関). Under the Vegetable side, the Happai Tofu (八杯豆腐, Eight Cups Tofu) is ranked to Ozeki. Yaki Tofu (焼豆腐, Grilled Tofu) is ranked in the fourth rank of Sekiwake (関脇). Kinome Dengaku (木芽田楽, Baked Tofu with Sansho Tree-Sprout Miso Coating) is ranked in the fifth rank of Maegashira (前頭) in the spring section. Tofu related cuisines appeared a total of 15 times on the table.

Nichiyo Kenyaku Ryori Shikata Kakuryoku Banzuke日用倹約料理仕方角力番付, Published by Yoshida-ya Shoukichi Shuppan. Early 1880. Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Besides popular culture mentions of tofu, we can also see the prevalence of soy itself through Edo period edicts. Tokugawa Iemitsu issued the Keian Ofuregaki (慶安御触書, Keian Edict) in 1649 for the control of farmers. The edict consists of 32 articles, which warn of luxury life by peasants, such as alcohol, tobacco, and rice. The edict also demands people to devote themselves to agriculture. In the fourth edict, soybean planting is mentioned in the form of so-called aze-mame (畔豆, ridge beans), in which soybeans are planted in the ridges of rice paddy fields. It states that peasants must plant soybeans and azuki beans between their rice fields and farms. It is interesting to note the contemporary understanding of legumes’ ability to reincorporate nitrogen back into the soil. Although the people of Edo knew no such knowledge, legume planting may have helped farmers overall crop yield and efficient use of land. As the 4th edict decreed:

“Focus on cultivation, and planting to rice fields and vegetable fields, and at the same time, focus on production and prevent weeds from growing. If you take care of weeds and always cultivate the land with a hoe, you can get good crops and a lot of harvest. Then, plant soybeans and azuki beans on the bank in the fields to increase the crop as much as possible” (Keian Ofuregaki).

In the 11th edict, it stated that after experiencing famine, peasants must eat soybean leaves, which was also mentioned in the Ryori Monogatari [料理物語, Tale of Cooking], perhaps the most prominent early cookbook in Edo Japan. From the context of the 11th edict, the peasants had rice in the autumn, but in the later months, they had millet. The Tale of Cooking is written to support the peasant’s menu:

“The peasants are not thinking well, and they have no idea about the future. In the autumn, they feed rice to their wives and children without thinking about the harvested rice. Always in January, February, and March, they take care of rice and eat millet, wheat, Awa millet, Hie millet, vegetables, radishes, and make more millets, and do not eat a lot of rice. Immediately after experiencing a famine, do not waste time throwing away soybean leaves, azuki leaves, cowpea leaves, deciduous leaves of potatoes, etc.” (Tales of Cooking).

Around 1695, tofu was sold by vendors sitting by the road. We do not know for sure when tofu was first sold by walking street vendors, but after a big fire in Edo in 1698, sellers of dengaku (skewered grilled tofu with a sweet miso topping) started to appear.

In 1634, the Tale of Cooking was published. This was during the early part of Edo and is often considered the first Japanese cookbook written mostly in plain, syllabic Japanese. Although the author is unknown, the epilogue states that “This one volume of this cooking book does not require knife skills. This is for ordinary people and there are no cooking rules. This teaching is from our ancestors. Since I wrote the story of people to date, it is called the tale of cooking.” As for tofu related recipes, there are only two mentioned in the Ryori Monogatari in section 12 on boiled foods: Ise Tofu (伊勢豆腐) and Ryori Tofu (料理豆腐):

“Ise tofu: First grate yam. Cut the sea bream and grate it. Add one-third of grated yam. Add the egg white into tofu and grate it. Grate them well together. Spread a cloth on a cedar box and wrap it. Put it in hot water, press it, and then cut it. Spread cloth on the cedar box. Put it into boiled water, hold, and cut. Serve with arrowroot and soy sauce. It is also very good to sprinkle with chicken miso or wasabi miso. Also, it is good to serve only the tofu. I sincerely report the above recipe” (Tales of Cooking, 183).

If we take a closer look at the recipes, we see that there is little to no information about measurements, sizes, or utensils that are required to actually prepare these dishes.

A distinct feature of the Tofu Hyakuchin that shows that the book was not strictly for the purpose of play are the detailed cut sizes, measurements, and cooking utensils, potentially allowing readers to follow and recreate the dish. For instructions of cutting Tofu in the 72nd recipe, it instructs readers to “remove the coarse cloth texture from the surface of a whole tofu and cut off the four corners of the tofu, then cut the newly formed corners to make an octagon. Cut that into five or six smaller pieces. Season using sake, salt, and soy sauce” (Tofu Hyakuchin, 28). Another example is in the 96th recipe, readers are asked to “cut tofu in 2.4cm x 2.4cm x1.2-1.5cm cubes. On one skewer, place three pieces. Follow recipe number two (Kiji-yaki dengaku), grill until golden brown. Once it is grilled, remove them from the skewer. Place them in a Raku-ware teapot with a lid. Pour on hot pepper-vinegar-miso and sprinkle poppy seeds on top” (35).

Other detailed measurements are also explained in the 56th recipe, for example, “mix grilled tofu and Fukusa miso in a 7:3 ratio. Pound the mixture with a kitchen knife until it is one solid piece. Make into desired size, and lightly fry them. Season to desired choice”(24).  In the 81st recipe, furthermore, “use silken tofu. Boil six parts water to one-part sake. Once it is boiling add one-part soy sauce and let it reach a boil again. Place tofu into the mixture. The length of simmering is the same as number 92 of Yu-yakko. Remove the tofu right before it starts to float. Serve with grated daikon radish” (31). The recipes in Tofu Hyakuchin are in simple, syllabic writing and basic characters, with detailed measurements, and are easy for the reader to understand the method of cooking. In addition, it is easy to visualize the dish just by reading the instructions.


Introducing New Cooking Utensils

In one Tofu Hyakuchin recipe, it shows a new innovation: a charcoal stove specifically for making Kinome-Dengaku in the first tofu recipe. To proliferate varieties of cooking, it is essential to develop and invent new cooking tools. In the book, a new baking charcoal stove is introduced made of ceramic, which allowed for portability and better heat transfer than previous grills, as well as accessibility to a wider audience than traditional metal or steel grills. “Recently,” the book notes, “a new product was released for grilling miso dengaku (skewered tofu with miso sauce). About 60 cm in length; The width is about 8 cm; About 6 cm deep. This is made of pottery and has a hole in the bottom. There are many 1.8 cm holes (12).

Newly invented charcoal brazier for dengaku. In Tofu Hyakuchin [豆腐百珍, One Hundred Delightful Tastes of Tofu Recipes]. National Diet Library. (https://dl.ndl.go.jp/info:ndljp/pid/2536494)

There are also many cooking utensils made of metal introduced in the Tofu Haykuchin. We can assume that hardware stores were popular in the Edo period and selling metal products allowed more access for people to cook food at a higher temperature. For example, in the 40th recipe, a wire mesh (金の籠, Kane no amikago) is introduced:

“Simmer light-soy sauce with sake and salt. In a separate pan, bring a large amount of oil to a boil. Cut tofu into flat cubes and place them on a wire mesh. Fry the tofu by shaking it 2-3 times inside the oil. Once fried, immediately place the fried tofu in the pot of simmering soy sauce”(21). 

The 54th recipe also uses a sieve made of metal: “To make the mashed potato, boil mountain yam very well. Remove excess water and sift through a metal sieve (銅飾, Kanasuhinou)” (24). Moreover, in the 57th recipe, a metal spoon (金匕, Kanesaji) is used to “simmer whole tofu in a pot with no liquid over small heat. Remove the liquid that comes out of the tofu with a metal ladle”(25). 

The recipe book also mentions a specially shaped long wooden box (つきだし, tsukidashi) in the 100th tofu recipe, which has about the same cross section as that of a block of tofu, with a handle on one end, a screen over the opposite exit end, and a wooden pusher, which is used to push a block of tofu into the box and through the screen, thereby creating tofu noodles.

“To cut the tofu, use the tube used to make tokoroten [gelatin jelly strips]. Use silk string to make grids on the end of the tube. Point the tube directly into lukewarm water. Push the tofu through the tube to make a noodle-like shape. Let the tofu submerge in water as you push it through. Even when serving 100 people, it is important to cut the tofu immediately before serving”(37-38). 

Examining the contents of the Tofu Hyakuchin, this cookbook was not just a hobby of a cultured person, but all recipes are easy to make, delicious, and still seen today. It introduced detailed cut size and specific measurements of ingredients. It also introduced cooking methods such as frying, steaming, and boiling that could be easily done with the new invention of high-heat cooking utensils. From the other popular culture materials and Tokugawa edicts regarding the development of soybean production, we can see the possible accessibility of tofu. This paper is not to discredit previous scholars on this subject, whom I greatly respect, but to complicate our understanding and analysis of Edo period cookbooks.


Notes

1 For the full text of Keian Ofuregaki, see: (http://sybrma.sakura.ne.jp/329keiannoohuregaki.html).

2 Recently, the Kenan Ofuregaki is considered forged document issued by the Edo Shogunate in 1649. It is believed that first issued in the territory of the Kofu domain in Kai Province in 1697, with the addition of a tradition that it is a curtain law of the Keian era. See, Yamamoto Eiji. Kenan no Furegagi wa dasaretaka (慶安の触書はだされたか). Tokyo: Yamakawa-shuppan, 2002.

 

Rice Bread in Sixteenth-Century Italy

By Lena Breda

While scholars are broadening our understanding of food in early modern Italy, one curiously absent ingredient from such pictures is rice. Rice (or oryza sativa) is hypothesized to have been brought to Europe as early as 400 BCE [1], used more as medicine than as a culinary ingredient. The European consumption and cultivation of rice, however, increased rapidly in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as eastern trade networks faltered following the Ottoman Empire’s capture of Constantinople in 1453 [2]. Aided by contemporary improvements in irrigation, sixteenth-century Italian farmers from across the peninsula took to their soils to grow this increasingly popular grain.

Although there is much to be uncovered regarding the ‘Rice Renaissance’ of the sixteenth-century, one area for further research is its cause. While there may have been the necessary land and technology for rice cultivation, such features do not explain why Italians decided to start cultivating rice as opposed to any other crop.

One possible motivation yet unexplored by historians is the contemporary lack of wheat. Wheat—specifically wheat bread—was the cornerstone of pre-modern Italian diets; its absence was detrimental for urban society. Sixteenth-century Italy suffered a series of wheat shortages as a result of inclimate weather, forcing many to find suitable alternatives. Contemporary accounts praising the abundant harvest and agricultural fortitude of rice suggest these were considered important benefits, possibly indicating why rice’s cultivation grew in this period. Rice, resistant to soil erosion and cold weather, may have proved an appealing and reliable alternative to wheat during harvest crises.

Relatedly, grain fraud petrified sixteenth-century Italians during famines. As bread prices surged, fears that bakers substituted wheat with alternatives (but charged the same price) verged on paranoia. Many sixteenth-century Italians recount how contemporaries would make hybrid loaves during famines, combining numerous grains together including beans, millet, oats—and rice. Given the simultaneous shortage of wheat and increasing cultivation of rice, is it possible bakers made rice breads that would have passed as wheat?

Reading numerous such mentions of rice bread, I asked myself: is this even feasible? Would rice bread be a presentable or edible product? Could these accounts be merely impracticable exaggerations? Therefore, I conducted an experiment to see if rice bread could be crafted, and whether it would be aesthetically pleasing, delicious, and mistakable for a pure-wheat bread.

As other contributors have noted, it is impossible to recreate a historical recipe exactly given the difference in ingredients, tools, and training. Despite these deviations, my experiment would still allow me to observe whether rice bread could be executed in practice or whether such accounts were myth.

For this experiment, I based my recipe off of Giovanni Battista Segni’s Discorso sopra la carestia e fame (1591). In this text, Segni recounts famine in his life and in history, and describes various ingredients in terms of their role during food shortages. While he does not include a classic ‘recipe’ for rice bread, Segni describes the proportions people would use to increase the size of their bread loaves without more wheat flour. Segni writes that for every 30 pounds of “grain” (presumably wheat) flour, they would add three pounds of rice flour with hot water (41).

Based on this proportion, I modified a bread recipe to substitute 10% of the wheat flour with rice flour and see if that modified the final size, taste, and appearance of the bread loaf. For comparison, I also created a 100% wheat and 100% rice flour loaf.

Control Recipe

Segni-Hybrid Loaf

Pure Rice Loaf

      ●         200 g wheat

      ●         4 g salt (2%)

      ●         7 g yeast (2.5%)

      ●         120 g water (60%)

      ●         5 g sugar (.005)

      ●         Drizzle of oil

      ●         181 g wheat flour

      ●         18 g rice flour

      ●         4 g salt

      ●         7 g yeast

      ●         120 g water

      ●         5 g sugar

      ●         Drizzle of oil

      ●         200 g rice flour

      ●         4 g salt

      ●         7 g yeast

      ●         120 g water

      ●         5 g sugar

      ●         Drizzle of oil

 

While creating the loaves, I was forced to modify the base recipes due to the nature of the ingredients. While the control and hybrid loaves followed the planned recipes, the pure rice dough needed much more water. Likely due to the lack of gluten, the pure rice mixture was oilier and crumblier, creating a mass that felt more like wet sand than supple bread dough.

After letting the loaves rest, the two wheaten ones had risen nicely (the pure wheat somewhat more than the hybrid) while the rice loaf appeared the same after forty minutes. Once baked, the rice loaf was very white but very wrinkled, and had barely grown in size. The other two loaves, however, had risen, browned, and were nearly identical.

Upon tasting, it was clear that a 100% pure rice loaf would be unable to pass as wheat bread. The flavor was very bland, but the clearest problem was the texture. Incredibly hard and crumbly, the rice loaf was nearly impossible to slice. This result corroborates some sixteenth-century authors who remark on the heaviness of rice bread. Indeed, the rice bread was substantially heavier than the others: 318 grams while the wheat loaf was 306g and the hybrid was 304g. Its greater weight was likely caused by the additional water I added to form a workable dough. On the other hand, the hybrid was a near doppelganger of the wheat loaf. In fact, both were so identical I had to be attentive to not confuse them. Their interchangeability was underscored by the fact that there was no rice flavor in the hybrid loaf.

While my experiment was unable to corroborate Segni’s assertion that a 10% rice flour loaf would be larger or heavier, it did confirm that it would be possible to substitute without detection some rice flour for wheat in grain scarcity. This experiment also demonstrates that rice substitutions could not occur in a complete absence of wheat given the inability to create a successful 100% rice loaf. While these results do not prove conclusively that famines contributed to the rise in rice cultivation during the sixteenth-century, they do suggest that rice would have been an appealing alternative to wheat during such shortages. My experiment also confirms that rice flour substitutions could occur unbeknownst to the buyer, given that the hybrid and wheat loaves were near identical. Moreover, both findings present the value of remaking as a mode of historical analysis.


[1]: For more on rice’s history before its arrival to Europe, read: Chang, Te-Tzu, “Rice,” The Cambridge World History of Food (2000), 132-149.

[2]: For more on Italy’s historical relationship and cultivation of rice, consult: Bevilacqua, Piero, Tra natura e storia: ambiente, economie, risorse in Italia (Rome: Donzelli, 1996), 39-48.

Imperfect practice: a case for making early modern recipes badly

By Kate Owen

I used to think “what’s the point of recipe making if you know you will not be making them with the diligence and expertise needed for practice based research?”

Recreating early modern recipes is not part of my academic work and the thought of making them from the manuscripts I work with was initially quite intimidating, especially when the threat of failure is ever present. That
failure is also highly visible, material, and sometimes requires a time consuming clean up. Making an early modern recipe requires the maker to confront the gaps and absences which are created in the process of translating physical acts into written recipes. This empty space reflects the difficulty of translating action and experience into the written word, or the inability of transferring a ‘knack’ for something from one person’s muscle memory to another’s brain. Some of the pitfalls I encountered when recreating early modern recipes in the 21st century were also present 250 or
more years ago, but have become almost impossible to avoid as time stretches away from these moments. The most obvious differences observed were the working environment, cooking equipment and tools, and variations in the production, look, and taste of ingredients. However, the most striking is assumed knowledge: the things that the recipe author had deemed so elementary to everyday cookery that there was no point wasting ink on their description. When so much amazing work is being done on recreating early modern recipes, is there any purpose of trying it at home when those results are (mostly) unachievable?

My first successful attempt at recipe making was born out of necessity when I needed to make a dessert for my partner’s visiting parents. It was a very busy week and by picking a simple early modern recipe, I could introduce my partner’s parents to my research and avoid any cake rising disasters. I baked some rosewater biscuits from Frances Springatt’s receipt book. [1] This triggered a madeleine moment for my partner’s mother, who suddenly remembered a similar biscuit she loved as a child, but had long forgotten. The act of making this recipe had produced a non-physical gift along with the physical product, and created a special moment between me and my partner’s parents . Since that first biscuit I have made early modern recipes frequently, still without the conscientiousness of faithful recreation, and have learned the ways in which the making process operates in the life of the maker in addition to producing the product. I realised that the social and bonding functions of recipe making that I had read about academically in Elaine Leong’s Recipes and Everyday Knowledge and Leong and Sara Pennell’s ‘Recipe Collections and the Currency of Medical Knowledge in the Early Modern “Medical Marketplace”‘ were just as relevant to my recipe recreation.[2] Like early modern recipe book users I have made recipes for social reasons and gifted them to potential friends, to ease the stress of fellow students during our dissertation presentations, and to show solidarity with striking staff.

Photograph of a plate with biscuits. The biscuits are pale in colour and covered with rose petals.
Kate Owen’s version of Springatt’s biscuits, made without ‘the herb coffins’ and gluten free (c) Kate Owen

The ways early modern recipes have acted in my own life have made me more appreciative of the invisible impact of recipe compiling and testing in the early modern period. What did people gain from making recipes that could not be
quantified by a usable (or unusable) product or a new addition or annotation in a manuscript recipe book? I began to wonder about the less tangible, often emotional, by-products of recipe making that left no material trace, such as
satisfaction, relief, frustration, or an altering of a sense of identity. Scholarship on recipe book compilation has described how the organisation and upkeep of these manuscripts created a place for self construction and expression
in a society where a successful household had social, religious, and political implications. Since starting recipe making myself I am interested in how the individual testing process can equally feed into the maker’s sense of self.[3]  By attempting to create the physical product, rather than just reading recipe books, one can gain insight to the emotional impact of recipe making that is often not captured on the page.

Looking back, it was rather naive of me to believe that you had to begin recreating a recipe with the guarantee of a perfect end product. In actuality, recipes are written to inspire action and I have gained so much appreciation into the manuscripts I work with through making them. Recreating these recipes can be both an insightful and emotional experience for the modern maker.


Kate Owen is a second year PhD student at the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, University College London. Her project looks at knowledge organisation in early modern manuscript recipe books.

[1] Wellcome MS.4683

[2] Elaine Leong, Recipe and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science, and the Household (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018); Elaine Leong and Sara Pennell, ‘Recipe Collections and the Currency of Medical Knowledge in the Early Modern “Medical Market Place”‘ in Medicine and the Market in England and its Colonies c. 1450-c.1850, ed. By Mark S.R. Jenner and Patrick Wallis (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

[3] Catherine Field, ‘“Many hands hands”: Writing the Self in Early Modern Women’s Recipe Books’ in Genre and Women’s Life Writing in Early Modern England, ed. by Michelle M. Dowd and Julie A. Eckerle. (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007)

Cha (ឆា):The Remarkable Role of Stir-Fries in Khmer Gastronomy and Healing

By Ashley Thuthao Keng Dam

Within the grand, yet nebulous universe of what food and culture writers deem as “Asian” cooking and gastronomy, there is a deep love and affinity for the stir-fry. In a hot oily pan, various combinations of vegetables and proteins are tossed and transformed into something wonderful. The simple act of tossing becomes momentous – a way to incorporate flavours and aspects of a cuisine’s eccentricities with chosen ingredients in an endless number of ways. To say that the stir-fry “belongs” to as specific culinary tradition is contentious at times. While the origins of stir-fry, as a cooking technique and dish, originated in China, many cultures across the Asian continent and beyond have embraced it within their own cooking traditions.[1]

Growing up in the Khmer diaspora of the United States, my family and friends have had many conversations about what truly constitutes “Khmer” food and cuisine. More often than not, a joke about Cha (ឆា) would be made. Typically referencing how our moms would throw together whatever vegetables were floating around in our fridges with slices of random meats to feed us on small budgets of both time and money. To spruce up one’s cha,  additional clumps of garlic, onion, chili peppers, and or ginger were fried and immediately dashed with soy sauce, fish sauce, and oyster sauce.

A plate of cha trakhoun (morning glorywith chicken and rice

These core ingredients, with their strong and savoury aromas, constantly perfumed our kitchens. We ate cha for lunch, for dinner, at family potlucks, and when we were sick — to the surprise of many. Stir-fries as being curative cuisines, or the foods you consume (and lean on) when you’re unwell, is not a common association. In what reality could an oily and heavily spiced dish facilitate healing?

These were just some of my initial thoughts when I began my doctoral research in Siem Reap, Cambodia on Khmer traditional and folk food-medicines used in response to changes brought forth by seasonality, maternity, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the interviews and conversations that took place, the consistent mentioning of a number of Khmer dishes which defined my childhood arose, with several types of cha being the most common. As I listened to each study participant’s reflections on food-medicines and/or curative cuisines, the actions and rationalities of my mother began to clarify intensely.

Whenever my sister or I were sick, she’d encourage us to eat chili peppers, limes, black pepper, ginger, and garlic in excess. Her rationality was that I needed to “warm my body” and that these ingredients would do that for me. Alongside bowls of borbor (rice porridge) and snau (soup), she’d prepare us some cha kgneuy (ginger stir-fry). This orientation of rice, soup, and stir-fry embodied the characteristic spread of Khmer cuisine — a little bit of everything: rice, soup, a fresh vegetables and herbs plate, and cha to bring it all together.[1]

A typical Khmer meal spread with rice, cha, vegetable/herb plate, snau (soup), and grilled fish

In both traditional and folk Khmer medicine, health and wellness are partially reliant on the balancing of bodily humors. Under the humoral theory of medicine, the body is made up of four distinctive humors (blood, phlegm, black/yellow bile) which correspond to specific organs and well as conditions (hotness, coldness, wetness, dryness). When these humors are pushed out of balance for one reason or another, illness ensues. To address this, both traditional and folk Khmer medicine approaches feature consumable remedies that shift one’s humoral orientation back into alignment.

In traditional and folk Khmer food-medicines, cha is a ubiquitous remedy because of its versatility. The ingredients of the cha determine its humoral qualities and impact. You can humorally “cool” or “warm” your body by eating a specific kind of cha. During pregnancy, cha trakhoun with oyster sauce (stir-fried morning glory) or cha mereh (stir-fried bitter melon) is eaten to cool and soothe the humors. In contrast, during postpartum as well as for COVID-19 prevention, cha kgneuy (stir-fried ginger with slices of meat) is used to warm the body and increase immunity.

A plate of chicken and chili pepper cha and sour snau soup

 In combination with other nourishing Khmer dishes, as well as the occasional medicinal decoction, cha dishes act as core components of the traditional and folk Khmer food-medicine healing regiments. In this way, cha blends together processes of eating and healing within certain contexts. The importance of cha to Khmer culture is exceptional, no matter how you frame it. Walk into any restaurant in Cambodia, and you’ll be sure to find one on the menu!


References

[1] http://www.china.org.cn/english/MATERIAL/26142.htm.

[2] In, S., Lambre, C., Camel, V., & Ouldelhkim, M. (2015). “Regional and Seasonal Variations of Food Consumption in Cambodia.” Malaysian Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 21, pp. 167–178.