Very Frugal Ways to Cook Rice—Famine Prevention and Common Knowledge in Edo Japan

By Joshua Schlachet

If you’ve browsed The Recipes Project in the past several weeks, you may have raised an eyebrow at the unfamiliar black and white squiggles that decorate the top of our page (written, by the way, in a cursive form of premodern Japanese). As my October editorial duties slowly draw to a close, I couldn’t let the month go by without spoiling the mystery of this little recipe collection…of sorts…as economical in its prose as in its outlook.

Consisting of a single broadsheet (what you see above is the whole thing), Very Frugal Ways to Cook Rice (Daikenyaku meshi no takiyō), was likely produced around the time of Japan’s Great Tenpō Famine in the 1830s as a no-nonsense guide to help households squeeze a little more out of their staple grains. Rice prices could fluctuate wildly from season to season in time of scarcity, and to the extent that ordinary people could afford to eat (usually brown) rice at all, cutting it with cheaper vegetables and coarse grains became a strategy for survival.

Very Frugal Ways of Cooking Rice. Photo courtesy of the Waseda University Library Digital Collection of Historical Japanese Books.

Very Frugal Ways to Cook Rice was one of many vernacular publications—meant to help regular folks combat famine conditions—that circulated through the vibrant marketplace for commercial print during Japan’s Edo period (1600-1868). If it wasn’t given away for free, it was available for cheap, meaning a family could likely recoup what little they spent on the pamphlet itself in as little as a single meal. This was no small claim for those in need, and economizing became both a key premise in enduring food shortages and a central feature of every recipe listed here. 

What are the Very Frugal Ways to Cook Rice? The guide “instructs” readers on how to prepare rice seasoned and combined with a variety of inexpensive beans, roots, grains, and leaves, similar to the contemporary Japanese dish takikomi gohan. Each recipe indicates the proper proportions (five parts rice to four parts barley, for example) and basic directions for foods like barley, sweet potato, tofu lees, fava beans, millet, daikon radish, carrots, cow peas, red beans, as well as two kinds of “very economical” porridge that could stretch rice even further. Based on which ingredient one mixed in, a household could save a hefty thirty to eighty mon (a common denomination of copper coinage) on ten portions, a significant sum worth as much as $10 to $25 in today’s currency.

Contemporary image of Japanese mixed, seasoned rice (takikomi gohan). Photo courtesy of Ajinomoto Park.

Yet one thing continues to bug me about these very frugal recipes: why go through the trouble to teach people what they already knew? The directions themselves are so simple and intuitive as to border on obvious: cook beans, mix with rice; cut potatoes into chunks, mix with rice; boil leaves, season, mix. What’s more, families likely prepared such dishes in their homes already, making Very Frugal Ways redundant knowledge that didn’t bear repeating. Barring anything earth shattering within the recipes themselves, communicating frugality was itself the point. In a society where rice was not only the staple food but the basic unit of taxation and exchange, where running out signaled destitution, economizing as a lesson was worth reproducing the same old recipes, even if everyone already knew what was on the menu.

Tales from the Archives: Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

In my first months of co-editing duties here at The Recipes Project, one of my many delights has been the opportunity to dig back in our archives to rediscover posts I’ve loved over the years, to see them with fresh eyes. As a historian of Japan, I’ve looked forward to exploring and expanding our content on Asia, especially in global exchange. In that spirit, I bring you a classic post on European medicine in Siam (Thailand) from back in 2015, Tara Alberts’ “Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam.”

You may also notice several posts on a mini-theme of…shall we say uncomfortable recipes throughout the month of April, including historical treatments for lice and hemorrhoids already available to read (with more to come). Though I’d hardly put drinking gold at the same level of discomfort, and a fleck of gold leaf in a cocktail can still be a decadent indulgence today, I’d hate to see what a bellyful of Parisian golden medicine would do to a poor king’s stomach. Salud!

Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

By Tara Alberts

In a previous post I discussed how early modern Catholic missionaries sought to showcase the most up-to-date European medicines to impress their target audiences. This was also a key strategy used to gain access to royal courts throughout Asia.

At the court of King Narai (r. 1656-88) of Siam, for example, Europeans joined experts from China, India, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia to provide medical advice to the royal family.  Narai’s court was a cosmopolitan place: the king was keen to hear about foreign technologies and theories, and to encourage foreign trade. The French missionaries of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP) were determined to take advantage of the opportunities that this offered.

Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons
King Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons

This could be easier said than done. It’s likely that the job of concocting remedies fell to René Charbonneau (1643-1727), a lay auxiliary to the MEP who had trained as a surgeon. In a 1677 he wrote a frustrated letter to a friend in Paris pleading for an easy-to-follow recipe written in French for aurum potabile. ‘The king has asked for drinkable gold’, he wrote ‘but we have not been able to manage it. […] Please write down in a letter the method of making it and purifying it for use, and the manner in which it is taken, written out in full in clear French and not in Latin and not in terms of chemistry as I am not versed in that art.’ (Archives des Missions Étrangères [AMEP] vol. 861, p. 41).

Gold-based medicines had ancient precedents in various European and Asian medical traditions. Like many putative panacea they enjoyed a renaissance in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth seventeenth centuries. [i] There were innumerable recipes available to create aurum potabile, often using gold flakes or powder alongside other expensive ingredients including precious stones, unicorn horn and spices.

Yet since the sixteenth century, many writers had been extremely skeptical about whether such cures could possibly be of use. The chemist Nicolas Lefebvre, in his Traité de la Chymie (1660), denied that they could have any effect on the human body. Mixing gold leaf into medical concoctions and powders, he asserted, was an ‘abuse in Pharmacy that the Arabs have introduced’ (p. 801). Such medicaments could not be effective as the human body contained nothing capable of breaking the gold down. Lefebvre doubted whether any efficacious cure could really be created from gold, but like other compilers of alchemical compendia, he provided a range of common recipes to purify and use gold in a more sophisticated manner.

An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop. The Wellcome Library, London
An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop, 1665

It seems that the MEP were attempting to use these sorts of alchemical methods to create a ‘true’ drinkable gold (rather than just creating a medicinal draught with added gold flakes) and that this was proving difficult. MEP missionary Charles Sevin (?-1707) blamed the equipment available in Siam. He explained in a letter to his Parisian superiors that they had brought the necessary ingredients to make the king some huile d’or potable, but the glass retorts they acquired there all shattered before they reached the necessary temperatures. (AMEP, vol. 851, p. 190).

Others confessed that their ignorance of alchemical processes was hindering progress. Charbonneau mentions that he had with him Christophe Glaser’s Traité de Chymie (1667). In this, Glaser explains several different ways of purifying gold, and offers several different methods for rendering this purified gold usable as a medical preparation through fulmination, calcination with mercury, or dissolution in the aptly named ‘royal water’ (eau régale or aqua regia – nitrohydrochloric acid). One recipe for a draught containing ‘diaphoretic gold powder’ for example, recommends that after purification the gold should be dissolved in three drams of royal water to which is added a dram of refined saltpeter. This liquid should then be used to soak small pieces of linen, which, once dried, should be burnt. The resultant ashes should be collected carefully using a hare’s foot or a feather and then used to make a pill or a draught using a small amount of wine or bouillon.

Glaser’s stated aim in writing his Traité was to set out the principles and practices of chemistry in plain language, but Charbonneau complained that he found Glaser’s text confusing. He and his confrères had had some success when they attempted to follow Glaser’s instructions with regards to purifying tin, but they were not confident enough to give a demonstration, nor, presumably, to waste their supplies of ingredients needed to make impressive remedies for the king.

There was a clear incentive to make a particularly impressive version of drinkable gold which would showcase the effectiveness of exotic European recipes, and by extension other branches of European knowledge. Yet even the most up-to-date texts explaining how to create these remedies were useless without the necessary skills and equipment to put the theory into practice. No wonder then that MEP superiors in Siam began soon to lobby for missionaries and lay helpers who were skilled in alchemy to be sent from Paris.

[i] Informative overviews of the history of pharmaceutical gold are provided here by R. Console, and here by M. Hendriksen.

Introducing Our New Co-Editor: Josh Schlachet

Interview by Jess Clark

As we mentioned at the beginning of 2019, there are a number of exciting new developments happening here at the Recipes Project, including the arrival of three new co-editors. Today I have the pleasure of introducing one of them: Josh Schlachet! Josh is a historian of early modern and modern Japan who focuses on food cultures, nourishment, and global food studies. I recently had the opportunity to ask Josh about his research interests in recipes. Without further ado, please welcome our new co-editor, in his own words.


Welcome to your new role as co-editor of the Recipes Project, Josh!  What interests you most about recipes?

What I find most fascinating about recipes is the multitude of ways that people think up to get from a heap of stuff to a finished product. Even when they set out to make the exact same thing, no two recipes ever imagine quite the same method for getting there. My grandmother’s “secret” matzo ball recipe (the beans now very much spilled) calls for seltzer instead of water, we believed to add some fluff to the rock-hard alternative. And she always added shredded chicken to her soup, though the purists would insist that broth alone would have been enough. Recipes allow a sort of freedom in what we might expect to be a strict formula, a chance for authors and makers to craft new styles of doing old things and a flexibility to interpret among those who follow them. It is these endless permutations that grant us the choice of which to follow, or the creative opportunity to deviate, hybridize, combine. A recipe, despite its self-apparent certainty, is always one of many.

Fig. 1. Teisai Hokuba, "Bowl of New Year Food," c. 1808. Image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Fig. 1. Teisai Hokuba, “Bowl of New Year Food,” c. 1808. Image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art.

We know that you work on food and nourishment in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Japan. How do recipes feature in your research?

As someone who writes about food and nourishment in Japan, recipes are all over my research, though not in the ways you might expect. One surprising thing that jumps off the pages of culinary manuals from Japan’s Edo period (1600-1868) is just how little their authors seemed to care about the details of how food was prepared—and possibly even less about how the completed dish was meant to look and taste. Or we could say that the expectation of esoteric knowledge ran so deep that they left such trivial particulars unsaid. Like Escoffier’s elegantly sparse directions in his tree of sauces (for sauce champignons: make a demi-glace, add mushrooms) you were supposed to already know what to do. Yet the documents I work with constantly reveal their formulas for how to assemble a dietary philosophy, as well as how to live by it once crafted. These, too, are recipes in a sense. They walked audiences step-by-step through how to think about their own consumption, and the finished product was meant to be their bodies, not their meals.

As a researcher or educator, what’s been your favorite recipe to use and why?

My favorite collection of recipes to work and teach with, though I certainly wouldn’t want to eat the results myself, appears in An Outline on Famine Relief, a text from the early nineteenth century that sought to alleviate the conditions of mass starvation plaguing Japan at the time. In their defiant ingenuity in the face of misery, these recipes show us the strength of the human will to survive. They instructed readers on how to prepare and combine “ingredients” from the scum that seeped off the bottom of rice-washing water to starch pounded from wild roots, pulped tree bark, beeswax, and whatever other half-edibles famine victims could find. Recipes like these could be useful as philanthropic tools, too, helping to create a sense of urgency and prompting those with enough to come to the aid of those in dire need. They also demonstrate just how adaptable a recipe can be, how formats built for delicacies in times of plenty could transform to fit moments of desperate lack.

We’re excited about new developments here at the Recipes Project. What kinds of posts are you hoping to commission for the RP

I’m excited too! One of my goals for the Recipes Project is to expand our global scope, especially in the areas of East Asia that I focus on in my own work. To that end, I hope to commission posts for the RP that put recipes in cross-cultural perspective and build out from our strengths in the European and American contexts. I also hope to test out some new framings for how we conceive of the already expansive category of recipes. I’d like to organize a series of posts on industrial development recipes in the modernizing world, from concrete manufacturing to chemical flavor enhancers. I’m also interested in a series that explores luxury and lack, including the kinds of recipes for the impoverished I mentioned above. It’s a genuine pleasure to join the RP team, and I look forward to many recipes to come!