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.

“Daily Recipes for Home Cooking” (1924)

By Nathan Hopson

This is the second in a planned series of posts on nutrition science and government-sanctioned recipes in imperial Japan.

Imagine a national cookbook. What would that look like? What would it say about the values and ideology of the society in which it was produced and the individuals and governmental organizations involved? Well, Japan gave us at least one answer to this almost a century ago, in 1924.

The first post in this series examined the “Nutrition Song,” a 1922 Japanese song with lyrics by the founding director of Japan’s Government Institution for Nutrition (IGIN). This song was part of an extensive and diverse media strategy that included early adoption of radio as a medium; IGIN-approved recipes were broadcast daily beginning in 1926 and printed the following day in the major newspapers. More remarkable as a manifesto than as a musical achievement, this song articulated a program for a rational, economical, modern diet. The lyrics encapsulate the IGIN’s advocacy of nutrition science as a win-win tool to improve individual quality of life and national strength.

In fact, the Institute began publishing daily “cheap, delicious recipes” on May 29, 1922 (figure 1), calling for a “kitchen revolution” to realize “an economical life and increased health for the Japanese.” Radio was a tantalizingly novel, fashionable, quintessentially modern medium rapidly adopted in urban Japan. Along with popular programs like radio calisthenics, the IGIN’s menus du jour, which carried the imprimatur of a premier government science laboratory and its celebrity chief, “modernized and ‘rationalized’ conceptions of the body, health, physical fitness, and exercise.” The appeal of both calisthenics and the Institute’s meal plans was both positive and negative, personal and patriotic. On the one hand, there was the possibility of personal betterment. On the other, many Japanese were plagued by “a nagging sense of physical inferiority vis-à-vis” the Western imperial powers.[1]

Figure 1 The IGIN’s first daily recipes published in a major newspaper. From Asahi Shinbun, May 29, 1922.

But even before its foray into radio, in 1924 the IGIN compiled a year’s worth of recipes originally published in newspapers into a cookbook called Daily Recipes for Home Cooking. A few columns explaining basic facts about nutrition, hygiene, etc., are sprinkled throughout, but otherwise Daily Recipes is a straightforward day-by-day guide to preparing “nutritious, delicious, and economical” breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a middle-class family of three.

When I picked up a copy of this book, I was delighted to find that the May 29 menu is in fact the same as that for the Institute’s memorable 1922 newspaper debut: shellfish simmered in soy sauce and mirin (tsukudani) and miso soup with cabbage for breakfast, fried bamboo shoots and salted salmon sashimi for lunch, and a pork and vegetable curry accompanied by spicy pickled bamboo shoots and wakame for dinner.

There are two marked differences between the 1922 Asahi article and the Daily Recipes version. First, the former explicitly lists rice as the main course, while the latter does not. (Conversely, the cookbook includes seasonings like soy sauce and sugar, not listed in the 1922 version.) The inclusion of rice is significant because, despite the IGIN’s open antagonism to white rice as wasteful and even a threat to national security (teaser!), the Institute expected a family of three to consume almost two liters of cooked rice daily. Second, the newspaper itemizes nutritional information, while the cookbook does not. This speaks to a difference in context. Cookbook buyers were likely to be converts to the IGIN’s ideology of “economical nutrition” and believers in the Institute’s bona fides and its scientized menu based on the principles of quantification and substitution. If the newspaper recipes were proselytization for the New Nutrition-style IGIN diet, the cookbook was more “preaching to the choir.”

Table 1 Nutrition information for IGIN’s May 29, 1922/1924 daily recipes (serves 3)

Ingredients Amount (g) Protein (g) Calories Price (sen)
Rice 1.9 (liters) 100.4 4814.4 54
Cabbage 75 2.2 35.2 2
Miso 112.5 13.8 177.9 3
Shellfish 75 13.6 57 10
Salted salmon 225 58.7 306 9
Daikon 150 1.1 27 2
Bamboo shoots 300 7.8 90 1
Sesame oil 56 0 506.3 4.5
Wheat flour 75 8.8 274.2 2
Beef 187.5 28.7 598.1 15
Carrot 56 0.7 21.9 2
Potato 112.5 1.7 96.8 2
Wakame 19 2.2 38.4 2
Suet 45 0.2 411.7 3.5
Total 240 7455 112
Total/person 80 2485 37.3

*Amounts approximate; calculated from Japanese Imperial units
**Sen = ¥1/100

To return to my original question, as exemplified by this daily menu plan from Daily Recipes, the IGIN relentlessly backed a national dietary reform program couched in the Fordist/Taylorist logic of quantification and substitution. In doing so, the Institute appealed to the self-interest of the new professionalizing housewife, who was increasingly expected to mobilize modern science to improve the efficiency and quality of life of her family—and by extension, the nation.


[1] Kerim Yasar, Electrified Voices: How the Telephone, Phonograph, and Radio Shaped Modern Japan, 1868-1945 (Columbia University Press, 2018), 120.

Nathan Hopson is an associate professor of Japanese and East Asian history at Nagoya University, Japan. His first book, Ennobling Japan’s Savage Northeast: Tōhoku as Postwar Thought, 1945-2011 (Harvard University Asia Center, 2017) treated the place of Tōhoku (northeast Honshu) in modern Japanese national history. He is currently researching the history of school lunches in Japan and their relationship to the development and application of nutrition science as a technology of national strengthening, focusing on the history of governmental “nutritional activism” and the school lunch program, 1920-present.

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!

The “Nutrition Song”: Imperial Japan’s Recipe for National Nutrition

Nathan Hopson

This is the first in a planned series of posts on nutrition science and government-sanctioned recipes in imperial Japan.

In May 1922, Japan’s preeminent nutritionist, Saiki Tadasu, released a recording of his “Nutrition Song,” performed by opera star Hanafusa Shizuko. Saiki, a medical doctor who had received a PhD from Yale in 1907 before returning to Japan to crusade for national nutritional improvement, was the founding director of the Government Institution for Nutrition (IGIN). In this position, Saiki was the most prominent of a generation of nutritional reformers who advocated a new national diet based on modern, rational nutrition science. The IGIN, the world’s first government-sponsored dedicated nutrition lab, was established in 1920 under the powerful home ministry to address a constellation of “food problems” increasingly unavoidable after the nationwide paroxysm of Rice Riots in 1918. It was a recognition at the highest levels that for Japan to fulfill its dream of being one of the Great Powers, from the ideological project of hygienic modernity to the realities of scarcity and waste, food would play a central role.

Under Saiki, the IGIN evangelized for a distinctly Japanese “national nutrition,” based on the objective and quantifiable universalities of state-of-the-art nutrition science—especially the American “New Nutrition” to which he had been exposed while in the US—but simultaneously sensitive to Japan’s particular circumstances. The Institute primarily targeted the new urban middle-class “professional housewife” class and children more broadly: the former with a media blitz that included articles in women’s magazines, a daily radio broadcast of approved recipes (a topic for a future post), and numerous workshops, both on-site and around Japan; and the latter through a school lunch program that gained traction in the 1920s. This combination, promising to help both women and children, promised the greatest long-term improvement in the national diet: children would learn to eat properly, and their mothers to cook properly. In all of its proselytizing, the Institute appealed to the upwardly mobile self-interest of its audiences, reminding them that with its scientific and rational “economical nutrition” plans, they could do more with less.

The “Nutrition Song” was a didactic nine-verse summary of Saiki’s master plan for proper (rational and economical) national nutrition, based on the substitution of nutritionally equivalent foods to reduce waste and cost while simultaneously increasing efficiency. The first two stanzas of the Nutrition Song deal, respectively, with personal and social nutrition. The third verse explains macronutrients. The fourth lists daily dietary requirements and promotes Saiki’s “each meal perfect” meal planning system, based on the New Nutrition’s Taylorist doctrine of nutritional quantifiability and the substitutability of equivalent foods. Verses five, six, and seven are, respectively, anti-gourmand, pro-substitution (“economical nutrition”), and white rice-skeptical (another topic for another day…). The final two verses remind listeners to eat rationally rather than emotionally. Saiki’s lyrics are, in short, imperial Japan’s recipe for national nutrition.<

Figure 1 The “Nutrition Song.” Lyrics by Saiki Tadasu, 1922. Author’s collection.
Figure 1 The “Nutrition Song.” Lyrics by Saiki Tadasu, 1922. Author’s collection.

Wake in the morning with the strength to crush an ogre
Refreshed by peaceful dreams
With a strong mind to overcome heat and cold
Impervious to disease
These are the gifts of nutrition


Even foreigners will be jealous of our children and grandchildren
Great and strong, humbly thank the gods
For pure water and endless food
Giving life and saving the world
These are the rewards of nutrition

Protein in milk, meat, eggs, shellfish, and beans builds the body
Potatoes, grains, and sugars are called carbohydrates
Like fats they burn easily, giving strength and heat
What’s left settles, enriching the body

An average working person requires
80g of protein and 2400 calories, the rest from fats and carbohydrates
Ensure that each meal
Is rich in nutrition

“Good” foods are not necessarily rare delicacies
Affordable wholesome foods abound
Meats are good, fish excellent
Dried or salted, cod, sardines, herring, and fresh bream

Tofu, natto, miso, and soy flour; beans can substitute for meat
Supplement taste and nutrition with meat scraps and dried whole sardines
Prepare food cleverly so as not to waste
And learn proper storage so as not to waste heaven’s bounty

Consider the immense virtues in each little grain
Use rice properly: mill appropriately and don’t wash
When rice is scarce, eat barley, buckwheat, millets, and potatoes
Eating them all together for red blood and strong bones

Eat a balanced diet, different for young and old
Eat bones, skin, and flesh for minerals and vitamins
Do not gratify your appetites; daily routine is most important
Chew well and don’t be picky
That’s the secret to a long, healthy life

In frozen winter the body loses heat
So eat plenty of fatty foods
In sweltering summer, eat fruits and vegetables and drink water
For unchanging health in changing seasons

In my next post, I’ll examine the IGIN’s official cookbook, a year’s worth of IGIN-endorsed recipes interspersed with helpful columns about food- and nutrition-related topics. It’s the practical application of the principles laid out in the “Nutrition Song.” This post is based on my forthcoming article, “Nutrition as National Defense: Japan’s Imperial Government Institute for Nutrition, 1920-1940.” Journal of Japanese Studies 45, no. 1 (2019).

Nathan Hopson is an associate professor of Japanese and East Asian history at Nagoya University, Japan. His first book, Ennobling Japan’s Savage Northeast: Tōhoku as Postwar Thought, 1945-2011 (Harvard University Asia Center, 2017) treated the place of Tōhoku (northeast Honshu) in modern Japanese national history. He is currently researching the history of school lunches in Japan and their relationship to the development and application of nutrition science as a technology of national strengthening, focusing on the history of governmental “nutritional activism” and the school lunch program, 1920-present.