Here are lots of fish and lots of soups, sweet juicy fruits, miso, carrots, daikon radish, seaweed, noodles, tofu, yams, and much else Japanese eat along with their staple grain (see F-9 -RICE TO EAT).
Autumn – beginning mid-August -- is season of beauty and sadness, of globes of juicy fruit hanging on branches -- dark orange kaki, persimmons, and light orange mikans (Mandarin oranges) a remarkable image of prosperity. Here is a greeting Basho wrote to a family he visited in this season
The clear vivid orange colors are the fruits of their labor, the years and years of work -- planting fruit trees, building houses, starting businesses - to produce the prosperity of those not even born when that work was done. So Basho is praising the hopes of family members for the children
The liver and ovaries of the globefish contain the deadly poison tetrodotoxin. Fugu sashimi may cause intoxication, light-headedness, and numbness of the lips, and is often eaten for ‘high.’ Tetrodotoxin poisoning deadens the tongue and lips, and induces dizziness and vomiting, followed by numbness and prickling over the body, rapid heart rate, decreased blood pressure, and muscle paralysis. The toxin paralyzes diaphragm muscles and stops breathing. People who live longer than 24 hours typically survive, although possibly after a coma lasting several days.
Yesterday Basho enjoyed this culinary Russian roulette. and is especially pleased to wake up the next morning. Here is a verse he wrote in appreciation for a bowl of soup he was served at his friend and follower Chiri’s house in 1683. Chiri lives in Asakusa, famous for producing the nori seaweed in this soup.
The poem has three elements -- the dark green soup, the skill and care the cook put into the soup, and the elegant ceramic bowl holding the soup – which form a round whole. Or maybe we can add another layer: the two hands enclosing the bowl and raising it to his mouth. And surrounding that, Basho appreciation for the flavor of the soup and the quality of his friendship with Chiri.
The scene the same in Basho’s time as in ours. The cold of early spring has passed, but there is still a chill in the air. Under a canopy of pinkish white blossoms, on ground scattered with petals, we lay out our favorite foods. The soup is brought to the picnic in an iron pot and heated over a fire. (Most Japanese-English dictionaries and most translators say namasu is “fish salad” – but recipe books say different: namasu can be any raw food maninated in vinegar; it could be fish, but vegetable namasu is more common, the most well-known being the carrot-and-daikon-radish namasu at New Year's celebrations.) Amidst the excited chatter of girls and women in their blossom kimono, the songs and laughter of relatives and friends, some more petals have fallen on the liquid food and the sour salad.
When we see a place where a tidal wave or typhoon has washed away a house with all the possessions of a family, we exclaim, “how weak and vulnerable is man against the forces of nature!” Dojo loach are slender eel-like fish, bottom-feeding scavengers, with some unique strengths: they can live in poor-quality water,
or cold water, or even periods of no water. Dojo loach are survivors, and soup made from then is considered an aphrodisiac. So old man, forget about that house washed away, have some dojo loach soup and be strong, strong in the loins, stronger than nature and time.
For New Years of 1693 Kyokusi was in Edo and visited Basho who managed to cook some zoni, vegetable soup with mochi dumplings, a traditional New Year’s dish. For New Years of 1694 Kyokusui is home with his family. Basho in Edo sends him a letter:
Zoni is traditionally served throughout the New Year season which lasts 20 days. Thus by the end of the First Moon, when this letter was written, one might be tired of zoni. We see that the uba—who probably was Kyokosui’s wet nurse—likes to overfeed her baby. Basho is kidding his friend.
The following spring, 1694, Basho writes to Ensui:
By the Japanese count, Basho is 51, entering his second half century. The sharp flavor in daikon pickles penetrates his teeth because they are old and need much dental work. Mochi itself has no distinct flavor to arouse young people; they like it mixed with other flavors. Old patient taste buds enjoy it for its subtle flavour.
Here On June 3, 1694, Basho, accompanied by his 15 year old grandnephew Jirobei, set out from Edo on his final journey west. Because the Oi River was flooding from summer rains, they had to remain in Shimada for three days. They stayed at the home of his follower Magobei:
As lettuce leaves turn yellow in summer they lose their flavor. Basho sketches the soup he is served to show his gratitude for the hospitality of Magobei’s family.
Kon actually gives the recipe for this soup, from a book called The Tale of Cooking (Ryori Monogatari) published in 1643. (1643?) Summer radishes are the same plant as winter radishes, picked young when they are dry and bitter tasting. Cut into cubes, add to a carrot-and-miso base along with a lightly salted sea bream, and simmer for a long time to make a chowder – however, for Basho, according to a letter to Ensui (on page 9), a vegan -- the cook replaced the sea bream with the seaweed kombu.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Azaleas bloom in May on long straight stalks dividing into twigs each with a cluster of young green leaves and flowers of pink or soft red petals. A woman in a rustic roadside rest area has gathered azaleas from the mountain and brought them inside to arrange in a vase, but a customer (Basho) comes in, so she places the flowers temporarily in a bucket in the center of the room, and goes to tear off some strips of dried cod for him to munch on with his tea. After the noon rush is over, she will get back to arranging them in a vase.
Sitting at a table, he sees her in the kitchen, from his point of view, behind the flowers. Seen from where he sits, the flowers appear as superimposed on her. She is partially hidden by them.
The verse is full of action with two lively specific verbs, ikeru, ‘to keep alive by putting in water’; and saku, ‘to tear’ -- a rough-sounding word with the feeling of coarse hands tearing off slices of fish flesh. This roughness is the harsh reality of common woman’s life. The delicacy of the azaleas reconciles that roughness. Both verbs have the woman as their subject. She is the center of the verse. She mediates between the delicacy of the flowers and the coarseness of her hands’ work. The verse shows us the busyness of women – preparing food for both family and customers, along with a thousand other chores, while still finding time to make the place pretty with flowers.
At the end of summer on the Japan Sea coast near Niigata, Basho takes a photograph, showing the nature of a place, as well as the nature of the season, and the nature of a woman:
Still exhaustingly hot, in the shade of a willow a woman pierces fish with metal pins to roast them over the fire in her sunken hearth. She bends over to see what she is doing, as the long straight leafy branches bend over her, swaying gracefully. The skewer goes in through the gills and out the mouth. The sound of “skewering” contains the feeling of the metal pin puncturing the bloody flesh. The verset takes us beyond our ordinary consciousness to enter the reality of a woman who does this kind of work every day so her children or grandchildren get the protein, minerals, vitamins and omega fatty acids in small fish. The willows, like the azaleas in the previous verse, reconcile the coarseness of her work with dead fish. Willows make this haiku a song of homage. Basho praises the woman for her constant work that elites will not do – cutting up and cooking fish, cleaning out the grunge from the drain or a baby’s ass, caring for sick and dying people – the work to be done to keep her family alive in ain 17th century northern Japanese fishing village.
Feel the psychic energy, the love, Maw bestows on the food as she waves her fan over it. This is a love poem, not the love of young people at the beginning of their search, but the love of an old rustic couple near the end.
The innkeeper removes ash from a fish taken from the fire, holding it up by the tail, and smacking the fish. This is a cheap and not very clean establishment. The traveller is bummed out when he tries to pay for the fish with a silver coin used by gamblers but never seen out here in the boondocks.
The Noto peninsula, the long arm that sticks out from the northern coast near Kanazawa, suffers the freezing Siberian winds across the Japan Sea, On a peninsula that wind blows from all sides. in this harsh environment, his one pleasure is the old fish bone he gnaws on hour after hour. Basho, more than any other poet, focuses on body parts, activities, and sensations.
Enemy camps surround the mountain castle. Inside, the Lord eats what may be his final meal which he dedicates to the Buddha, so it cannot contain any meat or fish.
Mother is broiling balls of soybean paste on wooden skewers to make a side dish. A bit of ash from the fire has gotten on the sticky miso. Watch her bring the skewer close to her mouth and puff the ash away. The astonishing delicacy of this action even the fingers of elves could not perform is the polar opposite of her glaring and shouting at her kids. Both ordering and puffing are her breath, her life force.
Sand lingers in imperfectly washed seaweed to get into holes and crannies in old decaying teeth. Basho feels the wasting away of his life in those gritty mouth sensations.
The severe cold after midnight in late autumn has woken me up and I decide to get up and cook some somen, wheat noodles. I hang the iron pot of water over the sunken hearth, and light some kindling. As the wood chips catch on fire and crackle, the flames reach up toward the pot, also warming mybody. When the water boils, add noodles and miso or soy sauce. Surrounding this small island of hearth, fire, iron pot, hot water, food, and human warmth is the vast silent night cold
In a letter to his childhood friend Ensui Basho recalls meeting with Ensui in Nara some months before.
Apparently in Nara, Basho and Ensui spoke about the Buddha’s prohibition against the eating of animal flesh. According to the Mahayana tradition, the Buddha in his final scripture insisted that Buddhists refrain from eating ALL meat including fish:
Japan accepted Mahayana Buddhism, but not the prohibition against fish. In the 9th century the Emperor Saga forbade meat consumption except for fish and birds, and through the centuries the Japanese (in general) followed this rule rather than the Buddha’s. Along with actual fish, more protein, vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids came from octopus, sea slugs, fish eggs, seaweed, and other slimy creatures that Western readers may not consider food -- though I have seen modern Japanese kids eat them with relish – and the same kids enjoy hamburgers.
“Until foam vanished on the water” means “until I die” yet also suggests the scene Basho saw last April in Gifu, the famous cormorant fishing on the Nagara River. The birds dive to catch fish, but an iron ring around the gullet stops the fish from going down and men steal it from the hungry bird’s mouth. (Talk about exploitation!). We imagine Basho and Ensui growing up eating fish and sea creatures, often at celebrations. What happened in Basho’s 45th year to cause him to renounce fish? First, in Nara, he and Ensui spoke about the Buddha’s prohibition of meat. Second, in Gifu, he saw life “vanish on the water.”
Throughout the ages countless Asians have been vegetarian because religion/family/society demanded. Mohandas Gandhi speaks of arriving in London after growing up Hindu to discover the writings of an English vegetarian: “From the date of reading this book, I may claim to have become a vegetarian by choice.” Basho, like Gandhi, makes a conscious choice to “cast away” fish from his diet, not only fish in fish form, but also in the flavor added to tsumami, snacks such as takoyaki, literally “fried octopus” but actually fried batter with bits of octopus for flavor.) Most Japanese would not consider this 'meat eating,' but Basho says “no” to fish flavored snacks as well. So, vegans, Basho for the final five years of his life was one.
Whitebait are slender herring-like fish, finger-length and semi-transparent; early in spring they swim up river from the bay and are caught in nets. They are eaten fried or in soup but also alive and still ‘dancing‘. Shijimi are small clams, the shell only an inch long, so the tiny hands of children are efficient at gathering them. Shoko says they ‘taste good and smell good’.
The Dharma is the Law of Buddhism that all things must die and pass away. The startlingly black eyes of the silvery fish open to the Truth as the net takes them. Basho however is vegan, so no whitebait die for his protein and fatty acids.
Soybeans and tofu contain isoflavones, chemicals which “convey the benefits (bone density, heart protection, reducing hot flashes) to post-menopausal women without increasing breast cancer risk” so they might be a good choice for women around menopause.
At a picnic under a tree of gorgeous crimson leaves, you may think some leaves have fallen on the bland off-white bean curd. Actually this is a recipe for “crimson leaf tofu” – red peppers, core and seeds removed, are boiled in sake, sliced thin, mixed with ginger and flour, deep-fried, and eaten at the picnic.
Early in spring, in Zeze beside Lake, Biwa says farewell to his follower Otokuni leaving on a journey to Edo (now Tokyo):
Mariko (now in Shizuoka City) post station on the Tokaido, about two thirds of the way to Edo, is famous for this paste of grated mountain yam seasoned and eaten over rice. On each of his journeys between Edo and Kyoto, Basho has passed through Mariko so he knows how tasty the yam paste is. Basho’s gift-haiku plays on Otokuni’s mind to make his journey more pleasant; as he travels, he will enjoy the plum blossoms and young greens alongside the road, and anticipate that yam-paste-on-rice. When he finally arrives in Mariko and sits down for a bowl of this treat, Basho’s verse will take on an especial poignancy.
The Chinese Buddhist monk Fa-hsien, starting in 399 at age 65, WALKED from central China across the desert, over the Himalayas, and throughout India for ten years collecting Buddhist texts and icons to carry to China by ship. Once in India, he was sick and had a longing for hometown Chinese food. Here from a letter to Ensui, Basho says:
Basho also has an attachment to foods of his birthplace, not because he is a saint like Fa-hsien; rather he is “greedy by nature, I guess.”
In another letter to Ensui, Basho depicts a cherry blossom viewing picnic with his friends and followers, including Ensui, in Iga
Scallions are green onions with long stem and almost bulbless root. Horsetails, tsukushi, are a spring plant with a top that looks like a round brush. And yes, taste does leave strong memories.
Basho wrote to a follower who was imitating him too much:
On the journey to the North, in Sakata on the Japan Sea coast, Basho wrote, but did not include in his journal:
Basho, like many a woman, pays attention to how food is served. The haiku is a lesson in three dimensional Euclidian geometry: The sphere can be cut vertically in two directions to make four quarters, or a number of times horizontally forming round slices (parallel planes), but either way we do it, the melon tastes great. Feel the sharp knife and steady female hand slicing through the lush fruit.
To appreciate a verse like this requires humility as well as experience in food preparation. I recall the first time I showed it to Shoko: her eyes went kind of googly: Basho wrote this?! The next time you cut a melon, remember Basho’s existential question. But so humble a verse does not go into Basho’s literary masterpiece; the verses in that journal are more spectacular
On the way to Kyorai’s cottage:
Remarkable the sensations in this haiku: coolness of melon seeping through the willow-branch woven basket on one shoulder, body adjusting to compensate for the extra weight on one side, anticipation of sharing the sweet juicy melon with good friends in the hut upon arrival.
Melon cubes chilled in river water beckon us to enjoy their coolness in the still warm summer night. The party went on all night, people randomly taking food from the banquet table to join others in chatting. The has fallen into disarray, a few bits of melon here and there on the plate. So has the night crumbled into patches while light takes over the sky. Basho sees the harmony between leftovers on the plate with the crumbling of the darkness.
The first stanza sounds like a child speaking, since an adult would be accustomed to the size of melons. After eating the sweet luscious fruit, the kids play with scraps mother cut away from the fabric she needed to make an article of clothing, scraps of no interest to adults, but fascinating to the pure, naturally high mind of a child.
In 1680, Sampu, age 33, the eldest son of a fish mercantile house in Nihonbashi, financial center of Edo, supplier of fish for banquets to the Shogun’s castle, is learning the business from dad. He also loves poetry and likes to have fun with his Teacher. Sampu arranged a contest in which many poets submitted verses for Basho to judge. He chose the theme, ‘Vegetables.’ The verses were published along with Basho’s introduction which contains this bizarre succession of parodies. So, let’s talk about vegetables:
Things start off real enough: Kanda Suda (across the river from Akihabara) was the largest produce market in the City – but the kirin, a legendary beast of ancient China, is not likely to be transporting vegetables in Japan. The phoenix, also legendary, burns to death and rises from the ashes, so really doesn’t need eggs, but if (IF!) she had them, and if there was a market for them, they would certainly need to be carefully wrapped in soft spongy rice bran to remain unbroken on the back of a kirin. (No bubble wrap or Styrofoam peanuts in those days.) Zingiber is a kind of ginger grown in the tropics, and watermelons do not ripen till mid-summer. Ginseng ROOTS are a herb and elicacy favored by some, but who would buy the leaves?
The Chinese love to paint things red (Witness their restaurants); Basho imagines that because these are Chinese peppers (to-garashi), this makes them turn red in autumn. Really?
Basho refers to a chant from a Noh play:
Do you see? He is indirectly (very indirectly!) praising the Tokugawa Shogunate for maintaining peace throughout Japan. The kamisama must be pleased because they have brought no severe typhoons (“wind does not rattle branches”) or floods (“rain does not move ginger in ground”) allowing Japanese (such as Sampu’s family) to build trade networks which bring produce from faraway provinces (and even from the Twilight Zone). Tokibi is maize, American corn, which the Japanese call ‘Chinese millet,’ although before it was in China, it had to come across the ocean from South America – but maize is a grain and doesn’t have branches. Absurd as it is, the passage is praise for the prosperity brought by the Pax Tokugawa. Trade is flourishing. Markets are full of food and mothers can buy for their children. So much prosperity that Sampu can afford to leave his business to his subordinates while he spends his time on so mundane a poetic theme as ‘Vegetables.’ How the friendly merchant must have enjoyed Basho’s parody of food marketing and trade.
The Menu for Moon-Viewing is a list, in Basho’s handwriting, of refreshments at a party he gave for his hometown friends, October 3, 1694: Basho’s selections to make his guests happy that evening:
The Menu is discussed in article F-11.