It’s a fact repeated so often that it’s become slightly cliche: that great cuisines are forged in poverty. It’s no secret that people who are forced to do more with less every day tend to get really good at that thing. It’s easy to forget that throughout human history, and for much of the world population now, the ingredients you had at hand were first of all dictated by geography and climate and secondly by your level of poverty. Cooking processes all developed in the various regions of the world in order to maximize limited fuel resources. Dishes that we often call ‘comfort food’ are enjoyed because they underwent a process of refinement through being cooked and served to hungry people almost every day of the week, generation after generation.
I’m busy and it’s cold, cold, cold outside. Let’s cook up some meat and potatoes, Japanese style. Nikujaga (pronounced like Mick-oo Jagga) is Japan’s answer to the pot roasts and beef stews of the western world. In fact, it was developed by Japanese naval chefs in imitation of the beef stew the British navy served to its sailors. I’m sure you’re at a loss to come up with a finer culinary pedigree than “British Military Cuisine“, but bear with me for a moment. In order to understand why the Japanese would adopt something so seemingly mundane with, as it turns out, a great deal of enthusiasm, we must step into the WABAC Machine for a moment. For the better part of three centuries, Japan experienced a period of self-imposed isolation from external cultural influence. From 1603 to 1853 Japan experienced minimal contact with foreigners beyond their archipelago; limited mostly to Dutch trading ships allowed in once a year and private Chinese vessels. This isolation was in direct resistance to European (particularly Portuguese) attempts at colonization. By avoiding the economic and religious domination from foreign powers experienced by so many of the neighboring countries in East Asia, Japan underwent a cultural refinement almost unprecedented in world history. Despite (or possibly because of) near-constant civil warfare; the Japanese took a culture and cuisine largely borrowed from China and Korea and created something wholly unique. In the 1850′s; American gunboats forced the Japanese to open their harbors to foreign trade. The rapid mixing of modern industrial society with that of a country sequestered within an idiosyncratic feudal culture had longstanding historical and cultural ramifications ranging from World War II to tentacle rape. Free trade brought in new dishes which the Japanese began to develop a taste for like curry, spaghetti and tomato sauce and breaded pork cutlets. These days Japanese cuisine is loaded with borrowed dishes that, while only about a century and a half old, are intrinsic comfort food to the Japanese.