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Noshing On The Food-Faith Connection

Our identity is tied to food. We define ourselves in part by the food we eat (raw fish, coagulated pig’s blood, taro paste) and by the foods we don’t (pork, beef or meat altogether). Our diet, in turn, is a conduit to cultural and religious values, as the offerings at local gravesites and ritual foods used in worship and holidays make clear: e.g., vegetarian jai for Buddhists celebrating Chinese New Year, sacrificed meat for Muslims celebrating Eid al-Adha.

Food is defined not only by its ingredients, but also by wider religious notions of purity and pollution, delicacy and disgust, that are associated with our diet. This mix of food, identity and religion is evident in some of the hallmarks of Japanese cuisine.

Kami are deities in the Japanese religion Shinto. Shown proper respect and gratitude, kami in turn bestow blessings and protection on supplicants. The most popular Shinto kami is Inari, widely venerated as a god of prosperity. Because messengers of Inari are foxes, and foxes are said to be fond of tofu, it is common to offer aburage (fried tofu) at Inari shrines. Such offerings ensure the fox messengers will carry prayers to Inari and boons be granted as a result. Because of this association among foxes, aburage and the kami of prosperity, cone sushi are called Inari sushi. Likewise, the type of udon or soba noodles served at restaurants with pieces of aburage in the broth is called kitsune udon/soba (fox noodles).

There is also an earthy side to Japanese religion, as kami may exhibit a bawdy sense of humor and the capacity for mischief. Kappa are impish beings that dwell in lakes and rivers. They are known for pulling unsuspecting swimmers below the surface, flipping them upside down and sucking the blood from the helpless victim’s anus. Kappa like to have fun. Kappa are said to be fond of cucumbers, however, and can be appeased by them instead. When swimming in a lake, therefore, it may be wise to stuff a cucumber in your pocket in the event that a kappa pulls you under the water. Eyeing your pocket, the kappa will be distracted and may wonder if there’s a cucumber there or if you are simply happy to meet him. Regardless, the kappa will let you go and give full attention to the cucumber instead. Because of their fondness for cucumbers, cucumber sushi is named in their honor and called kappa maki.

Shinto is filled with 8 million kami, but despite the diversity, certain themes or values characterize the religion. Four in particular are noteworthy: simplicity, respect for nature, purity and gratitude. A visit to local shrines will make these evident. There is usually a water basin at the entrance to the shrine for followers to purify themselves by washing their hands and rinsing their mouths. Proceeding to the shrine itself, one must bow as an expression of gratitude before addressing the kami. Shinto priests will then bless shrine visitors by waving a purification wand consisting simply of white paper streamers over the supplicants’ bowed heads. The emphasis on nature or revering things in their natural state is expressed in the architecture of Shinto shrines. The shrines are often unpainted or presented in natural colors, and many Shinto shrines are built without the use of nails.

The above themes or values in Shinto permeate Japanese cuisine. In contrast to the thinking of other cultures, where cooking is the art of transforming ingredients that are not yet edible into something delicious, and the creation of tastes that do not occur naturally, the traditional approach to Japanese cuisine emphasizes that food be enjoyed as close as possible to its natural state. In Japanese cuisine, the ideal way of cooking is not to cook. The perfect example of this is sashimi. Sashimi uses no heat whatsoever and consists of little more than slicing fresh fish and arranging its pieces on a plate. Sashimi conveys the Japanese values of simplicity, purity and reverence for things in their natural state. As a result, sashimi is often the most expensive item on a Japanese menu. Ramen, by contrast, is usually the cheapest dish on a Japanese menu because it contains little (if any at all) of the aforementioned values. Regardless of what one eats, however, it is customary in Japanese tradition to begin and end meals with a set expression of gratitude.

If we define ourselves in part by the food we eat, we define our relationships in part by the meals we share. The emphasis on purity and the avoidance of pollution in Japanese religion underscores a number of table manners and eating habits.

Japanese chopsticks usually are made of plain, unpainted wood. Chopsticks are not shared, and even the most expensive Japanese restaurants will provide a pair of unused, disposable wooden chopsticks for each customer. One’s chop-sticks are only allowed to touch one’s personal serving of food, and food is never passed directly from one pair of chopsticks to another.

Moreover, teishoku, or set meals, are often served in individual trays, where small compartments keep the different food items separate to prevent mixing and pollution.

This is in stark contrast to the foods and eating habits of other religious and cultural traditions — the Chinese religion Daoism, for example — that stress the balance and harmony of different food combinations and the sharing of dishes by everyone at the table.

Food and eating habits are not determined simply by recipe and hunger, but by the traditions — religious and cultural — and the meanings associated with them.

We are shaped by and shapers of food, culture and religion. We preserve and perpetuate traditional flavors and recipes that reflect our ethnic and religious identities. Cooking and consuming such foods maintain and affirm our place in the wider cultural and religious community.

In short, you are what you eat and you eat who you are.