Long ago, when Japan closed its borders to the outside world, one port stayed open. Sailors from China, Portugal, and Holland were allowed to come to the very exclusive port of Nagasaki. They were never allowed to set foot on Japanese soil, but lived on an artificial island called Dejima just off the coast. These merchants introduced Japan to new technologies, materials, and foods. There was a ripple effect of innovation that came out of Nagasaki as these new ideas made their way through the rest of Japan. New ideas like baking with sugar.
Dejima Island. Drawing by Arnoldus Montanus [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThe guns and fabrics brought to Dejima may have revolutionised Japanese industry, but the sugar that was sold there revolutionised Japanese cuisine. Before sugar was first imported, Japanese sweets relied on fruits and vegetables with their natural sweetness. Sweet potatoes and sweet bean paste were the best Japan had to offer — then suddenly, Japan was introduced to cake.
Castella cake was the first of many desserts to be brought to Japan. Originally a Portuguese recipe, this simple dessert is now a favourite of Japanese people and a signature food of Nagasaki prefecture. Practically nobody in Japan was using white sugar or wheat flour when it was first introduced in the 1800s, so it was a totally alien concept to them. A lot of Japanese people took a while to come around, but now cake is Japan’s most popular dessert. Castella is nothing more than a simple sponge cake baked in a deep rectangular tray. There is no icing, cream, or jam. Just a simple cake with a simple taste.
Photo by Kanko on FlickrBecause castella cake was one of the first flour products eaten in the country, all Japanese flour products take inspiration from it. That is why there are so many different sweet breads in Japan. Foods such as melon pan, or anpan came from Japanese people associating flour and sweetness. This can still be seen today in supermarkets all over the country.
Photo by Thamizhpparithi Maari [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], from Wikimedia CommonsFrom the castella cake came the next big innovation in Japanese cuisine: rusks. These are now also known as a must-try food of Nagasaki. Japanese rusks are basically dried castella cake. They are a very popular omiyage, or presents to bring home to your friends and co-workers.
Castella cake was also turned into a roll, and filled with sweet bean paste to create another dessert called the mikasayama. This is a cake sandwich, filled with a delicious filling. Now the cakes are filled with all kinds of sweet fillings such as jam, cream, or chocolate, but originally it was only filled with bean paste. This mixing of the new foreign dessert of cake, and the more traditional Japanese tastes sparked a revolution, leading to some of Japan’s most popular food today.
Photo by Ocdp [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], from Wikimedia CommonsCake is now often used as a base for food with Japanese flavouring, such as the dorayaki. Dorayaki are made of two small cake like pancakes, with sweet bean paste slathered in the middle. These portable snacks are now a Japanese dessert staple, and it is all thanks to the original mikasayama and the castella.
But the Portuguese were not the only ones to inspire Japanese chefs, China also played a big part in the nation's cuisine. Chinese sailors regularly traded with the islands of Japan before they were closed off from the world, so naturally they were allowed to trade at Nagasaki with the Portuguese, and later the Dutch.
Most of the Chinese food that made its way into the Japanese diet was savoury. Famous Japanese dishes such as ramen and fried rice were recreated to make the Chinese sailors feel more at home. Whilst they were satisfied with the meals, they found the tea to be missing something.
Japanese tea drinking culture dictates that you eat a small bean paste cake with the tea, but Chinese tea drinking involves sweet biscuits to eat alongside your tea. The Japanese chefs at Dejima made sure to recreate the biscuits, calling them yoriyori. They were made of two strands of dough that were stretched out and intertwined around one another.
Whilst not very popular today, yoriyori also changed the Japanese diet, inspiring all sorts of crackers and biscuits to have alongside tea. Today Biscuits are more similar to those found in Britain, but it all started with the yoriyori.
Japan has a fascinating history with food, and has developed in a completely unique way. There is no other nation quite like it. Whilst not all of the history involves samurai or ninja, it is all fascinating because it paints a vivid tapestry that shows a completely independent way of cultivating a civilization and its food. Japan’s individual approach to world trade in the 1800s has had a massive effect on all of its history, even its desserts.