Buddhism began to take root as the principal religion in Japan during the seventh century AD, and since Buddhism prohibited the destruction of life, the emperor issued a decree in 675 AD prohibiting the consumption of meat. Those caught breaking the decree faced a range of penalties, including death.
Over the ensuing centuries, reinforced by this royal decree, the Japanese ate a mostly vegan diet (dairy produce did not feature in the diet – the drinking of cow’s milk was widely regarded as a disgusting notion).
This cultural abstinence from meat eating ensued until the nineteenth century, during which time the Japanese also pursued an isolationist policy (for centuries its only trading partners were the Chinese and the Dutch). Significantly, during this period Japan was the only nation on the planet that did not lose a single native species to extinction. It is also no coincidence that for at least a thousand years Japan has been noted for the health and longevity of its citizens.
Eventually, Japan’s isolationist policy came under military challenge from the United States of America, which blockaded and threatened to bombard Japanese ports unless Japan opened itself to trade with the west. Under protest, the Japanese government was forced to sign the Kanagawa Treaty of 1854. The treaty opened Japanese ports to trade with the USA, and was quickly followed by similar “agreements” with other Western nations, effectively ending Japan’s long period of self-imposed isolation.
At the time, the Americans regarded Japan (and indeed the whole of Asia) as culturally backward and inferior. The opening of Japan’s borders was therefore used as an opportunity to impose “superior” Western customs on Japan, and soon the ban on meat consumption was lifted (although it took many years for the population at large to take up meat eating, because the taboo was by now culturally deep-rooted).
No other country has had vegetarianism or veganism legally embedded into its culture in the way that Japan did for so many years.
Since 1854 Japanese cuisine has evolved to absorb Western and Chinese influences, but its former isolation from the rest of the world means that it still retains many fascinating, unique ingredients and techniques.
Talking of which, let’s move on to the recipe
This dish is based on an enduring classic of Japanese cooking called nasu dengaku.
Miso paste, available from Asian stores and some supermarkets, is made by fermenting soy beans with salt and koji (a naturally occurring fungus).
There is a wide variety of miso pastes used in Japanese cuisine – brown, yellow, red and white – the colour and flavour reflecting the other ingredients which are sometimes added, such as barley, rice or buckwheat.
Hatcho miso paste is made purely from fermented soy beans and has a naturally sweeter taste, which after a little trial and error, I found to work best in this dish.
Serve with a salad of mustard greens or with some plain steamed rice sprinkled with finely sliced spring onions.
miso and sesame glazed aubergine
4 tbsp groundnut oil
for the glaze
2 tbsp hatcho miso paste
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
1 tbsp mirin (rice vinegar)
1 tbsp sake or similar rice wine
2 tbsp maple syrup
3 tbsp water
2 tbsp sesame seeds
1. Heat a frying pan over a medium heat, without oil. Add the sesame seeds and toast for a couple of minutes until they are colouring and start to pop. Immediately tip them out onto a cold place and set to one side.
2. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C (350°F, gas mark 4).
3. In a bowl make the glaze by whisking together the miso paste, mirin, maple syrup, rice wine and water.
4. Cut each aubergine in half lengthways. Using a small, sharp knife, lightly score diagonal criss-cross lines into the surface of each aubergine half. Rub the aubergine flesh and skin generously with groundnut oil. Place on a flat baking tray and put in the pre-heated oven for 30 minutes, carefully flipping the aubergines over half way through. At the end of the cooking time, the aubergine skin should have started to crisp a little and the flesh should be tender. Remove from the oven and leave to cool slightly
5. Pre-heat the grill. Carefully turn the aubergines over on the baking tray so that the flesh side is facing up. Brush each aubergine half with the miso paste mixture. Place the baking tray under the hot grill for 1-2 minutes or until the glaze on the aubergines is bubbling. Remove and sprinkle with the toasted sesame seeds and serve while still hot.