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Food of the Samurai period

In the best of times, the Japanese have always had a variety of foodstuffs from which to choose, both from the land and sea. Of course, one's diet depended to a great extent on social class. As those considered samurai could range in means from very poor to very rich-and thus experienced diets that crossed classes-we'll examine some generalities.

Unsurprisingly, rice was a staple food, and was so important as to be considered a measure of wealth. Farming in Japan has never been an especially easy affair, and the life of a farmer could be a difficult one indeed. Much of Japan is mountainous, and yet even after the land was unified under the Tokugawa, each province needed to have some rice-growing potential. A few areas were idea and by the 16th Century had come to the realm's 'breadbaskets' - especially Ise Province and the Kanto Region. The Kanto in particular was well suited to agricultural development, with wide, flat stretches of land for fields and rivers to provide irrigation. Other, more mountainous provinces, like nearby Kai, presented their lords and farmers with many problems, and required a great deal more effort to optimize production. Rice fields were cut into the sides of hills, and rivers arduously dammed and diverted. Yet the work was vital - famine was an ever-present danger, and one from which few were immune.
      The production of rice followed a set pattern every year, and began with the preparation and seeding of a nursery bed. Here, the sprouting rice seeds could be more easily monitored while the main fields were prepared for use. The fields were ploughed by either horse or oxen, enriched with manure, and provided with water, with the implementation of the last task depending in large measure on where the field was. After about forty days the seeds were transplanted in the fields (this was typically in June), quite often by the young women of the village-whose own fertility, it was hoped, would rub off on the rice seeds. For the villagers, this was a most important event, often accompanied to music and a festive spirit.
      Aside from keeping weeds and insect pests in check (the latter were one of a villager's worst nightmares), the rice fields would now require little attention until harvest-time in October or early November. Harvest was another festive occasion for the farmers, and perhaps the most exciting time in the year.
      Needless to say, as has ever been the case, the fruits of the peasant's labors were hardly for them alone. Every province throughout the period of the samurai saw to the collection of rice, although the amount demanded as tax varied. Some idea, though, may be gleaned from the daimy˘ H˘j˘ Soun's control of Sagami. There, he was looked upon favorably by the peasants for taking a mere forty percent of their crops each fall, as opposed to fifty or even sixty percent. Even the generous forty percent tax rate left a village with a thin reserve in case of emergencies, and so many maintained secret fields. Quite often, prior to the 16th Century, local samurai (jizamurai) or Jito might well look the other way - this changed with the coming of the daimyo. Land surveys or growing efficiency were organized to ferret out fields that had avoided taxation, and were quite unpopular as a result. Resourceful villagers also grew alternate crops-such as beans or sweet potatoes-to augment their diets.
      Ironically, many peasants, for various reasons, ate millet as opposed to rice. Rice was an all-important commodity, and nowhere in Japanese culture was frugality more rigidly practiced then among the farmers. Rice could be used in a number of ways, and included being boiled, cooked into a paste, turned into sake, and mixed with vegetables. A popular roadside treat was the rice cake, which could be sweetened with honey or pieces of fruit and was wrapped for sale in a large leaf.
      Most samurai ate husked rice, and the daily ration for a common foot soldier was thought to be about 900 grams (or five go). Nobles preferred polished rice, which they often ate sweetened.

Other foodstuffs
In addition to rice, the following foods were eaten when and where available… Potatoes (there were reputedly 24 types), radishes (of which there were nine kinds), cucumbers (fourteen types), beans (which produced the ubiquitous bean curd), chestnuts, persimmons (another popular road side treat), various nuts, tofu, yams (or tororo, which was often made into a soup), sour plums (particularly popular with soldiers on campaign if they could be found), apricots, peaches, apples, oranges, ect… The sea provided seven types of seaweed, abalone, carp, bonito, trout, tuna (hunted with harpoons), octopus, jellyfish, clams, and, at least off Awa Province (Shikoku), whale. In a particular pinch, the Buddhist/Shinto injunctions that tended to prohibit the eating of meat could be lifted, allowing the hungry to catch pheasants, wild geese, quail, deer, and boar. Soldiers under siege, when hunger became as dangerous a foe as the enemy, often killed and ate their horses. Nonetheless, the eating of red meat did not become common until the Meji Restoration - and then only amongst the upper classes.
      Fifty types of plant were available to facilitate cooking, such as daizu (soya) and azuki sasage (red beans); flavorings included sake, shoyhu (soya sauce), imported pepper and rice vinegar, as well as kelp (kombu). Vegetables were often prepared with a great deal of oil and this style of cooking was known as shojin ryori and involved soya, sesame, and camellia. Salt, important for the preservation of fish and other foodstuffs, was a vital commodity, and may have been a factor in the warlord Takeda Shingen's invasion of coastal Suruga Province in 1569.
      A mention should be made of the meal traditionally served to a samurai before setting out for war. This included dried chestnuts , kelp, and abalone, served on small lacquered plates - as well as sake. The sake was served in three cups - as the number three was considered good luck.

The most popular drink among the samurai - aside from perhaps tea- was sake.
      As mentioned, sake was made from rice and was normally produced during the winter months. Over the centuries many different types of sake were perfected but in general the alcoholic content of the drink tended to be low. At the same time, the Japanese diet tended to heighten the effects of the alcohol that was present.
Drinking was fairly common, at least among the samurai class, and found its way into many occasions-from social gatherings to the aftermath of battle. Drunkenness was generally not considered odious (nor is it still), and it could in fact be considered impolite NOT to get drunk at a drinking party. Breeches of etiquette were often overlooked while drunk, with many slips of manners forgiven afterwards.
      Needless to say, alcoholism was by no means unheard of among the samurai, and a number of daimyo are said to have died of the effects of over-indulgence, including M˘ri Okimoto and Uesugi Kenshin.
      During the Edo Period, sake production gradually became specialized in the area just to the west of Osaka, and a fair number of Edo Period breweries still exist.

Selected Glossary of Japanese Foodstuffs

Abura-age Fried bean curd
Awabi Abalone
Azuki Red beans
Daikon Giant radish
Daizu Soya
Ebi Shrimp
Genmai Unhusked brown rice
Ginnan Gingko nut
Hasu Lotus root
Kaki Oyster
Katsuobushi Dried bonito
Koi Carp
Kombu Kelp
Kuri Chestnuts
Kyuri Cucumber
Miso Fermented soybean and rice dish
Misoshiro Bean paste soup
Mochi Rice cake
Negi Green onion
Niboshi Dried sardines
Sake Rice wine
Sanhso Red pepper
Sashimi Raw fish
Shiitake Mushroom
Shoga Ginger
Takenoko Bamboo shoot
Tempura Food dipped in batter and deep fried
Thoyhu Sota sauce
Tofu Soybean curd
Tororo Yams
Unagi Eel
Wasabi Horse radish
Zoni Rice cake soup