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History of Three Japanese Dishes

The roots of Japanese cuisine are as diverse as their taste. Knowing how a particular dish originated could be useful in understanding why and how they are made in a certain way. This article talks briefly about the history of three Japanese dishes – champon, niku jaga and kenchin jiru.

champon
“Champon” is a Chinese-style noodle dish containing mainly seafood and vegetables. It is the local cuisine of Nagasaki prefecture. The main characteristic of champon is its big, fat, thick noodles.

Sometime during the Meiji era (1868–1912), there were a large number of Chinese students who came to study in the area. Seeing this, the enterprising owner of a Chinese restaurant in Nagasaki thought of making a dish that was not only cheap, but also healthy for those students. So this owner cooked meat, seafood and vegetables, and added soup made from pork and chicken bones for seasoning. Finally, noodles specially used to make this new dish were added to the mix – and thus champon was born.

niku jaga
“Niku jaga” is a type of stew containing meat and potato, and a standard Japanese household dish.

It was first made by the Imperial Japanese Navy during the Meiji era, and was based on the recipe of beef stew. Niku jaga had a couple of practical advantages – not only was it high in nutritional value, the ingredients used were the same as that used to make curry and rice (a standard Japan-ised dish that originated in India), so it was easy to obtain the ingredients necessary to make niku jaga.

Still, meat and potatoes were not exactly abundant back then, and therefore the common Japanese did not make niku jaga at the time. Niku jaga became standard fare at Japanese homes only from around the mid-to-late 1960s. Interestingly, the meat used in niku jaga in the eastern part of Japan is pork, while western Japan’s niku jaga consists of beef instead.

kenchin jiru
Kenchin jiru is a kind of soup made with plenty of vegetables and tofu.

Long, long ago, Japanese people drank a lot of soup in order to keep themselves warm during the cold winter days... They still do, but there were no electrical heaters back then. Neither was there global warming at the time too, but anyway...

Among the many temples in Kanagawa Prefecture’s Kamakura, home to the famous Great Buddha statue, there’s a particular one called Kenchoji. The monks, as saintly as they might be, were nevertheless subject to the mercy of the unforgiving cold during the harsh winter days. So, they drank soup to keep warm too, like everybody else. But being monks, they had to abstain from meat and fish. Hence, the soup they had lacked protein and fats. After some brainstorming, what the monks did was add in lots of vegetables and tofu cooked with oil. Voila! Now, the monks had a soup that could not only help keep themselves warm, but was highly nutritious as well. And it actually had a taste. Those monks might be free of secular desires, but they were first and foremost Japanese – a food-loving people...

The soup was called “kenchoji jiru” at the time, though over time it changed to “kenchin jiru”.

And there you have it - the history of three Japanese dishes. The ones who thought of them couldn't possibly have imagined their inventions have become so common and famous...

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