The Muromachi period (室町時代, Muromachi Jidai, also known as the Muromachi era, the Ashikaga era, or the Ashikaga period) is a division of Japanese history running from approximately 1337 to 1573.
The period marks the governance of the Muromachi or Ashikaga shogunate (Muromachi bakufu or Ashikaga bakufu), which was officially established in 1338 by the first Muromachi shogun, Ashikaga Takauji, two years after the brief Kemmu restoration (1333–1336) of imperial rule was brought to a close.
If you were to travel back in time, what era would you want to go to? How about the Muromachi period?
The period was brought to a close when the last shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiaki was driven out of the capital in Kyoto by Oda Nobunaga, a ruler known as the first great unifier.
There were many interesting things going on politically during the Muromachi period, but one thing that lingers with the Japanese people are the many exquisite dishes that were introduced to the culture during that time. Read on to find out about some of these early creations.
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The Muromachi period was a time marked by a good amount of trading between Japan and several foreign countries. As a result, Japanese culture flourished.
In terms of dining, honzen ryōri would emerge and become the primary serving style of the time.
It was born from the Daikyo Ryōri which was a simple yet tasteless cuisine popularly served during the Mushimori period.
Its bland taste was attributed to the fact that cooking methods were not yet developed, although people used vinegar and salt to enhance the flavor.
When cooking methods became more developed, honzen ryōri was created.
Honzen ryōri is a type of meal that consists of many parts. The liquor part is called kon-bu while the meal part is called zen-bu.
The ritual starts with the diners drinking three cups of sake with a side dish and repeating this rite three times. Then the meal is eaten and followed by another round of liquor.
This gave birth to the lucky tradition of drinking a nuptial cup called san-san-Kudo during marriage ceremonies as the phrase literally translates to three, three, and nine (standing for the number of cups of sake drank on how many times the drinking is repeated).
Each course of honzen ryōri was served on a serving tray called a zen, so the first course would be served on the main zen, the second course was served on the second zen, and so on.
Meals could consist of up to seven zens although, later on, a dessert course was added.
A typical meal consisted of one soup and three sides. It came with rice, pickles , and three ozaku dishes as follows:
- Namasu: Vinegared vegetables
- Yakimono: A grilled dish
- Nimono: A simmered dish
The second zen was prepared for guests and the third zen was prepared for elders and upper-class guests at festivals and special occasions.
The concept of honzen ryōri changed over time but it remained a popular serving style through the 19th century.
It eventually died out because the meal had to be served cold due to the extensive rituals involved.
While the rituals were performed, the food would get cold anyway, so it was best to pick a cold meal in the first place.
In time, people decided that they preferred a meal served hot without as many rituals involved. Therefore, honzen ryōri fell out of style.
Kaiseki Ryōri and Shojin Ryōri
Kaiseki ryōri is another type of multi-course meal that developed during the Muromachi period. During the time, it was typically served to nobility at tea ceremony dishes.
While the taste and arrangement of the food was considered, a major part of preparing the meal was doing so in accordance with the seasonal theme.
It embraced the wabi sabi manner of cooking; Wabi meaning quiet simplicity and Sabi meaning elegant but old fashioned.
During the Muromachi period, temples were outside of government rule and therefore, enjoyed a special state of autonomy. As a result, Buddhist philosophy was highly honored.
A big part of that is vegetarianism as Buddhists are against the taking of lives. In following the preaching of the Buddhist monks, a vegetarian form of kaiseki ryōri was introduced called Shojin Ryōri.
The creation of Shojin Ryōri was the result of an extensive search to find non-meat based foods that would provide nutrients such as grains.
During this quest, the processing of vegetables and beans evolved. This, in turn, led to the development of tofu which led to the production of the following foods:
- Ganmodoki: A fried tofu fritter made with vegetables
- Koyadofu: Freeze-dried tofu
- Natto: This is a tofu alternative made from fermented soybeans
- Konnyaku: This is a tofu variant made from a Konnyaku potato and calcium hydroxide or oxide calcium extracted from eggshells.
- Fu: Fu is the traditional type of wheat gluten used in Japanese cuisine.
Today, people still enjoy kaiseki ryōri and shojin ryōri meals. They are often served at ryokans (Japanese style inns).
Here is what a typical menu looks like:
- Aperitif: Kaiseki ryōri typically starts off with some kind of alcohol like sweet wine.
- Appetizers: Appetizers are served on a long dish called a hassen.
- Soup: Usually a clear broth with vegetables or tofu.
- Sashimi: This is a thinly sliced type of raw fish typically served on a daikon or Japanese radish.
- Boiled Dish: This is usually some sort of meat and vegetable mixture.
- Grilled Dish: Usually grilled meat or fish.
- Deep Fried Dish: Typically a meat and vegetable tempura.
- Steamed Dish: The most common steamed dish is an egg custard flavored with fish stock.
- Vinegared Dish: This is typically some sort of fish and vegetables flavored in a vinegar sauce.
Shokuji (served at the end of the meal before dessert):
- Rice: Usually white rice although sometimes there are variations
- Miso Soup: This is made by dissolving miso paste in fish broth
- Pickles: This is an assortment of pickled vegetables.
The dessert course is usually a light, sweet treat such as fruit or sorbet.
The techniques for making dashi stock were also developed during the Muromachi period. Dashi would go on to become a major component of Japanese cuisine.
Dashi is a family of stocks that serves as the main component for miso soup, clear broth soup, noodle soup and it can also be used as a simmering liquid to accentuate the umami taste in foods.
It can also be mixed into a flour base and used for the preparation of grilled foods like okonomiyaki and Takoyaki.
You can read all about making dashi here
Here are some FAQ’s on the food of the Muromachi period and the Muromachi period in general.
What happened during the Muromachi period?
There was a lot of political disorder during the Muromachi period. However, this would also be a time of cultural growth for the people of Japan.
The tea ceremony was one cultural traditions developed during the time that would continue to be honored to this day.
The period also saw the Sung style of ink painting (Sumi) reach its height. Floral arranging became big during this era as did a type of dance-drama called ‘Noh drama’.
What Did Shoguns Eat?
The ryōri meals are described in detail above. In addition to these being featured on the culinary menus, shoguns, or samurai often ate husked rice. The noblemen of the time ate polished rice. And even though the farmers grew rice, they ate millet.
Did the Samarais Drink Alcohol?
The Muromachi period saw a rise in sake consumption. Although the drink was believed to have originated sometime between 1000 and 550 BCE, around 1300 was when it started to take off. It was around then that most sake production went from the hands of local monks to the hands of professional brewers.
Sake was a popular drink among the samurais of the Muromachi period but samurais, in general, began to phase out in the mid-15th century. Nonetheless, the drink remained a favorite with the Japanese people through the Muromachi period and it is commonly enjoyed in modern times.
How Do You Eat Kaiseki?
The kaiseki ryōri meal became popular during the Muromachi period and remains a part of Japanese cuisine. If you are invited to a kaiseki ryōri meal, you should be aware that there is a proper way to eat the dishes you are served. You should start by eating the dishes on the left first, then proceed to the right.
Next, eat the dish in the middle, and finally the back.
Is There a Dress Code for Kaiseki Ryōri?
If you are invited to a kaiseki ryōri meal, there is no need to get overly dressed up. A suit and tie are not necessary. However, you should avoid being too sloppy. Smart casual attire is recommended.
The Muromachi period was a volatile time for the Japanese, but there were many breakthroughs in food and culture that stayed with the people to this day. It will be interesting to see how the times we are currently living in make a mark in years to come.