What exactly did the Samurai eat? And creating a samurai burger.


Today’s mission is to create a “samurai burger”, following the attempt to create a ninja burger two weeks ago.

The inspiration is the usual suspect: McDonald’s for coming up their “samurai burger”. 

Left: Samurai Burger in Singapore
Right: Samurai Mac in Japan

The samurai burger is rather beloved in Singapore, so I might get flak for this. But facts must remain facts: for most of history, the samurai were unlikely to eat beef, chicken, mayonnaise, and bread as part of their regular diet. As you can tell, those are all ingredients in McDonald Singapore’s Samurai Burger.

You see, Samurais, and almost all Japanese in periods when Samurai existed, were pescatarians who ate only fish and vegetables. Most Japanese in these periods practised Buddhism or Shinto, and eating meat was considered unclean. Officially, a meat-eating ban on cattle, horses, dogs, monkeys and chickens was also decreed in 675 A.D during the 4th to 9th months of the year. This slowly became a year-round ban, and meat was rarely eaten up until the Meiji era.

Those who ate meat typically did so for medicinal purposes, or from hunting. So wild deer and wild boar were still rarely eaten, but farming animals like cows and chickens were too precious to be used for meat.

ADDITIONAL: Atlas Obscura has an informative article on the topic of the meat eating ban in Japan up until the Meiji era. If you’d like to hear my voice with a shittier mic talking about how Japan started eating meat because of the military, you can watch this video.

So, what did the Samurai eat?

There isn’t actually a straightforward answer. Unlike the ninjas who had manuals we can base a recipe on, the samurai is a lot more varied in their diet. What they really ate heavily depends on the time period and how ranking they were.

SAMPLE 1: Samurai going to war

Like in the book, “The Hundred Rules of War”, which is supposedly (this claim is impossible to verify) written by Tsukahara Bokuden (塚原 卜伝, 1489 – March 6, 1571), a famous samurai in the early Sengoku period, there is a rule that states

“If a samurai is preparing to step onto the field of battle, it is wise to avoid eating anything other than hot water poured over rice.”

Sadly, making just a rice bun and calling it a “samurai burger” wouldn’t be good for the thumbnail, and would probably result in a lot of dislikes. So we have to look elsewhere.

SAMPLE 2: Daily life of low ranking samurai

Nearing the end of the Sengoku period (1467 – 1615), the memoirs of the daughter of a samurai retainer of Ishida Mitsunari (石田 三成, 1559 – November 6, 1600), ate porridge of grain crops for breakfast and supper. Only two meals were eaten every day, with lunch being a luxury reserved for the days when her brothers went hunting in the mountains. Nameshi, or rice cooked with plant leaves and stems, would be prepared in this case.

Nameshi

SAMPLE 3: High ranking samurai banquets

With the rise of the warrior class starting from the Muromachi period (14th century), samurai who were high ranked would eat Honzen-ryori, which is a highly ritualised form of serving food. These banquets were held to serve guests and had a lot of rules for eating as it was also partly ceremonial. For example, you should eat the dishes alternately and not from the same dish bite after bite, or that pickles should be eaten at the end of the meal or after the tea is served.

The banquet starts with the Shikisankon (式三献, “three round of offerings“), where guests are served three servings of sake with food, as a ceremonial contract with the divine.

After the Shikisankon, the meal served was based on how rich the samurai was, with the most basic version being Ichijuu Sansai一汁三菜, meaning one soup and three dishes. Tsukemono, or pickled dish, and rice are not included in the number of dishes.

Sansai would include a Namasu, which is fish sliced thinly, sometimes served with vegetables marinated in vinegar. In modern-day, Namasu can also refer to just the vegetables.

Sansai also includes the Hira 平(ひら), or simmered dish, and then a Yakimono 焼き物, or grilled dish. All of these must be placed in specific positions.

The most luxurious version of Honzen Ryori would have Sanjuu Shichisai 三汁七菜(さんじゅうしちさい), or 3 soups and 7 dishes.

Though, Honzen ryori had already fallen out of practice after World War 2, which is probably why the only picture I was able to find following the format is a very low res picture.

A descendant of the chef of the Maeda samurai clan also talks about a similar banquet called the Kyouou (饗応) in a presentation. Though I wasn’t able to find out more about Kyouou, and thus don’t know if this is different from Honzen-ryori, or if this is just another name for the same thing.

High-end samurai cuisine would continue to exert their influence on Japanese cuisine in the Edo period (1603 – 1868). Most of Japanese culture and cuisine was heavily influenced or based on the Edo period because of the relative peace in these two centuries. Without the constant warring of the Sengoku period, Japanese culture was able to flourish and properly develop.

A little remnant is the concept of Ichijuu Sansai found even in modern Japanese meals. Homecooked meals follow the one soup three dishes configuration, and this is common even for set meals/teishoku ordered in restaurants.

Either way, turning a banquet into a burger would be a little difficult, and there’s no harm in understanding more about the samurai diet.

SAMPLE 4: Edo samurai nobility

On a more daily basis, dinner served to samurai nobility in the Genroku Era (1688-1704), as written in the diary Asahi Bunzemon, often had meals consisting of dried strips of daikon, arame help, Umeboshi, tofu, konnyaku, yams, boiled burdock root, marinated freshwater clams, broiled striped mullet and pickles. Miso soup with dried daikon radish and sake were also served.

Being served sake was a sign of the peace enjoyed during the Edo period.

SAMPLE 5: Edo commoners

What the samurai nobility had wasn’t exactly out of reach for the commoners. The city of Edo, which is the former name of Tokyo, was a relatively good place at the time for foodies compared to other cities in Japan.

Breakfast for the commonfolk included rice, soup, pickles, one or two dishes of either dried fish, boiled dried daikon radish strips, deep fried tofu with kelp, fried burdock roots, boiled beans, or clear tofu soup. Tofu was particularly popular, as a recipe book called the Tofu Hyakuchin with one hundred Tofu recipes was a bestseller that even got 2 sequels.

Tofu Hyakuchin

(side note: all 100 tofu dishes were translated to modern Japanese. So it is relatively simple to replicate them by using google translate. This seems like an interesting idea for a series of videos but I’m guessing tofu isn’t super popular…)

In the streets, you can find soba noodles, sushi, tempura, and unagi just about every corner in Edo. Main and side dishes were not only cooked at home but also purchased from shops. There were even guidebooks written for finding good food.

See also  McDonald's Curry Sauce, so good it almost caused a riot - Food Origins

SAMPLE 6: Low ranking samurai

That said, having a lot of good food around you doesn’t mean jack if you were poor. Income back then was measured based on the amount of rice, called koku. One koku is about 150kg of rice, or enough to feed a man for a year. Samurai would earn stipends based on koku, while merchants earned incomes based on gold and silver.

In the Edo period, the value of gold rose relative to rice, making merchants a lot more wealthy in general than the samurai.

And then, there’s our anecdote, as written in the Sekijo Nikki in June 1861 by a low-ranking samurai who had it even worse as his stipend was reduced to just a fifth of the previous year.

One page in the Sekijo Nikki

He mentioned that family meals were soup, pickles, and rice with green tea poured over it. Sometimes tofu or boiled vegetables were added, but egg or fish were luxuries.

The Burger

With everything above in mind, basing the burger on anything in traditional Japanese cuisine would probably work as a “samurai burger”. You know, except beef, chicken, mayonnaise, and bread which are not ingredients found there.

A disclaimer though: I don’t actually recommend you to follow my recipe. It doesn’t taste that good and is quite a pain compared to normal Japanese recipes.

RICE BUNS

Nothing special in terms of execution. We’re going with rice buns. But we don’t need to use unpolished rice, as it was very common to see white rice in Edo. This is as opposed to unpolished rice in other regions. Though rice polishing techniques weren’t as sophisticated as modern methods, so Edo white rice retained more of the outer layer and was slightly yellowish.

Rice was also very commonly mixed together with other ingredients like barley, daikon, or any kind of vegetables. This would be called Katemeshi. Although in the 21st century this would be more appealing for the gram, back then pure white rice was the superior look and was preferred by all Japanese.

So much so that swapping from the original diet of unpolished rice and katemeshi actually resulted in a unique problem in Japan. A disease called beriberi was common all over Japan, and was dubbed the “Edo sickness” since it was especially prevalent in the city. Nobody knew this back then, but the cause was the less nutritious diet resulting from swapping to white rice. Since Edo had more people eating white rice, beriberi was also more common there. (More info about this here.)

Daikonmeshi

As for our burger, we’re going to make Daikon rice. In a 1773 book, there is a description for rice cooked in grated daikon juice, mixed in with daikon cooked in cape jasmine juice. While cape jasmine (kuchinashi) extract seems to be purchaseable, I wasn’t able to find it. So we’re going with a simple version.

1773料理伊呂波包丁

Daikon Rice Buns for Samurai Burger

Servings 2

Ingredients
  

  • 160 ml white rice
  • 1/3 daikon cubed
  • Top leafy parts of daikon
  • Water as per cooker instructions Repeating just in case: check America's test kitchen's video on rice ratios for why I don't give rice ratios
  • Salt to taste

Instructions
 

  • Put rice and water in cooker. Put cubed daikon on top of rice. Season with salt to taste and cook.
  • 5 minutes before the rice is done, chop the top leafy parts of the daikon and place into the cooker.
  • When rice is done, wait for it to be cool enough to handle by hand. Mix everything together.
  • Using wet hands, pick up the rice mixture and roughly shape into patties.

Using daikon was a mistake, as the big pieces of daikon wasn’t really ideal for holding their shape in bun form.

NOOOOO

What I should have used instead is kiriboshi daikon, or dried daikon, which was also an ingredient used back then.

But you know, it’s not like people made burgers back then…

TERIYAKI TUNA”

A pot-roasted yellowtail (very rough translation since the original wording is 当座鰤煎炙) was written in a cookbook using sugar, from when 8th Shogun Yoshimune changed. This is replicated on a Japanese show Ryori Mukashibanashi, so we have something to follow.

The ingredients as from the show:

  • Yellowtail upper body 400 grams

  • 1 green onion 

  • 2 tablespoons of sesame oil or salad oil 

  • 2/3 cup of sake 

  • A little sugar 

  • 1/2 cup of usukuchi soy sauce 

Sugar was only starting to be more commonly available around this period, so it probably wasn’t cheap. The recipe itself is actually quite similar to Teriyaki with more liquid, though I’m not sure if this directly related to it. Hence the quotations for this section’s title.

One notable thing is the use of sesame oil for frying. Nowadays, sesame oil refers to roasted sesame oil, which has a much darker colour and isn’t really good for frying. But the sesame oil in Edo refers to light or unroasted sesame oil, which has a high smoke point unlike the roasted version. In fact, sesame oil was commonly used back then for tempura. Similar to sugar, oil production was also just ramping up, so it wasn’t exactly a cheap ingredient.

Left: Roasted Sesame Oil
Right: Light Sesame Oil

As a 21st century peasant, I had to make an adjustment to the fish. Buying a yellowtail buri of suitable size is about 25 dollars… The supermarkets in Singapore do sell another yellowtail species, or yellowtail fusilier for like just a couple of bucks. But I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work as a substitute since the Japanese yellowtail is yellowtail amberjack. Some commenters on the reddit thread have also pointed out that yellowtail fusilier tastes completely different. 

So using another fatty fish substitute, I settled with tuna which was half the price of yellowtail buri. Funnily enough, this would be historically accurate in a sense since tuna was considered inferior to other fishes back then.

"Teriyaki Tuna" for Samurai Burger

Servings 2

Ingredients
  

  • 1 tbsp light sesame oil
  • 150 g Tuna sliced into 2 portions
  • 80 ml sake
  • 3 tbsp Usukuchi soy sauce
  • Sugar to taste I used about 1 tbsp
  • 1/3 long green onion naganegi

Instructions
 

  • Heat sesame oil in a pan. Brown tuna and green onion in. Optionally, shred some of the green onion.
  • When one side of the tuna is browned, flip and add in the sake, soy sauce and sugar.
  • Let this cook until the tuna is to the desired doneness (I only cooked for 2 minutes or so), take out the tuna and reduce the remaining sauce.
  • Serve

Notes

This is slightly simplified from the original since I didn't want to overcook my tuna. 

Then to assemble the burger, I mixed the shredded green onion from the “teriyaki tuna” with shredded cucumber and takuan. Takuan was especially popular in Edo since rice bran from polishing rice was used to pickle and make it. This mixture served as the vegetables for the burger.

Assembly is simple with bottom rice bun, fish, vegetables, then top bun. Remember to pour sauce over the fish and rice.

For the rest of the meal, I made a simple miso soup with daikon and leftover dashi and some miso. Then served shredded cucumber, umeboshi and more takuan on the side.

Before I poured sauce over the burger, it fell apart… At least I got the thumbnail picture I guess?

As for the taste, it didn’t taste good nor bad. Kind of a waste to use expensive fish, to be honest. Especially after putting so much effort into this. Then again, samurai considered eating to be something of a ritual rather than for gourmet pursuits. It is said that even meals eaten by the shogun didn’t taste good, even if they looked very nice.

So… a success…?

Cost for the recipe and video

People seemed interested in the cost, so here:

  • Daikon: S$2 for one. ~S$1.50.

  • Rice: Short grain japonica, $10 for 5kg, ~S$0.252

  • Green Onion: S$3.20 for 2 sticks. ~S$1.60

  • Honmaguro Akami Tuna: S$11.39 for 146g

  • (could have been twice as much if used Yellowtail Buri)

  • White Sesame Oil: S$7.80 for 200g. ~S$0.50

  • Soy Sauce, S$3.60 for a bottle, ~S$0.58

  • Cooking wine, S$5.00 for 500ml bottle, ~S$0.80

  • Sugar, about 5 cents.

  • Takuan: S$4.90 for one big pack. ~S$0.50

  • Cucumber: S$0.50.

  • Umeboshi, S$1.

This totals the cost of 2 portions to be S$18.67, assuming the remaining ingredients can be utilised for other purposes.

In reality, I really only used about 50 cents worth of sesame oil, but 7 dollars and 80 cents spent to buy a small bottle is still 7 dollars and 80 cents spent. And sesame oil isn’t really an ingredient I would normally buy.

Taking this into consideration, and then adding the Japanese plates I bought, the real cost for making this video is about S$44.67.

The high cost is partly why this episode didn’t have McDonald’s samurai burger for comparison. One burger with meal can buy me 3 cai pngs to fuel the human behind the screen. Another reason is that I simply don’t feel like eating it.

Money aside, the biggest cost for producing this video is time. Here’s my timeline for this project:

  • 9th to 11th December researching and reading up on the samurai

  • 12th Dec afternoon to buy groceries

  • 13th Dec afternoon to film

  • 14th to 18th December spent on editing and some additional research

Whew, quite a lot of time there. Especially when you consider that everything above is done on a full time basis as a jobless hobo. For comparison, Genshin recipe videos take an average of just 4 days between the previous upload, as they have little history in comparison.

Sources

Hanagoyomi by Peritune http://peritune.com/

How Japan’s Military Popularised Meat and Western Food – Just a Fat Boi

The Transition of the Japanese-Style Diet

Edo

High end Samurai cuisine

Other useful readings


Leave a Reply