Ainu cuisine is the cuisine of the ethnic Ainu in Japan. The cuisine differs markedly from that of the majority Yamato people of Japan. Raw meat like sashimi, for example, is rarely served in Ainu cuisine, which instead uses methods such as boiling, roasting and curing to prepare meat. Also unlike Japanese cuisine, traditional Ainu cuisine did not use miso, soy sauce, or sugar, though these seasonings make an appearance in modern Ainu cuisine. The island of Hokkaidō in northern Japan is where most Ainu live today; however, they once inhabited most of the Kuril islands, the southern half of Sakhalin island, and parts of northern Honshū Island.
Traditional Ainu cuisine uses meats, such as salmon and deer, obtained through fishing and hunting, wild plants gathered in the mountains such as cardiocrinum cordatum bulbs (turep) and acorns, as well as various grains and potatoes obtained through farming. Other features include its liberal use of oils as flavoring. Due to the Ainu's reliance on local game and fauna, not all areas used all the same ingredients, instead utilizing what was most available.
In addition to salt, the fats (sum) from cod, sardines, herring, shark, seal, whale (humpesum), sika deer (yuksum), and bear (pasum) are used to flavor dishes. Miso and soy sauce have also been used in modern times. Soup stocks may be made using kelp (kombu), animal bone, and dried fish. Seasoning and spices include pukusa (allium ochotense), berries from the Amur corktree (phellodendron amurense), and wavy bittercress (cardamine flexuosa).
The most predominate game animal was the sika deer. Deer were hunted using poisoned arrows as well by herding them off cliffs and gathering them from where they fell. In the past, deer were so common and easily hunted in Hokkaidō that it was said one could “put the pot on the fire, then go hunting”.
The Ainu fished at sea in dugout canoes using harpoons to hunt a variety of large marine animals and used nets and fishing rods to bring in smaller creatures. Beached whales were particularly prized, as generally it was impossible to bring a whale in using canoes and harpoons. However, there were some instances of whaling in Funka Bay using harpoons coated with wolfsbane poison, aided by the gentle tides. The Ainu also used a number of tools including fishing rods, nets, traps (uray), and fishing baskets (raomap) to catch freshwater fish.
While men were responsible for hunting and fishing, women were responsible for gathering edible plants, beginning in early spring. Tools used during gathering trips into the mountains included the saranip (a bag woven from the fibers of the Japanese lime tree), the menoko makiri (a small women's knife), itani (a type of digging stick), and the shitap (a small pick made from deer horn). One of the most important mountain plants gathered in spring was the Siberian onion (pukusa), which is very similar to wild leeks found in Canada and the United States in taste, texture and appearance. Large quantities of cardiocrinum cordatum bulbs (turep) were gathered in summer as they were important as a preserved food.
Farming was already taking place in Hokkaidō during the Jōmon period, prior to the Satsumon period in which the Ainu first appeared. However, agriculture began to decline in the 12th century up until the Ainu period. Rather than being caused by the cold climate, it is thought to be caused by the increase in demand for dried fish and furs for trade with Honshū, leading to increased importance in hunting and fishing. Cultivated crops changed over the years as new crops were introduced, such as potatoes, kabocha, and beans.
Citatap translated from Ainu means “that which has been pounded”. As the name suggests, citatep is meat or fish that has been pounded in a way similar to the Japanese method tataki.
Other than salmon, a variety of meats and fish are used to add flavor to citatap such as Japanese dace, bathyraja lindbergi, masu salmon, Japanese fluvial sculpin, deer, bear, tanuki, rabbit, and chipmunk. Citatap was well suited to the meat of older animals, as it made the tough meat easier to eat. Citatap was primarily made in the winter, when food spoiled more slowly, and was eaten over a number of days. If the citatap was not particularly fresh, it was formed into balls and added to soup.
Ohaw is soup made from boiling fish or meats with various vegetables. It may have the consistency of soup, or be more like a Japanese nabemono (hot pot) that contains a high ratio of ingredients to broth. As a hunter-gatherer society, the Ainu did not have a staple food as such, but ohaw was a central dish in their food culture. It is thought to be the roots of Hokkaidō regional dishes such as Ishikari nabe and sanpei soup. There are no specific requirements of ingredients to use for ohaw, but was generally made as described below.
Different varieties of ohaw are named by their main ingredient such as cep ohaw (fish soup), kamuy ohaw (bear soup), kam ohaw (meat soup), and kina ohaw (vegetable soup). Anemone flaccida was particularly suited for use in soups and was therefore called ohaw kina, which literally translates as “soup grass”.
Translated literally, rataskep means “mixed food”. Wild vegetables and beans are stewed until soft and the liquid has evaporated, at which point the mixture is mashed and seasoned with bear or fish oils and a small amount of salt. Rataskep was made as an everyday food, as well as for offerings at ceremonies, as it was considered a sacred food. There are unlimited varieties using different ingredients, below are a few examples.
Sikerpe kina rataskep
A thin porridge made from boiling Japanese millet or rice. Generally, the grains are boiled alone, but occasionally gathered vegetables are added. Unlike other porridges in agricultural societies, sayo is not a staple food. Rather, Ainu would fill up on fatty soups and grilled meats then drink it like tea as a palate cleanser. For that reason, sayo was made in a small dedicated pot so as to avoid mixing oils in from other dishes. Care was also taken to avoid mixing flavors when serving by using a separate ladle specifically for serving sayo (sayo kasup), rather than the usual ladle for serving soup (kasup). As the porridge used very little grains to make, a month's supply for one person was approximately 1.8 liters. 108 liters would provide plenty for a family of five for a year.
The following are examples of sayo varieties.
A type of dumplings. The name sito is derived from the Japanese shitogi which refers to dumplings or a paste made from grinding raw grains. Traditionally, sito were considered a luxury due to the time and effort necessary to produce the flour by grinding the grains with mortar and pestle. It was therefore not a usual everyday food, but one made as offerings for sacred days such as the Bear Festival (iomante) and Ancestors’ Festival (icarup).
Usual ingredients were proso millet (mankul), foxtail millet (munchiro), and rice (siamam), though sito made with proso millet were considered the correct form. Over the years, other ingredients were added such as pumpkin (kabocha), and potato (imo). Similar to the Japanese kusamochi, the Ainu also made sito which mixed in Japanese mugwort (noya). Their flavor was enjoyed as reminiscent of spring.
Sito that were meant to be offerings were placed as is in ceremonial lacquerware boxes (sintoko), wooden bowls (patci), on small trays (otcike), or skewered with cornus controversa sticks and presented to the gods. When meant to be eaten by people, the sito were served with partially crushed salmon roe or a sauce made from mixing oils with dried and crushed kelp.
Sito has a long history. Dumplings made from foxtail millet have been found in archeological Satsumon remains discovered in Atsuma. Traditional Ainu cuisine did not use steamed rice to make dumplings, as the Japanese did with mochi. The Ainu first came in contact with Japanese style mochi after the Edo period when more ethnic Japanese moved to live in the same areas as the Ainu under the land contract system.
“Meal” in Ainu is “ipe”. Traditionally, two meals were eaten per day, breakfast (kunneywa ipe) and dinner (onuman ipe), and a third meal, lunch (tokes ipe), was added during the Taisho period. A night meal (kunne ipe) was sometimes eaten during night fishing or other late activities.
Food was transferred from the cooking pot using a ladle (kasup) into a lacquerware bowl (itanki) for eating. These bowls were obtained through trade with the ethnic Japanese and were large enough to hold 400 ml worth of food. Chunks of meat or fish that were too large to fit in the bowl were placed on mats woven from reeds. Items such as fish roasted on a spit or sito were eaten by hand, but otherwise, most foods were eaten with chopsticks (pasuy) or spoons (parapasuy). Parapasuy translated literally means “wide chopstick”. Both spoons and chopsticks were carved from wood.
When guests were over for food, the head woman of the house would offer food and say “ipeyan” (please eat). The guest would express their gratitude, and, if it were a valuable meal such as bear meat, they would raise the food to their forehead in thanks before beginning. However, the family would not say anything before eating if there were no guests. Once finished, it was customary to say “hunna” to express their gratitude for the food.
Similar to the ethnic Japanese, it was considered polite to eat all food that was provided. Because of this, it was considered polite to use one's finger to wipe the remaining sauce from inside the bowl and lick it. This custom is the reason for the Ainu name for the pointer finger, “itanki kem atsukep”, literally meaning “bowl-licking finger”.
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