The first Europeans on Japanese soil were the Portuguese — a handful of passengers on a Chinese ship that got blown off course and washed ashore on Tanegashima, an island off the coast of current-day Kagoshima Prefecture in southern Kyushu, in 1543. For almost 100 years after that, the Portuguese had a profound influence on Japan until their ships were banned by the Edo shogunate in 1639.
Not only did the Portuguese introduce firearms and Christianity to these shores, they also brought in European fashions, tobacco and more. The exotic products that they and other European traders brought to Japan were collectively called nanban. This term was originally used in China (pronounced naanmaan) to refer to the “southern barbarians” they fought along their borders. In Japan, however, “nanban” was used to mean something foreign and highly desirable.
The most enduring legacy of the Portuguese may be the influence they had on Japanese cuisine. They introduced chili peppers and corn (maize), both of which originated in the Americas, as well as the use of beaten eggs and sugar in cooking. While sugar was known already, it was extremely expensive and reserved for medicinal purposes, with other sweeteners used for cooking. Sugar became a little more affordable (although it remained a luxury item until the 19th century) when the Portuguese brought it in for trade, and a craze for nanban kashi (sweets) was born. Three types of nanban kashi are still very popular: Castella or kasutera, a rich sponge cake; bolo, small round crunchy-soft cookies; and konpeitō, colorful bumpy sugar candies.
The earliest examples of savory Nanban cuisine were closer to the European dishes that inspired them than their later versions. For example, tempura, a feature of Nagasaki’s Shippoku cuisine, was originally made with a batter comprising sugar, flour and eggs and fried in lard — kind of like a beignet or a sweet fritter. It only evolved into the lighter version, fried in vegetable oil, that we know today, in the 17th century. Early nanban cuisine often used chili peppers, originally called nanban-karashi or “nanban mustard”; later the name changed to tōgarashi, (Chinese mustard) when the country was closed to the outside world and China became a vague stand-in for anything foreign.
As time progressed, the word “nanban” became confused a little with Nanba, a district in Osaka where leeks are used a lot. This may explain dishes like kamo nanban, a simmered dish with duck and leeks and a sweet-savory sauce that has little to do with the original meaning of “nanban.” The term was later used for any dish with exotic spices, such as curry nanban — udon noodles in a curry-flavored soup, a 20th century invention. The popular chicken nanban — deep-fried marinated chicken filets served with tartare sauce — is both a throwback to original nanban cuisine with its use of a spicy marinade, and a modern dish with the tartare sauce that’s made with mayonnaise, a sauce that only became popular after World War II.
This month’s recipe is one that may well have been around in the 16th century. It’s very similar to escabeche, a fish in a piquant vinegar-based marinade in Mediterranean cuisine, but adds Japanese ingredients such as mirin to the marinade. The chili peppers are important to give the marinade that needed spice. Get pre-cleaned, very fresh fish to save time.
Recipe: Fried Pacific saury in marinade
Serves 4 to 8
Make the nanban marinade: Combine the dashi stock, mirin, soy sauce, sugar and vinegar in a small pan and bring to a boil. Transfer to a shallow nonreactive container and add the vegetables. Leave to cool.
Remove the scales from the fish, especially the hard ridge that runs down the middle. Open from the belly side and clean out the guts. If using large fish, filet them and cut into three or four pieces each. Smaller ones can be left whole or cut in half. Remove the heads if preferred. Pat the fish dry and sprinkle with salt. Leave for 10 minutes, pat dry again and dust with potato or cornstarch.
Heat up the frying oil to 150°C. Put the fish in the oil a few at a time, and fry until bubbles stop coming out of them. Drain well. Place the fish in the marinade, and refrigerate for at least an hour, turning occasionally. Serve cold with some of the marinade vegetables. The fish can be refrigerated in marinade for up to three days.