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The Origins and Early History of Sadō

Sadō, or the Japanese tea ceremony, has its roots in the simple practice of drinking tea first introduced to Japan from China in the 9th century. As the consumption of tea became more widespread among Buddhist monks and the nobility in the following centuries, a sophisticated set of rituals and aesthetics developed around the preparation and drinking of matcha green tea.

The origins of Sadō as we know it today can be traced back to the 16th century and a man named Sen no Rikyū. Rikyū established many of the core principles of Sadō under the patronage of the warlord Oda Nobunaga and later Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He advocated for the aesthetics of wabi-sabi, rustic simplicity, and tranquility in the practice of Sadō.

Prior to Rikyū's influence, the tea ceremony had grown into an ostentatious pastime among the elite samurai class. Rikyū sought to remove excess ornamentation and instead focus on the meditative, spiritual nature of Sadō. Under his guidance, the tea house, garden, utensils and procedures were refined to emphasize subtlety and humility.

Rikyū is credited with elevating the tea ceremony from a social amusement to a disciplined art form with deeper philosophical meaning related to Zen Buddhism. His teachings had an enormous impact on cementing Sadō as a seminal part of Japanese cultural tradition.

While the origins of Sadō date back centuries before Rikyū, his contributions helped shape tea ceremony into the intricate, significant part of Japanese culture that it remains today. The peaceful rituals of Sadō continue to exemplify Japanese aesthetic principles for modern practitioners.

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Fermented foods are an integral part of Japanese cuisine and culture. One such example is amazake, a sweet and thick fermented rice drink.

The history of amazake can be traced back over a thousand years to the Heian period (794-1185). Originally enjoyed by aristocrats and monks, it later became more widely consumed by the general populace. Amazake is made by fermenting rice with kōji, a type of mold. This process breaks down the rice starch into sugars, resulting in a sweet and velvety beverage.

There are many regional varieties of amazake throughout Japan. In the Kansai area, it is thick and rich, almost like porridge. Hiroshima is known for its thin, drinkable version called namasu amazake. Sendai amazake has a yeasty, cloudy appearance. Despite the variations, all amazake shares a sweet, mildly alcoholic taste.

Amazake contains a small amount of alcohol due to the fermentation process. The alcohol content can range from 0.5% to 2%, depending on factors like fermentation time and yeast strain. Commercial amazake producers carefully control the fermentation to keep alcohol levels low. Homemade amazake may have slightly higher alcohol content. However, because amazake has a thick, porridge-like consistency, the alcohol taste is minimal. The primary flavors come from the sweet rice and umami of the koji mold.

Amazake has nutritional benefits as well. Since the fermentation process preserves many of the nutrients in rice, it is a good source of protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. The sugars in amazake are absorbed slowly by the body, making it a better choice than sugar-sweetened drinks. Amazake is also naturally lactose-free and gluten-free.

In modern times, amazake can be enjoyed hot or cold, often flavored with matcha or other ingredients. It makes a great sweet pairing with traditional Japanese desserts like ohagi and daifuku. Amazake is also used as a base for cocktails and savory dishes like amazake-flavored fried chicken.

As an ancient, wholesome food with deep cultural roots, amazake exemplifies the appeal of Japanese fermented foods. Its unique sweetness and smooth texture make it a beloved drink that continues to evolve along with Japanese cuisine.

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Natto is a traditional Japanese food made from fermented soybeans. It has been consumed in Japan for over 1,000 years for its nutritious and health-promoting properties.

Natto is produced by fermenting boiled soybeans with Bacillus subtilis, a beneficial bacterium that gives natto its distinguished sticky and stringy texture and strong odor. The fermentation process also generates an enzyme called nattokinase, which has been linked to several health benefits.

There are many regional varieties of natto across Japan, including itohiki-natto from Ibaraki prefecture, hama-natto from Okinawa, and shiokara-natto from Hokkaido. Each variety has a unique taste, texture, and way of serving. Natto can be eaten as is, added to rice or noodles, or used as an ingredient in salads, wraps, and dips.

Natto is highly nutritious. It is an excellent source of plant-based protein, providing around 15 grams per serving. Natto also contains vitamin K2, iron, calcium, zinc, magnesium, and selenium. The insoluble fiber in natto aids digestion.

One of the biggest health benefits of natto may come from its nattokinase enzyme. Some research indicates nattokinase has anti-inflammatory, anti-coagulant, and anti-hypertensive effects in the body. Most notably, it appears nattokinase may inhibit the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Consuming natto regularly may therefore provide some protection against COVID-19 infection and severity. More research is still needed on this topic however.

As a fermented soyfood with remarkable nutrition, enzymes, and potential health benefits, natto is worthy of the title “Japanese superfood”. Its rich history and regional diversity show just how integral natto is to Japanese cuisine and wellbeing.

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