Sunday, June 30, 2024

Japanese Mortar and Pestle Suribachi & Surikogi

Japanese Mortar and Pestle Suribachi and Surikogi すり鉢とすりこ木

Suribachi mortar with sansho wood surikogi pestle.
Suribachi mortar with sansho wood surikogi pestle

Some typical Japanese dishes need traditional Japanese kitchen tools to get them right or to make them at all. The suribachi / surikogi (Japanese mortar and pestle) combination is one such essential tool.

Just the other night, my wife and I prepared hourensou no goma-ae (spinach dressed in black sesame) and maguro no yamakake (Tuna sashimi topped with mashed Japanese Mountain Yam). Both are very typical Japanese appetizers or side dishes, both go very well with sake.

Further down this text, you can see images of our use of the suribachi and surikogi preparing said dishes. Just as one possible example of the many uses of the Japanese mortar and pestle.

Suribachi with its typical comb pattern.
Suribachi with its typical comb pattern

Suribachi History

The combination of mortar and pestle is one of the oldest kitchen tools in any culture, dating back to the stone age. Hard grain for example could be much more easily cooked or baked after being ground in a mortar. Coarse rock salt was ground for convenient use in the kitchen, even meat went through the mortar and pestle treatment to make it easier digestible.

Those mortars and pestles were typically made of stone, a tradition carried on up to today. Stone mortars and pestles are still frequently in use for grinding spices, the expensive ones made of Italian marble.

As so often, however, the tradition in Japan is a bit different. Mortars and pestles were certainly in use in ancient Japan but in Heian times (794 - 1185), ceramic mortars arrived from China.

Those were much easier to handle than stone mortars and the Japanese pottery kilns soon got in on the business, especially the Bizen kilns in what is now Okayama Prefecture.

It's said that the Bizen kiln folks invented the comb stroke patterns inside the Japanese mortar. Rather than leave the mortar's grinding surface flat or grainy, they drew a well thought-out pattern with a metal comb before sending the pottery into the oven, greatly enhancing the grinding capacities of the mortars.

Those patterns / their variations and improvements over time still set Japanese mortars apart from any other mortars today.

There was one big problem with those patterns ingrained into the mortars, though. Pestles made of stone would quickly destroy that preciously combed surface inside the mortars.

Sansho wood surikogi.
Sansho wood surikogi

The Surikogi

Thus, wooden pestles were introduced. The wood for those pestles had to be hard enough to do even the toughest grinding job, the wood had to be resistant to all the acids released in grinding vegetables, the wood needed a resistance against mold.

After what must have been many experiments, the old masters found out that the wood of the sansho tree, the Japanese Mountain Pepper tree, was the perfect wood for the job. Extremely resilient but at the same time giving off a slight fragrance even after long-term use. A welcome flavor to any dish on the table.

Grinding black sesame in a suribachi.
Grinding black sesame in a suribachi

Uses Past and Present

Common folks used the suribachi on a daily basis. Miso soup has been a staple of Japanese cuisine for hundreds of years and the boiled soy beans making up the miso (soy bean paste) used to be available on the markets only in the form of soft-boiled beans. Thus, every household had to have a large mortar and pestle to turn those boiled soy beans into the paste needed to make a good miso soup. Suribachi were also used for processing all that other food needing a good grind. The mortar and pestle at the house did the job the electrical food processor would take on in the 1960s.

Miso paste became available factory-made at the beginning of the 1900s, other ready-made foods followed post World War II.

In a diminished but more specified capacity, the suribachi stayed on in Japanese household kitchens. Tororo, mashed yama imo (Japanese Mountain Yam), essential as a topping for many udon noodle dishes but also frequently used on top of tuna sashimi, can only produced with a traditional Suribachi grinder. In Japanese, the ground yama imo is called tororo when referring to the soft mush as such, it's called yamakake upon being placed on top of food.

Sansho peels, the edible parts of the sansho (Japanese Mountain Pepper) fruits frequently used as a spice, need to be ground in a traditional mortar for maximum effect.

Traditional families never gave up on the use of their Suribachi, younger generations re-discovered the suribachi / surikogi combination as essential tools in modern gourmet cooking. The sansho wood surikogi still being the favorite today.

Preparing hourensou no goma-ae in a suribachi.
Preparing hourensou no goma-ae in a suribachi

Suribachi Sizes

Suribachi come in many different sizes, their use depending on the amount of spices / foods to be ground.

Suribachi sizes are typically measured by the diameter of their upper rim. The Chinese 寸 (sun) indicating an old Chinese inch (about 32 mm) used to be the standard measurement. Today, you often see suribachi sizes advertised in号 (go). 号 (go) however simply means "number" like in suribachi 6号, meaning Number 6 size which would usually be about 19 cm.

Different Japanese manufacturers however slightly vary in their use of those numbers, more or less based on the measurements in 寸 (sun).
Fortunately, many if not most manufacturers today also use the metric system.

In any case, the difference from one size to the next larger one is usually about 3 cm.

For grinding spices, a rather small suribachi is best, about 10 cm in rim width. For two person-dishes, a size of 18 or 21 cm may the most convenient, larger families / parties of course needing larger Suribachi.

Grinding Japanese Mountain Yam in a Suribachi.
Grinding Japanese Mountain Yam in a Suribachi

Surikogi Sizes

Generally, the surikogi should be a bit longer than the rim diameter of the Suribachi. About one third longer, some sources say. But that's not a strict rule. The mortal and pestle should simply fit comfortably when working with the tools.

Refining the ground yam with a surikogi.
Refining the ground yam with a surikogi

Where to Find

Well-stocked Japanese department stores usually offer a number of suribachi / surikogi combinations. It's of course more of an adventure to travel to the traditional kilns deep in the countryside of western Japan and to an old-fashioned lumber workshop nearby with a master cutting the surikogi by hand.

You can also order your suribachi and surikogi right from your home from Goods From Japan.

Buy Japanese Kitchen Utensils

Goods from Japan offers a variety of Japanese foods and kitchen utensils.

Suribachi & Surikogi Set

Buy ground sansho pepper from S&B

Buy sansho rinds from Mascot

Purchase a range of Japanese foodstuffs and drinks from GoodsFromJapan.

A dish of tuna topped with ground Japanese yam, spinach dressed in black sesame and a cup of sake.
A dish of tuna topped with ground Japanese yam, spinach dressed in black sesame and a cup of sake

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by Johannes Schonherr

© GoodsFromJapan.com

Wednesday, June 05, 2024

Satsuma Rebellion Illustrated Japanese History

Japan Book Review: Satsuma Rebellion Illustrated Japanese History - The Last Stand of the Samurai

Satsuma Rebellion Illustrated Japanese History - The Last Stand of the Samurai

by Sean Michael Wilson

ISBN: 978-1-62317-167-4
North Atlantic Books, 2018
104pp; paperback

Satsuma Rebellion Illustrated Japanese History.
Satsuma Rebellion Illustrated Japanese History

Two of the most momentous events in Japanese history were the ending of the 265-year rule of the Tokugawa regime at the end of the Edo Period and the subsequent beginning of the Meiji Restoration in 1868. These events, of course, did not happen smoothly.

A major incident of this time was called the Satsuma Rebellion which occurred when a group of disaffected ex-samurai, who had lost power and influence at the start of the Meiji Restoration, started to rise up. In all, some two million samurai had been downgraded and were struggling while attempting to join the ranks of everyday businessmen and farmers.

The Satsuma Rebellion was the most famous of the more than 30 rebellions that the new government had to quash. Saigo Takamori, a noted and influential samurai in the Edo Period, assembled a group of these former samurai to take on the new government. Saigo had fallen out of favor with the new government when his plan to invade and conquer Korea was rejected.

While the basic story is well-known - not just by Japanese school students who are still taught this history but by people with more than a passing knowledge of Japanese history - readers of this graphic novel will deepen their knowledge of the important people and events of this pivotal period of time. 

For example, Emperor Komei's "Expel the Barbarians" order led to many deaths including, possibly, his own. His passing, under suspicious circumstances, led immediately to his 14-year-old son, Emperor Meiji, ascending the throne.

There are actually a number of interesting, tangential characters in the book such as: Edward and Henry Schnell, Dutch-German brothers who were arms dealers and brought two of the first Gatling guns to Japan; Thomas Glover, a Scot who brought the first steam locomotive to Japan and who established companies that later became Mitsubishi and Kirin; and British merchant Charles Richardson whose rudeness towards powerful Japanese caused a major political crisis.

Despite being outnumbered six to one by government forces, and despite being on the losing end of the battle, Saigo is today greatly revered by many Japanese. There is a famous bronze statue of Saigo in Tokyo's Ueno Park. It has been standing there since 1898.

As with "Black Ships," Wilson's first Japan-related graphic novel, the art work in this book (done by Akiko Shimojima) is sufficient but not spectacular. There are no editing gaffs as seen in the first book.

If graphic novels pique readers' interest and inspire them to do more research on the main subject, then probably they are well-written. This book will do those things for many readers.

Review by Marshall Hughes.

Buy this book from Amazon USA | UK | Japan

Looking to buy Japanese things directly from Japan? GoodsFromJapan is here to help.

More Japan Book Reviews

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Tokyo Outdoors

Monday, April 29, 2024

Black Ships Illustrated Japanese History

Japan Book Review: Black Ships Illustrated Japanese History - The Americans Arrive

Black Ships Illustrated Japanese History - The Americans Arrive

by Sean Michael Wilson

ISBN: 978-1-62317-091-2
North Atlantic Books, 2017
105pp; paperback

Black Ships Illustrated Japanese History review.
Black Ships Illustrated Japanese History - The Americans Arrive

Most people even vaguely familiar with Japanese history will recognize the name of Commodore Matthew Perry, the American who is usually credited with the opening of Japan to Western trading.

Those a little more familiar with Japanese history will know that there was trading going on before Perry and his four Black Ships showed up unannounced on May 17, 1853; specifically trading between the Dutch and the Japanese (limited to Dejima, an artificial island off of Nagasaki) and some trading with the Chinese.

Sean Michael Wilson has written this graphic novel filling in Japanophiles on more details about Perry and his trips (there were two) to Japan.

On Perry's first trip he came with a letter from U.S. President Millard Fillmore demanding that the U.S. be allowed to trade with Japan. The Japanese were not amused.

Perry was a gruff, tough-minded man who would not take no for an answer. He demanded that he deliver Fillmore's letter in person to Japan's highest-ranking officials in person. The Japanese bakufu (leaders) were trying to get Perry to go to Dejima and trying to let a lesser person receive the letter. Perry said "no" and gave the Japanese a threat along the lines of "we'll be back and we'd better get what we want.

Perry and his four ships, called the Plymouth, Mississippi, Saratoga and Susquehanna, then sailed back to America, signing an agreement with the Ryukyu Kingdom (now Okinawa) on the way back. Perry returned earlier than originally planned, this time with 10 ships and more artillery. The early return was mostly because America garnered information that other countries such as Russia and England were closing in on Japan and trying to set up their own trade agreements.

Russia brought ships to Japan just after Perry left, but the ships were destroyed in the aftermath of an earthquake, leaving the Russians stranded. Still, they managed to score some trading agreements as Japan figured if they could trade with America they might as well trade with Russia.

Even readers who think they know a lot about Japan's opening to the West will likely glean new information into a fascinating and important part of Japanese and American history.

One slightly annoying part of the book is that there are at several places where multiple random question marks are inserted in the dialogues. Besides that, the book is interesting, informative and well-drawn, but at only 105 pages it is not exactly a graduate-class level on Perry and his impact on Japan's history. Of course, not many graphic novels are graduate-class level tomes. Black Ships can easily be read in one sitting.

Note: The book is the first of, to date, two graphic novels by Sean Michael Wilson about Japan. The second in the series is focused on the Satsuma Rebellion.

Review by Marshall Hughes.

Buy this book from Amazon USA | UK | Japan

Looking to buy Japanese things directly from Japan? GoodsFromJapan is here to help.

More Japan Book Reviews

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Tokyo Outdoors

Monday, January 08, 2024

Tokyo Outdoors 45 Walks Hikes and Cycling Routes

Japan Book Review: Tokyo Outdoors

Tokyo Outdoors: 45 Walks, Hikes and Cycling Routes to Explore the City Like a Local

by Matthew Baxter

ISBN: 978-1-919-63155-4
108pp; paperback

Tokyo Outdoors: 45 Walks, Hikes and Cycling Routes to Explore the City Like a Local.

If you have a free day and don't feel like spending Tokyo money, and are in fact just looking for interesting walking, hiking or cycling routes in Tokyo, then this could be the book for you.

Most of the suggested 45 itineraries consist of two pages, with five or six places of interest to see on each route, a recommended café, a recommended meal spot, and finally helpful QR codes which lead to maps (usually written in Japanese) corresponding to each trip. All of the maps can be downloaded at once by using the QR code on page 4.

The book is the fourth in a series written by Matthew Baxter, following his Super Cheap Hokkaido, Super Cheap Japan and Super Cheap New Zealand versions. Each book is similar in size, length and style.

Before getting into the hikes and bikes, Baxter presents three pages of details about things like transportation to and from Tokyo's two international airports, how to use Tokyo trains (both public and private lines) and how and where to rent bicycles for those who want to cycle. While anybody living in Japan will already know much of this information, it is handy for foreign tourists.
The routes are mostly in Tokyo, but on occasion stretch to Nikko to the north and Yokohama to the south.

At the end of the book is a helpful three-page section highlighting the top three (sometimes five) hikes for cherry blossoms, autumn leaves, shopping, art and museums, history and culture, day hikes and long cycling rides. The Tamagawa River ride, one of the suggested cycling courses, is 45 kilometers (28 miles) in length, although "train lines run along much of the river, with dozens of stations to pick up or drop off your rental bicycles."

There is also a two-page "festival and events calendar," with a couple of suggestions for each month.

A few small downsides of the book would include that the photos, all black-and-white, are small not especially helpful, and that a few facts are omitted or open to question. For example, it is not mentioned that Odawara Castle is actually a 1960 rebuild of the original castle which was torn down by the Meiji government in 1872.

Ignore a few oversites, and you have a book with useful suggestions about how to spend some enjoyable free days in Tokyo and its surrounding areas, without splashing out much cash.

Review by Marshall Hughes.

Buy this book from Amazon USA | UK | Japan

Looking to buy Japanese things directly from Japan? GoodsFromJapan is here to help.

More Japan Book Reviews

All About Japan - Stories, Songs, Crafts and Games for Kids

Exposure: From President to Whistleblower at Olympus

Japanese Kokeshi Dolls: The Woodcraft and Culture of Japan's Iconic Wooden Dolls

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