Heijo-kyo, the Big Feast and, yes... Cheese
In 710, the center of Japanese power moved once again, to nearby Nara, where Empress Genmu established the new capital Heijo-kyo, near modern-day Nara. During the Nara period (710 to 794 AD) Sinification and the development of Buddhism reached its height.
The period also gives us the first written record of a formal Japanese meal. This was the daikyo, the ‘big feast’. It contained tai sea bream, koi carp, masu trout, tako octopus and kiji pheasant, seasoned with shoyu, sake, vinegar and salt. The privilege of the ruling classes, daikyo was luxurious but simple. It gave rise to the shikishidai, the concept of a 'ritual order of ceremonies' that came to characterize Japanese formal dining - and Shinto ceremonies, including wedding parties - and remains in place today.
Through the 8th century, prohibitions upon killing of any animals were enforced by successive imperial edicts. It's hard to imagine at this distant remove, but in 752 AD Empress Koken briefly outlawed the catching of fish! Shiso perilla or 'beefsteak plant' started to be cultivated, and beef itself was completely expunged from the menu by decree of the Buddhist clergy.
At this time, a newfangled culinary gizmo arrived from China: the metal spoon. The new import was used by the aristocracy, while the common folk still ate with their hands. Dining tables were introduced at this time; oshiki legless tables for the hoi poloi, zen lacquered tables with legs for the elite.
Ascertaining the exact details about any Japanese culinary habits up to the end of the Nara period has been traditionally problematical, as almost no records were kept of such matters. However, a valuable source of information has been unearthed, both literally and metaphorically.
Mokkan are ancient information-bearing wooden tablets excavated from the Heijo-kyo ruins. Experts are currently poring over around 120,000 of these at the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, and they are revealing details of Nara period food culture. They tell us that preserved dry seafoods were brought to the capital from the provinces including katsuo bonito from Suruga and Izu, and awabi abalone from Ise, and wakame seaweed from Awa.
It also appears that those Buddhist rules against eating flesh were not always observed. Takeshi Yamazaki, a researcher at the institute opines “Apparently, people even ate meat of bears, raccoon dogs, foxes and crows. A mark of a knife on the head of a sea bream has been found, and there also seems to have been the art of cooking where bones were cut into pieces in order to make soup stock.”
Columnist Takahito Saito identifies the following Nara era dishes: Suwayari dried salmon, hojishi dried deer meat, kuromai glutinous black rice, and togashi, a rice cake containing sweet red bean paste.
Perhaps most fascinating is so (蘇). Made from fermented milk, perhaps following the method used in ancient Mongolia, it is the nearest thing we can find to Nara period cheese, and was probably served to the aristocracy as a medicine or confectionary. The Nishii Bokujo farm in Asuka, Nara prefecture replicates it if you happen to be in the area and feel like trying 'the Cheese of the Ancients'. Other dairy products of the time were raku (酪) yoghurt, and daigo (醍醐) soy milk or curd.