Summer time in Japan is festival time. Nearly every rural and urban community stages some public event. Most feature bon odori dancing and yatai stalls that sell toys, trinkets, chance-and-skill games (kingyo-sukui, goldfish-scooping with paper nets, is the all-time favorite), and lots of retro-nostalgia snacks (cotton candy and Calpis, a milky-colored, chalky-sweet, soft drink are top sellers).
Summer Festivals & Corn
Natsu matsuri & tomorokoshi
As with food found at beach stands in America’s coastal communities during summer vacation (think indigestion-inducing hot dogs, pizza and soda pop) much of the food sold at Japanese festival yatai is not wonderful stuff. But soy-glazed grilled corn (called yaki tomorokoshi) can be VERY GOOD, especially if prepared mushi yaki (steam-roasted) style. Although historically, maize (tomorokoshi) is linked to the food cultures of Mesoamerica, it’s hard to imagine summer in Japan today without chomping on corn.
Many thousands of years ago, the indigenous peoples of Central, South and North America began to domesticate corn. It seems likely the crop travelled to Europe with the Spanish in the 15th century AD. From there, Arab traders probably introduced the grain to North Africa while the Portuguese missionaries and merchants carried it on to East Africa and Asia.
Japanese culinary historians list 1579 as the year maize first appeared in Nagasaki. At the time, it was referred to as nanban kibi or “southern barbarian millet” suggesting it was the Portuguese (the barbarians who came to Japan from the southern trading routes) who were responsible for its introduction to Japan. It was not until the end of the 19th century, however, that corn became more widely available in Japan.
The current appellation – kon – to sound out “corn,” came into the lexicon during the Meiji era (1868-1912) from American English (the British called it maize). And, with the American word, a French-style creamed soup the Japanese dubbed kon potage, became immensely popular. This eclectic mix of words and cooking styles is typical of the way in which foreign foods are assimilated into Japanese culinary practice.