Tasting the Gospel through Tsukudani

March 6, 2019 - Roger W. Lowther

At the mouth of the Sumida River on the edge of Tokyo Bay, we live on a famous island called Tsukuda. Tourists from around Japan often flood our area to taste its history. Around 400 years ago, fishermen on the island of Tsukuda in Osaka provided the famous shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa and his army with a large amount of fish. As a reward, Tokugawa invited these fisherman to move to Tokyo, where he ruled all of Japan, to supply the castle with fish. Leftovers were sold at nearby Nihonbashi, the “center” of Tokyo where all roads led. This elite group of fishermen settled on our island and renamed it Tsukuda in memory of their previous home. (The connection between these two cities is kept alive today: every year, students at Tsukuda Elementary in Tokyo, my sons’ school, and Tsukuda Elementary in Osaka visit each other on field trips.)

The legacy of these fisherman lasts today in a new kind of food they invented called tsukudani (literally “Tsukuda simmering”), made from simmering small fish, shellfish, or seaweed in salt and soy sauce (made from fermented soy beans). This process preserves the food, enabling it to last for over a month in the humid climate without rotting or losing nutritional value. It also provides tasty seasoning for a bland meal of rice. Tsukudani quickly became popular with all fishermen, travelers, military, and residents in the mountainous interior of Japan, and because of the heavy dependence on the sea and limited amounts of farmland, this new method of preserving seafood is essential to the diet of Japan. It joins a dizzying array of dried, salted, preserved, and fermented foods, which accompany every meal, including umeboshi pickled plums, tsukemono pickled vegetables, nukazuke pickled vegetables, kiriboshi daikon (small strips of dried radish), dried seaweed, dried fish, miso, dashi cooking stock, natto fermented soybeans, mirin, sake, plum wine, and many others. (Most of these words are in italics because they were invented here and have no English equivalent!)

Tsukudani is essentially made from salt and yeast. Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13), and, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough” (Matthew 13:33). Like salt and yeast, grace works through us, preserving us and making us stronger. It saves us from the rot and stench of sin and invisibly transforms us from the inside out. “We...are being transformed into his image” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Little by little, grace helps us become “tasty” and attractive creatures who reflect the image of God and the kingdom of heaven in a world that is falling apart.

Through tsukudani, God provides yet another redemptive analogy that points to him in the best of Japanese culture. Every time I sit down to eat a meal, I am reminded of the presence of his grace continually at work in us to give a little taste of heaven to a hungry world.


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