“The Portuguese remained in Japan until 1639, when they were banished because the ruling shogun Iemitsu believed Christianity was a threat to Japanese society. As their ships sailed away for the final time, the Portuguese left an indelible mark on the island: a battered and fried green bean recipe called piexinhos da horta. Today, in Japan, it’s called tempura and has been a staple of the country’s cuisine ever since.”
I was reading an article from the BBC titled “The truth about Japanese Tempura” and discovered by chance that the Japanese word “Tempura” is actually derived from the Latin word “Tempora” (meaning time or period and according to the BBC is a term referring to lent, a time for fasting). The link with Christianity came from the Portuguese who traded with the Japanese between 1543 and 1639. During that century, the Portuguese introduced not only the western gun to Japan but also food – Peixinhos da horta (i.e. Vegetable Fish – battered vegetables). This became the dish we know and love today called Tempura with the Japanese adding their own twist to the simple dish and abandoning the meatless tradition that inspired the dish in the first place.
“Avillez is taking this newfound interest in super traditional Portuguese cuisine to a new level. Along with his Japanese-born sous chef, he plans to temporarily offer a tasting menu called ‘1543’, the year the Portuguese first showed up in Japan, offering peixinhos da horta and other Portuguese dishes that have inspired Japanese cuisine.”
Intrigued by what other Portuguese inspired Japanese cuisine there are (and the fact that I am headed to Japan in a few months time for my big holiday) I decided to do my own research into what other Portuguese delicacies were copied and incorporated into the Japanese palate.
The humble bread (パン Pan)
Its historic link is evident from the use of Katana script パン which is reserved for foreign words.
Typically, such words would mirror its English equivalent given that English is the main language being used throughout the world (ケーキ (ke-ki) for cake; メール (me-ru) for email). The word パン does not at all sound English because its root word is not “Bread”. Instead it is derived from the Portuguese word Pão and is another relic from the Portuguese.
The staple, however, appeared to have fallen out of favour after Japan went into isolation before resurfacing after Japan opened its borders to the world in the 1800s.
Castella (カステラ Kasutera)
A sponge cake supposedly derived from the Portuguese’s Pão de Castela or “Bread from Castille” (hence the name カステラ Kasutera). This cake is a speciality of Nagasaki, then being the only port in Japan open to foreign trade. The cake has soft fluffy appearance and moist interior and is made from sugar, flour, eggs and starch syrup.
If you are dying to try some (while I have not tried it yet) while you are in Nagasaki:
3 minutes walk from Shianbashi Station
Or if you are like me (in Singapore), how about trying those made at:
Le Castella Singapore
Tampines One, 10 Tampines Central 1,
#B1-32, Singapore 529536
Have you tried any of the above? Did you know of their Portuguese connection prior to this article? Let me know in the comments below.