(Friday Night History) Zunda mochi

“Toasted mochi,” by Yashima Gakutei (1786-1868) [image in PD]

Food and food supply is an important part of winning a war. After all, a saying attributed to either Frederick the Great or Napoleon Bonaparte has it that “an army marches on its stomach.” Meanwhile in the 16th century, the warlord and first of Japan’s Three Great Unifiers, Oda Nobunaga, also observed that if your stomach hurts, you can’t go to war. Therefore, in the interest of going to war with the best food and food-adjacent equipment for supporting an army on the march, there has always been innovation in military cuisine, because soldiers are human, and regardless of the era, food has always been a basic human need. In the US Army, these needs are currently overseen by the Soldier Sustainment Directorate which is part of Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center, which in turn is a tenant unit of the United States Army Natick Soldier Systems Center, in Natick, Massachusetts. The Soldier Sustainment Directorate describes its mission as follows:

“The Soldier Center’s Sustainment Directorate executes customer focused research, development, engineering, and testing to ensure Warfighters are equipped with state of the art equipment capabilities. The Directorate is focused on developing novel capabilities and providing engineering support in the aerial delivery, combat feeding, and expeditionary maneuver disciplines.”

In other words, driving innovation in military food and rations is positioned alongside innovations in aerial delivery– as one form of delivery for that food as well as for other needed supplies– as well as engineering support for manufacturing things like walls and tents and other things necessary for housing in the field.

So, food is clearly an important point of interest for this particular present-day army as it has been for others.

There are many cases in history of military needs that have driven culinary advancements that you probably would recognize, because these military innovations eventually work their way out into the broader civilian population. Spam, Worcestershire sauce, Japanese curry, hot pot, and other foods we hardly bat an eyelash at today have their origins in military cuisine. If you’d like to learn more about US military food innovation and how it unfluences US food production and consumption, check out Anastacia Marx de Salcedo’s 2015 book Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat.

In last week’s episode, we talked about how the Date clan’s military needs for miso that tasted good and lasted for a long time drove the popularization of the variant of red miso that’s now known as Sendai miso. But it isn’t just staples that military exigencies and research is invested in: sometimes, war will even make dessert.

US meals-ready-to-eat (MREs) include desserts like muffins, lemon pound cake, or cinnamon buns, in shelf-stable packaging aimed at survivability and longevity before being opened for use. Meanwhile, larger Unitized Group Ration, A Option (UGR-A) rations that require some refrigeration and the support of a field kitchen even feature things like cheesecake bites and poundcake.

So like I said last week: let’s go to Sendai and this time, let’s talk dessert.

Zunda mochi remains famous as a local cuisine in Miyagi Prefecture in general and Sendai city in particular. It appears in different forms with slightly different names throughout northern Honshu like jinda or jindan or nuta, but it’s ultimately all the same thing, and it’s fundamentally very simple. It features mashed, sweetened soybeans (edamame) made into a paste and then served over pounded rice mochi. But as was the case last week with Sendai miso, this too was a product of the Date armies and their culinary needs. While it might not be obvious without some awareness of the local dialect, its origins are alluded to in its name.

Tohoku dialects are sometimes derisively called “zuuzuu dialects” for their voiced consonants and how the phoneme “zu” frequently appears where it wouldn’t in standard Japanese. For instance, “mata” as in “again” is read “Madzu” まづ in Sendai dialect. So, while “mochi” is modern standard Japanese for a pounded rice cake, Zunda is not.

Well then what is it?

Turns out, this is unclear. But as a scholar of the house of Date and the lands it inhabited, I can tell you the version of the story that I first received. According to this version of the story, it comes down to the following: “zunda” is a contraction of “zundadzu,” known far more readily especially to modern practitioners of Japanese martial arts as jintachi: a campaign sword. Which raises the obvious question: why name a dessert after a sword meant for use on campaign?

In last week’s episode we talked a little bit about how Date Masamune was unusual among his lordly peers owing to his interest in cooking. This is attested to in several period sources. One of them is the book Date Masamune Genkoroku, a collection of his off-the-cuff comments on history, life, and current events, along with observations about his life and the circumstances of his private living accommodations and daily schedule, compiled by Kimura Uemon, who was his close attendant later in life. Another is Masamune-ki, Masamune’s first biography written in 1638 just a few years after his death by his cousin Date Shigezane. Masamune-ki begins with the man’s earliest campaigns, and chronicles the rest of his career, and while battles are front and center especially in the earlier chapters, this biography also includes reproduced correspondence, commentary on how the locations of some things have changed as time, weather, and human intervention have rearranged the terrain, and also commentary on the fine details of things like food that was served at a given setting.

We can even see a glimpse of Masamune’s philosophy about food in his last will to his descendants. It’s short, so I think it bears quoting in full, here. Translation is my own.

“Excessive benevolence will lead to weakness.
Excessive rectitude will lead to hardness.
Excessive ceremony will lead to flattery.
Excessive wisdom will lead to lying.
Excessive faith will lead to damage
Have great patience and a calm heart, and be thrifty:
set aside money for all eventualities.
The means to thrift is by enduring inconvenience.
If you treat your place in this world as that of a guest, then you will have no trouble.
Even if your meals are not tasty, praise them and eat them.
If you treat your usual place in this world as that of a guest, then you will find no room for likes and dislikes.
Do today what you can do today, keep up with your family ties, and when your time comes at last, take leave of the world”

Note that line near the end, there: “Even if your meals are not tasty, praise them and eat them.” This seems a little strange when you consider that Masamune is also the man who is on record as having fussed over the specifics of preparation and seasonality of which foods to present in the meals served at official functions and major holidays. But I think it likely speaks to his experience as someone who was a product of an era of constant warfare. If war’s always somewhere in your peripheral vision, then when it comes to your everyday food, does it matter whether or not it tastes great? Whether or not you’re actually on the battlefield or in encampment or at home in the castle town, what matters is nutrition and being able to get back to work– and if necessary, being able to get back to the fight.

So! with all of that said, let’s circle back to zunda and pick up with the Date version of the story. This version has it that while on campaign, Masamune improvised this in the field, smashing the boiled edamame into a paste with the flat of his sword, in which form it could be easily served over mochi. Because he used a jintachi, in the local dialect, this became zundadzu, and from thence, we get the modern word “zunda.”

While there are a number of different versions of zunda’s origin that dispute this, I think that  given Masamune’s attested interest in cooking according to multiple sources including his own words recorded by others, the story is at least plausible, even if it isn’t actually uncontested.

Is it true? I don’t know if it is. Does one single version of the story particularly matter, as long as there’s zunda mochi to eat? I’d say no.

Now, unlike Sendai miso, Zunda mochi is a little easier to make from scratch, because its ingredients are a little bit more ubiquitous. If you can find edamame and mochi, you can make it right at home. Hey, after all, it was field-expedient dessert! Here’s a recipe for reference for those of you who want to give making this a shot — for the podcast listeners, follow the link in the blogpost. And let me back up a moment here and just try to be absolutely clear– just to be ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY clear– don’t make it with a sword. Please please please, spare your sword and spare your kitchen– we have modern tools actually made for the kitchen that can do what you need to do to make zunda happen. But if for some unfathomable reason you do make it with a sword, rest assured that I marvel at your badassery and dedication in the pursuit of this field-expedient historical dessert.

Or at least, of one version of its origin story.

I’m Nyri, and this has been #FridayNightHistory.

Now– questions?


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