(Friday Night History) Gyutan

Gyūtan as part of a set meal. (Image PD)

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and this is especially true in war and postwar reconstructions. Today’s subject, gyūtan, is the result of that kind of invention. Gyūtan is a portmanteau– gyu is beef, while tan is a transliteration of tongue– in other words, grilled, thinly sliced cow tongue. Today, gyūtan is one of the most recognizable quintessentially Sendai food items. But unlike zunda mochi and Sendai miso, it’s relatively recent– even if the history of oxen in Sendai is not so recent.

Let’s sidebar, because in order to talk about oxen in Sendai we need to talk about Date Masamune’s contingency plans for the likelihood of taking over Japan in the 17th century.

(Just wait. It’ll make sense!)

Four centuries ago, shortly after founding the castle town that became the modern city of Sendai, Date Masamune had aspirations of overthrowing the Tokugawa shogun and ruling Japan himself. If he was going to do that, however, he needed to make provision for the mikado– the emperor– from whom the ultimate authority to rule Japan originated. The Tokugawa family had made provision for this, which it ultimately maintained for the duration of the Edo period. Maintaining the goodwill of the emperor and the imperial court was essential to ensuring that the emperor continued to endorse the legitimacy of a would-be shogun or other kind of hegemon (as had been Toyotomi Hideyoshi).

The thing to remember, though, is that the ruling emperor needed extremely specific, extremely expensive provision for transport, lodging, food, and pretty much everything. Rather central to this was the ritual view that the emperor’s person, their body, was sacrosanct. And I’m not just talking in vague terms, here– I mean extremely sacrosanct to the point that a ruling emperor could not shave or trim their nails because blades were not allowed to touch the person of a ruling emperor. So with that understood, the place an emperor could sleep in also had to be special, not just the head of the room but a raised chamber or dais even more exalted than that. The most exalted room where the ruling lord or his family would stay was the jōdan-no-ma (upper room), but even they didn’t get the very highest place: a room for the Emperor and their family which was the jō-jōdan no ma (upper upper room).

So. To prepare for the emperor’s potential (and for awhile at least, quite likely) visit, Masamune had a jō-jōdan no ma built in Sendai Castle and another in Zuiganji, one of his family’s Buddhist temples. Yes, Sendai Castle was Masamune’s residence, but it was also a military installation and strategic asset, so it was a location that was off limits to people from outside Date lands. Local historian and folklorist Mihara Ryokichi notes that when the house of Date did receive dignitaries from elsewhere in Japan, any reception would happen in the residence of the Moniwa family, a senior vassal family in service to the Date who had quite a fabulous estate of their own in the Sendai castle town. So to build a room like this in Sendai Castle itself, when the Date family would receive no other outsiders, should say something about how seriously Masamune took these matters.

In both cases, this chamber was so exalted that even our man Masamune, fourth wealthiest daimyo in Japan, did not dare enter. He would open it once a year for cleaning, dress in his court garb, and bow reverently toward it before closing the door again.

But this wasn’t all. He also kept a herd of oxen in a barn in Haranomachi, in the Sendai Castle town, expressly meant to pull the emperor’s hōren 鳳輦. A hōren was a carriage made for the use of the Emperor and their immediate family. It could take the form of a palanquin borne by human bearers, but one type of it, which Masamune was concerned with here, was ox-drawn. 

Neither the castle’s jō-jōdan no ma nor the oxen were ever called upon for their original purpose. The herd of several dozen oxen, in the absence of an imperial visit, were maintained in their barn in Haranomachi by Masamune’s descendants, and used for the far more practical purposes of hauling official goods of Date retainers in the Sendai area as well as on duty alongside the local canals. Meanwhile, the first emperor to visit Sendai was Meiji, during his Tohoku tour in Meiji 14 (1881). He stayed at the other jō-jōdan no ma at Zuiganji Temple in Matsushima– by that point, Sendai Castle was headquarters of what became the 2nd Infantry Division and the old castle jo-jodan no ma no longer existed. I’ve seen this room in person, 15 years back, and it’s still marked, cordoned off, and carefully preserved.

Anyway, with all that said, this should give you an idea of how far back oxen go in greater Sendai. (Told ya it would make sense) But it was not the beginning of beef consumption– that wouldn’t come until after the Restoration. So oxen weren’t new in the area in the late 1940s, when gyūtan was invented.

Let’s fast forward to 1948. The Second World War was finally over, and the US occupation was in its third year, at the tail end of what MacArthur’s report on the Occupation referred to “the military phase” of the Occupation. There were GIs at bases all around Miyagi Prefecture; a US Army Japan list I found noted 13 bases in the prefecture, most of which are still Japan Self Defense Forces bases today, like Kasumi-no-me Airbase or the Ojojihara Maneuver Area. Most notably and centrally placed was Camp Schimmelpfennig, a base in the Kawauchi district, inside the Hirose River’s bend, on the site of Sendai Castle’s outer baileys and the former headquarters of the IJA’s 2nd Infantry Division. It doesn’t exist anymore; SDF forces in the Sendai city limits are mostly at Kasumi-no-me Airbase, but some of its buildings are still extant as part of Tohoku University’s Kawauchi Campus.

A robust logistical network brought the GIs at those bases the necessities of day to day life. They were not allowed to eat the local produce– my doctoral advisor, who did a tour of duty in Japan not long after the Occupation ended, mentioned more than once that there was a standing order for GIs to not eat local produce because nightsoil was still a common fertilizer and thus considered a potential health risk. He once told me that one of the turning points of his life was realizing that he could, in fact, eat the local produce off-base in Japan and not die of dysentery. As for meat, as there isn’t very much arable land in Japan, beef had to be imported for the Occupation troops’ culinary use, just like beef in general even today has to be imported for the general public there. Generally speaking, these GIs were living mostly in a bubble on their own bases, and they generated a lot of food waste while everyday Japanese people were by and large still food insecure.

So as a result, a great deal of innovation happened in order to address that urgent need by the civilian population. Remember, this is also the era that gave us instant ramen, the most enduring and ubiquitous form of that innovation. Ando Momofuku, a Taiwanese-Japanese entrepreneur, witnessed the hardship and food scarcity in early postwar Japan and developed instant ramen as an alternative to the bread that the Ministry of Health had been encouraging people to eat. His rationale was that it would have wider appeal with the Japanese public, as bread’s history in Japan was relatively short, and noodles’ history was far longer– his noodles went on to feed not only people in need in the postwar reconstruction, but of course went on to be a staple food worldwide, and beloved even by the denizens of many a college dorm.

Meanwhile in Sendai, a chef originally from Yamagata named Sano Keishirō who ran a grilled chicken restaurant called Aji Tasuke realized that the US mess halls around greater Sendai were getting a lot of beef, but throwing out the tongues and tails. He was able to buy them for the proverbial pennies on the dollar, and experiment with them in dishes at his restaurant over the next few years. While oxtail is a well known dish, as in oxtail soup, this didn’t do too well in Sendai. But after that early period of experimentation, gyūtan debuted on Aji Tasuke’s menu in 1950. Marinated overnight, then barbecued over charcoal, it’s excellent bar food. It did amazingly well, and started a local and then national phenomenon.

Today, along with things like zunda mochi and Sendai miso, gyūtan is established as a renowned item of Sendai cuisine, in grilled form on its own or served as part of donburi. It’s a little tricky to make at home because of how hard the cow tongue meat is to cut, but I’ve done it successfully before, with a good knife and by putting the meat in the freezer for a little bit, first. Depending on where you get your meat, you can find cow tongue pre-sliced in some places. Namiko Chen of Just One Cookbook, my go-to for a lot of Japanese recipes, has a recipe for it here https://www.justonecookbook.com/gyutan-bbq-beef-tongue/ — if you’re listening to the podcast version, follow the link in the blogpost. And when international travel to Japan becomes possible again, drop by Aji Tasuke– its main location is still in downtown Sendai and still serving up gyūtan today, at Ichibancho 4-chome 4-13, in Aoba ward, and in the meanwhile, you can check out its website at aji-tasuke.co.jp 

And something tells me even Date Masamune, who built a barn of oxen for a longshot bid to welcome the Emperor upon taking over Japan, would’ve approved of Sano Keishirō’s ingenuity.

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

Now– questions?


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