If you want a unique taste of Japanese culture, why not try the odd and intriguing sushi which is fabled to be the favourite food of the Shinto god, Inari? Whether you are going to your local sushi place or visiting Nara, in Japan, and sampling one of the many famous Japanese restaurants in the district, you can augment your cultural experience by ordering one of these delicious and mystically significant delicacies.
Inarizushi has been around since at least 1782 AD when it was mentioned in the famous Japanese recipe book, “Tofu Hyakuchin.” But the story of this delicacy is really the story of the Shinto deity, Inari Ōkami. Inari is often depicted in both male and female form and is the patron deity of rice, agriculture and industry, among other things. Inari is also the god of foxes and is closely associated with the “Kitsune,” a spiritual creature from the Shinto religion. Kitsune are magical foxes thought to take on human form and serve as messengers and servants to Inari. Traditionally, worshippers would bring some form of “oage” (or fried tofu) to the temples of Inari, because this was thought to be the god’s favourite food.
Although, in fact, this is not entirely accurate. Fried tofu is, in fact, a food which the ancient Japanese had thought to be delicious to foxes, and so this is the real reason why they would bring oage to the temples, as offerings. After all, it was usually the Kitsune foxes that you needed to petition for favors, as Inari would generally conduct any business he had with mortals through these magical messengers. And so, a gift of fried tofu was thought to be a fantastic way of ingratiating yourselves to these gate-keeping spirits, and in doing so, reach the ear of Inari.
Although Inarizushi can be called the favourite food of Inari, in that it was the chosen offering, for millennia, at all Inari’s temples, it was actually the perceived tastes of the Kitsune which originally inspired the tradition. Later, however, the treat was given even more relevance to the god, in that rice – Inari’s own special province – was added to the mix. So Inarizushi was born: consisting of sushi rice, stuffed into a bag of fried tofu. When combining both Kitsune food (the oage) and food closely linked to Inari (the rice), worshippers at Inari temples sought to really please and impress the god with their offerings, and so earn their favour and assistance. When you factor in the fact that Inarizushi is very difficult to make, and was usually meticulously crafted to resemble the ears of a fox – making it a suitable sacrifice of time and effort, worthy of dedication to a sacred god – then you can begin to understand why the ancient worshippers invented the tradition.
Now that you’ve come through the lesson on Inarizushi’s history, you can now move on to the fun part! That is, learning about the delectable nature of the food, itself. Inarizushi is more rich and luxurious than common sushi, perhaps because of its tradition of being made for immortal tongues, in addition to mortal ones. It is not nearly as spartan or genteel, in flavour, as common sushi fare. It is richer and more satisfying to the palate. Unlike the common “makizushi” variety of sushi, which comes rolled in a thin layer of seaweed and often contains seafood, Inarizushi is almost always vegetarian (the exception being the use of dashi in some recipies). It consists only of sushi rice, and possibly a few vegetables, stuffed in a bag of fried tofu and cooked in a special sauce, which is both sweet and salty. The end result is deliciously satisfying and filling – a definite comfort food! The mix of sugar, dashi (a fish and seaweed stock) and soy sauce combine with the richness of the fried tofu, to make a well-made Inarizushi a truly sumptuous experience. And this wealth of sensations is often augmented by the addition of sesame seeds, seaweed, shosi leaves (a kind of mint), egg or ginger, sprinkled on top of the pouches.
Japanese chefs are, of course, the best at preparing Inarizushi. And so, if you really are in Nara, you should go to one of the high-quality sushi restaurants, which that city is known for. Renowned sushi restaurants, like “Maguro Koya,” can really help you to experience the heights of divine flavor, which this genuinely divine delicacy can attain to, in the hands of a competent Japanese chef. But just be careful that you don’t get carried away by the divine sensations! Being rich in calories, sugar and salt, as well as being rich in flavor, Inarizushi, in abundance, is best suited to godly metabolisms. Mortals, like us, can only claim so much of this divine goodness, in one sitting – so know your limits!