My first interaction with sushi was not good. I was jet lagged and waiting for a flight in the Vancouver airport, and the sushi pieces were unbelievably dry, and shrink-wrapped into plastic dated from a few days previously. The positive side of this first experience is that my interactions with sushi could only improve… and they have. The first time I encountered inarizushi, I immediately became a fan and it has quickly become a regular presence on my order sheet. Hearing Melissa mention the link between inarizushi and the kami Inari, I decided to focus on this particularly delicious aspect of Japanese material culture.
In the Japenese religious imagination, the figure of Inari is quite ambiguous. The kami can be found portrayed in both in male and female form, is worshiped in both Shinto and Buddhist rites, and there exists a multitude of accounts that offer different explanations the development of Inari worship. However, one thing that is agreed upon by all accounts is Inari’s “deep connection to rice”. Another point of agreement is the close relation between Inari and foxes. Believed to be messengers between the realm of the living and the realm of kami, foxes are “inconographically ubiquitous” in the practice of Inari worship, and traditional images of Inari usually include the portrayal of the kami surrounded by foxes. It is in this connection with foxes that the relation to fried tofu presents itself.
Fried tofu (oage) is the most popular food offering at Inari shrines. The reasoning behind this offering is the common belief that “foxes are said to like this particular food.” The streets leading to Inari shrines are populated with many stalls selling oage to be used as ritual offerings. The connection between foxes and fried tofu is also extended to inarizushi, a type of sushi made with fried tofu. Inarizushi is made from simmering oage in soy sauce and other seasonings, and then fashioning a pocket from the tofu and stuffing it with rice. This surrounding of rice (of which Inari is closely associated) with fried tofu can be seen as a microcosmic representation of the traditional images of Inari, in which the kami is shown surrounded by foxes.
The origin of this connection between foxes and oage is somewhat of a mystery. Clearly it isn’t part of the diet of a natural wild fox, and “no clear tradition links it with the fox or Inari worship.” There are numerous speculations as to why this connection was established. One potential explanation could be the resemblance between the colouring of oage and the fur of a fox (both being a golden brown colour). A second explanation focuses on the amount of effort required to make fried tofu. A work-intensive undertaking, it was believed that the time and effort required made it “a suitable offering for the kami.” A third speculative reason is the fact that fried foods were often offered to the devas in esoteric Buddhist practices, and thus the use of fried tofu entered the Shinto tradition through the shared worship of Inari (who, in Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, is associated with Dakiniten).
If you’d like to sample some good inarizushi, my personal recommendation is Soba and Sushi, located on the corner of Sherbrooke and Northcliffe in NDG . Or, if you are feeling very ambitious, you can find a recipe here.
~guest blogger, Eithne Sheeran