Rediscovering the food culture of the Ainu people

On 29th of October, 2017, the 1st Ainu Food Festival was held at the Ainu Cultural Center in Pirka Kotan, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan. Over 300 people gathered to take part in panel discussions, wood carving workshops, herbal nature walks, and traditional Ainu cooking classes.

Slow Food and Indigenous Terra Madre events. This event was organized by Ainu Women’s Organization Menokomosmos and Slow Food Nippon to create momentum for an Ainu food-cultural renaissance in view of the upcoming inauguration of the National Museum of Ainu and Indigenous Peoples in Hokkaido in the year 2020. For centuries, the Ainu people have been discriminated against by the Japanese government and the battle to claim “Indigenous Rights” has been a long one, with recognition of their status as an indigenous people coming only in 2008. Until now though, celebrating Ainu identity through food has not been a part of the Ainu Rights Movement.

Ainu women in traditional dress. Photo: Remi Ie

The power of food: shifting the focus. Remi Ie, President of Slow Food Nippon, suggests “the celebration of Ainu food can be more powerful than ‘fighting for indigenous rights’. People will see how important Ainu culture is by smelling and testing it first hand, and appreciating its connection to nature, spirituality, and a traditional knowledge of plants.”

Community awareness and self-esteem. Before this event, most Ainu women only cooked traditional Ainu food for spiritual celebrations and did not feel they were safeguarding Ainu culture. But after working with Slow Food, these women of Ainu have begun to recognize the significance of their food culture not only for their fellow Ainu, but also within the wider Japanese context and indeed, global gastronomy. The event has given them the opportunity to explore their past through their food, reflecting on what their ancestors have passed down to them from kitchen to kitchen through the ages, and take pride in it.

Awareness raising. Through centuries of repression the Ainu people have lost the right to forage and hunt for their own meat, fish, and herbs, and indeed the Ainu Food Festival allowed many women to see, touch, and cook venison for the first time in their lives. During the panel discussion, some asked if any indigenous food movement has helped an indigenous people to regain their “right” to harvest food. Many Ainu worry that once their food has come to the spotlight, they will struggle to acquire ingredients to cook and showcase their gastronomic heritage while foraging in National Parks and other private lands is prohibited. One attendee spoke in favor of a creating “Ainu Land Trust” to preserve their heritage for the next generation.

Traditional Ainu food products. Photo: Remi Ie

Others discussed the idea of what constitutes Ainu food—does a food become “Ainu food” simply because it is eaten by the Ainu people? Given the lack of any academic studies, it has always been considered simply the food that was prepared at home by the Ainu. Now comes the task of distinguishing its unique features. Chef Namae spoke of the inspirational example of how Nordic cuisine was “identified” in Copenhagen by the NOMA restaurant with their manifesto, and how it may help in identifying the nature of Ainu gastronomy.

Looking to the future, the Ainu women will be looking to protect their food traditions through the Ark of Taste project and also explore ways of creating sustainable businesses from their food. The manager of a bento company (a typical Japanese food preparation method containing multiple ingredients in a single box for take-out) came to the event wanting to taste their food, and proposed a collaboration with Menokomosmos to create an “Ainu bento box” for sale at train stations in Hokkaido. This may help further spread the word—and the taste!—of the indigenous food cultures of Hokkaido.

Two key issues for the near future:

What strategies need to be developed in order to effectively defend Ainu land and culture through food? Should communication simply focus on the intrinsic value of Ainu food culture rather than requests for rights recognition?

How do we minimize the risk of Japanese corporations and/or chefs from exploiting the Ainu food culture through business-oriented cultural appropriation?

To answer these questions we must seek further collaboration with the Slow Food and Indigenous Terra Madre networks and find examples of the successful defense of an indigenous food culture, and indeed, learn from the mistakes made by others too.

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