Though this article’s title and photograph certainly bring to mind Japanese culture, we must begin our reflections in Europe– specifically, in our beloved urbs aeterna, Rome.
One of the Roman Rite’s great traditions lost in post-Conciliar practice is the celebration of Ember Days. These were originally a set of three penitential days (Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the designated Ember Week), observed four times per year. On these days, the Christian faithful would keep fasts, abstain from meat, receive the Eucharist, forgive their debtors, and give alms. Initially, there were only three of these periods per year, and it appears that they arose as a Christianization of the various pagan Roman agricultural celebrations in July, September, and December (feriae messis, feriae vindimiales, feriae sementivae, respectively). By the time of Pope Gelasius I (492-496), the number of penitential periods had already increased to four. Pope St. Leo I (“the Great”; 440-461) traced these fasts to Apostolic times and called them jejunia ecclesiastica per totius anni circulum distributa— ecclesiastical fasts distributed through the yearly cycle. The four Ember Weeks are in fact roughly equidistant from each other in the calendar, and are as follows: the first calendar week of Lent, the Octave of Pentecost, the calendar week after the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (14 September), and the third week of Advent (the calendar week following the Feast of St. Lucy). In another time, English children learned the Ember Weeks by a simple mnemonic: “Lenty, Penty, Crucy, Lucy”– Lent, Pentecost, Holy Cross, St. Lucy.
Our word “ember” comes from the Old English ymber, which means “circuit” or “cycle”, referring to the fact that these fasts were celebrated regularly throughout the year. In current usage, the Latin names for the Ember fasts are quattuor anni tempora and jejunia quattuor temporum (“the four seasons of the year” or “fasts of the four seasons”, respectively), reminding the faithful that penitence is not simply reserved for Lent and Advent, but for every season of the year. (How ironic is the extent to which this insight has been lost in the last half century!)
Especially in ages far gone, without the benefit of large-scale industrialized farming, state-of-the-art food preservation, or modern medicine, skipping meals for the majority of people in Europe was much more dangerous to people’s health than one might think. A fast did not necessarily mean absolute rejection of food for a period of time; rather, it meant a drastic reduction in one’s caloric intake without severely endangering one’s well being. Among ascetics and monastics, total fasts were likely kept in all their rigor, but these are exceptions. Certainly, for commoners, meals were less hearty and contained no meat, but most people still ate. Vegetables and seafood were eaten in smaller portions, and people attempted to balance the austerity of the fast by making the food tastier– in other words, food was often fried, hence our so-called “Fish Fridays”. (For a quick understanding of why eating fish is permitted during penitential times, see this Jimmy Akin post.)
So, even centuries ago, Fish Fridays were a common practice of Western Christendom. Vegetables and seafood from the day’s catch in coastal regions were dredged in the local flour (often wheat) to form a batter, and fried in either lard or oil, depending on the place’s lipid of choice. For Portuguese and Spanish fishermen, such cuisine became so associated with the Ember fasts that, in common parlance, these foods were called “tempora meals”, named after the quattuor anni tempora.
Now we turn to Japan. As we know from our reflections on the Feast of St. Paolo Miki and his companion martyrs, the vast majority of Japan’s first evangelizers were Spanish and Portuguese missionaries, and as such, traces of these Iberian cultures made their way into the Far East through Catholic missionary activity. As more and more Japanese, especially in the Nagasaki area, came to the Christian faith, the practices of the European missionaries were adopted and adapted by the local populace. Included in these practices, of course, were the observation of Ember Days.
Japan, an archipelago, surely had no shortage of seafood to fry. However, its mountainous terrain left little tillable land, and the terrain and tropical weather made it inappropriate for wheat. The vast majority of agricultural space was used as rice fields, and thus the only flour available was made from rice. Accordingly, the missionaries adapted. They dredged their vegetables and seafood in rice flour and fried it in the local oil, leading to a batter much lighter and much faster to cook than would have been obtained using wheat flour.
As the Christian community grew, these deep-fried delicacies, just as in Europe, became more and more associated with penitence to the extent that even the Japanese named these foods after the Ember fasts. What the Iberian missionaries called “tempora” the Japanese pronounced “tempura”, rendering evident the Church’s universality, glimpsed even in the menus of modern Japanese restaurants.
If you decide to observe the Ember Days or Fridays throughout the year at a sushi bar, have yourself some tempura (with penitential moderation), and recall the memory of the first Christian missionaries to Japan. Remember Paolo Miki and his companions (among whom were Spanish Jesuits and Franciscans); remember St. Lawrence Ruiz and his companions (among whom were Spanish Dominicans from Santo Tomas in Manila); above all, remember the generations of Japanese Christians who, after the expulsion of foreigners and the persecutions which followed, kept the faith alive in Japan for over 250 years until the return of missionaries in the 19th Century. Armed only with the grace of Baptism, they retained their devotions, their prayers, and their fasts with unwavering firmness, and who, by adopting and adapting the cuisine of their Spanish and Portuguese priests, united themselves in a great penitential practice stretching back to the origins of the Roman Rite.