Ancient Warrior Diets: Ninjas from Medieval Japan
Updated: Jul 1, 2019
If there’s one type of ancient warrior mythology that has infiltrated popular culture in the last decade or so it has to be that of the Ninja. From global tv shows like American Ninja Warrior to the internet persona of the most followed streamer on Twitch (and for my fellow south african audience the stage name of the lead singer from the band Die Antwoord) the name and concept of Ninjas has become a mainstay in modern society. But who were these mysterious men in dark pyjamas who have captivated our thinking, and more importantly for us, what did these near mythical figures eat? Well, that’s a good question, because the history of these ancient assassins is almost as elusive as they were.
First, lets try and set the scene for who these secretive warriors may have been. They are said to have lived in the mountains of Japan between 1487 and 1603 and in today’s terms would more than likely be classified as either stealthy guerrilla fighters, or mercenary style killers for hire. Scholar and Historian Stephen Turnbull sums up the mythology and appeal of the ninja in the following quote:
“The ninja has become a familiar figure in popular Japanese culture as the world’s greatest exponent of secret warfare. He infiltrates castles, gathers vital intelligence, and wields a deadly knife in the dark. His easily recognizable image is that of a secret agent or assassin who dresses all in black, possesses almost magical martial arts powers, and is capable of extraordinary feats of daring. He sells his skills on a mercenary basis and when in action, his unique abilities include confusing his enemies with mystical hand gestures or by sending sharp iron stars spinning towards them. “ END QUOTE.
So that’s the who and the what of ninjas, but this podcast is more interested in what it was that fueled these warriors and kept them in such lithe and agile shape.
To start with is an aspect of their diet that I must admit wasn’t immediately obvious to me but it makes an incredible amount of sense when you think about what their line of work entails ie. sneaking up on unsuspecting enemies. There are various accounts of how they avoided consuming smelly foods or better said, foods that would make you smell after eating them.
They are said to have avoided these pungent foods, for the natural fear of being sniffed out by their enemies. The most obvious of these being Garlic, but leeks, chives and even onions were also off the menu.
An interesting one that has since been backed by scientific study is that they also abstained from the eating of red meat. Even though there was an abundance of deer and wild boar in the areas in which they lived they believed that eating the meat of a wild animal would dull their senses. Interestingly enough, science these days shows us that there is a marked and noticeable difference between the personal odors of a person eating a vegetarian diet and that of someone eating a diet that includes red meat. Considering that most people living in medieval Japan were followers of either the Buddhist or Shinto religions, and were therefore mostly vegetarian, it was an added benefit in that it allowed them to blend into the natural odors of their assassination targets general surroundings.
We also know of many other food and drinks that can betray you by causing your pores to emit an unpleasant scent. These include broccoli, brussel sprouts and cabbage with the most obvious of them all being Asparagus. It was also a wise choice not to consume too much alcohol before a mission and to avoid eating smelly fish. It may however surprise you to know that even consuming too much dairy can significantly alter your personal aroma.
And, so it seems that in order to be a warrior with the stealth capabilites of a ninja, you would start not with what you can eat, but rather with what you may not.
Stephen Turnbull who I quoted from earlier writes in one of his books that many ninjas had their origins in the lower social classes. This is apparently also evidenced by the nature of their secretive and underhand methods being the exact opposite of the ideals of the noble samurai.
What we can draw from this information is that they most likely ate a similar diet to the farmers of their day. This meant that they would have eaten two meals a day, mostly consisting of millet, rice bran, miso, and an assortment of wild vegetables and plants. But they were also foragers and in their line of work, they would often have to eat whatever was at hand. For many of them they would have to lie in wait for days to find the perfect opportunity to execute their mission, and because of this they would often trap and eat grasshoppers, frogs and even snakes. It has also been recorded that they would even eat weeds, grass and a special type of soil if they were absolutely desperate.
Ninja warriors, like many of us today, were very concerned about their weight but for them it was mainly to do with how it affected their ability to remain agile and this shows up in a commonly cited “iron-clad rule,” which supposedly states that no ninja should ever weigh more than 60kg, or roughly 130lb. This was in order to make sure that they could easily leverage themselves up and over obstacles or hang easily from ceilings in order to drop upon their unsuspecting victims. If there’s one thing I am certain of now, it is that I could never have been a ninja.
There is however an interesting counterpoint to this iron clad rule in which they needed to train themselves, and their usually restricted stomachs, to also be able to consume large quantities of food in order to better blend in should they be invited to banquets or feasts while on an important mission.
This however was the exception to the rule and for the majority of their lives they were making sure that they were just getting by with the simple food they had at hand.
There is a famous text from 1676 called the Bansenshukai that documents many of the rituals and lore that surrounds the ninjas. In this text is a recipe for a light travel snack that they would carry with them colloquially called “Hunger Pills”. These were intended to fuel them and give them enough energy for their long journeys when they might not have any easy access to food.
One of these so called “Hunger Pill’ recipes called for the mashing together and rolling of Japanese sweet potato, cinnamon, glutinous rice, and lotus pips.
When times got really desperate and food was scarce there was yet another recipe that would make sure they didn't starve. It instructed them to make a powder out of pine bark and mix it in with some ginseng, and white rice. They were to then steam little balls of the mixture in a basket. The original recipe has the following quote at the bottom “Divide these balls between up to 15 people and they will not starve, even if they eat nothing else for up to three days.”
Some intrepid food scientists have calculated that according to the quantities in the recipe, each of these balls would have contained roughly 300 calories. This is not quite enough to be considered a meal, but it would be enough to keep their bodies going.
These days there is a Japanese museum dedicated to ninjas and their history that describes a similar “thirst ball” which helped them to avoid dehydration. The recipe for these thirst balls included things rye ergot fungus, crystallized sugar and some crushed umeboshi pulp. Mixed all together, this amounted to a fairly potent and electrolyte-rich concoction that could revitalise them when their strength was failing.
One of the main ingredients in that thirst ball is the Umeboshi, a japanese version of pickled plums. They are still a highly popular food in Japan and these days are widely consumed as a modern hangover cure.
But in medieval Japan they were one of the ninja’s most essential food items. They are made by washing ripened Japanese plums and then pickling them in salt for two to three days to remove the water. Once the water has been drained from them, they are laid out to dry in the sun. At sunset they are put back into salty water and the process is repeated a number times until there is no brine left and the plums are fully dry. Among its many benefits to the ninja was the belief that it helped to counteract poison. It was also said to have sterilizing properties and even prevented fatigue.
From a careful reading of the texts and the amount of instructions around food and recipes, it seems that Ninjas were not just killing machines but were in fact equally skilled as cooks. They would create their own homemade tofu from boiling soya beans and straining them before letting them set naturally in a cloth bag. And that’s just the start, there are many recipes from that era describing how they would make their own hard baked crackers and included a variety of ways in which to cook their rice.
As you can see they certainly planned ahead and because by nature they travelled light they always made sure to have a plan at hand to concoct an off the cuff, life sustaining meal from ingredients they could find in nature. But food was not merely just fuel to these ninjas, in fact they would use food in another very interesting way as we will soon come to find out.
We first learnt about their alternative uses for food from an 18th-century Japanese military writer named Chikamatsu Shigenori. It was in his writings that we discovered that they would in fact use food as a way to send secret messages. Often ninjas would need to send covert messages to one another and to do this they would send different pieces of fish.
If they needed to communicate a date, they could do so with the size and number of pieces corresponding to the month and the day. Shigenori writes “To promise to [carry out] treachery, you should send salted fish, but when you are going to commit arson, you should send dried fish.”
You know, It gets the message across and gives the reader of it a tasty snack once they’re done. Win Win.
Sending sweet cakes indicated a call for reinforcements; bread rolls were a call for forces to attack the enemy from the rear and rice cakes indicated a request for provisions (although the concept of sending away food to ask for more food is somewhat baffling to me).
All of this ties in nicely to the idea of the covert techniques employed by the ninjas and the lengths they would go to make sure they stayed hidden in the shadows.
So, for anyone out there aspiring to be a modern day ninja, now you know what it takes to eat like one. We can’t speak to the training side of things, but we’d recommend making sure your diet consisted more of japanese plums and cinnamon and less of frogs, snakes and soil.
Until next time. Bon Appetit.