Though they’ve been lurking in the shadows of pop culture for decades, the realities of being a ninja are difficult to describe with any certainty. To study a ninja takes decades of patience. Not everyone is up to the task.
Fortunately, there are those among us who have dedicated their lives to understanding these secretive warriors. Thanks to them, we can now begin to piece together a more complete picture than ever of who ninjas were, how they operated and, clearly most importantly, what they ate.
Contrary to the popular image of a sneaky pyjama-wearing assassin, most historians now believe that real ninjas were in fact far closer to modern day guerilla fighters. First appearing in the 14th century in the mountainous Mie Prefecture of central Honshu, ninjas were said to operate in small mercenary bands - working as skilful guns-for-hire for any warlord who required their services. They terrorised the Japanese countryside for nearly two centuries, before gradually fading into historical obscurity.
Given the era’s turbulent political climate, reliable contemporary sources are few are far between. However, in the decades and centuries that followed their heyday, scholars and storytellers began to add colour to the ninja mythos. Tales emerged telling of their tools and tactics, but also revealing how food and diet were essential weapons in a ninja’s arsenal.
According to Makato Hisamatsu, professor at the newly-formed Ninja Research Centre at Mie University, it is likely that a ninja’s diet would have been similar to that of a peasant farmer. When they weren’t out ninja-ing, it is expected that they would have eaten two meals a day, mostly consisting of rice, miso, millet and wild fruits and vegetables. In addition, Hisamatsu surmises that they also supplemented their diet with snakes, grasshoppers and frogs when they could get them.
Despite the excitement afforded by the occasional snake, there were whole swathes of food groups that were off-limits to any successful ninja. According to texts from the 17th and 18th centuries, ninjas avoided any sort of pungent foods in order to avoid giving away any tell-tale wafts to would-be enemies. This included all types of garlic, onion and their relatives. They also avoided all red meat as it was believed to dramatically change body odour. Amazingly, this particular belief has been shown to have some basis in fact.
Given the legendary acrobatic prowess of a proper ninja, it’s hardly surprising that they couldn’t spend all day stuffing themselves. Hisamatsu reveals that there was an “iron-clad rule” amongst practising members that they could not let their body weight exceed 60 kilos, or 130 pounds. This was to ensure that they remained light enough to execute the ninja-y staples of wall-scaling and ceiling-hanging with relative ease. Overweight, smelly soldiers clearly did not have a long shelf life in the ninja business.
If their domestic eating habits seem uninspiring, it’s because ninjas saved their ingenuity for life on the road. The realities of living behind enemy lines meant that ninjas often faced the very real prospect of days and even weeks with a very limited food supply. In order to stave off starvation, they perfected the art of the so-called “hunger pill”. A ball built of glutinous rice, yams, cinnamon and lotus pips was said to be able to feed 15 people, “even if they eat nothing else for three days”. A similar “thirst-ball”, made from fruit pulp, fungus and sugar, was such an effective source of electrolytes that it is today used as a hangover cure. When it came to nutrient-dense food on the go, the ninjas were pretty on point.
Beyond their balls, some historians have even suggested that ninjas used food for other, more clandestine purposes. 18th century records from writer Chikematsu Shigenori detail the secret codes hidden in food supplies that ninjas used to communicate with one another. He goes on to elaborate that, “To promise to [carry out] treachery, you should send salted fish. When you are going to commit arson, you should send dried fish.” There were also covert meanings for everything from sweets to rice cakes. For a ninja, food was about much more than sustenance.
Today, society has somewhat idealised the strict ninja way of life. Their traits of immense mental strength and zen-like discipline have many appealing aspects to a modern gym buff. With our various healthy eating fads and diet tips, it’s small wonder that some have gone a step further than ninja-fantasy and into full-fledged emulation. Books with titles like New Year - Ninja Diet and The Ninja Nutrition Manifesto are living proof that fitness fanatics everywhere continue to have a healthy admiration for their Japanese forebears. Whether or not these stories of ninja cookery have any basis in reality is essentially irrelevant. The ninja legend has already been well secured.