Shogun: English Rabbit Stew, Fermented Pheasant, and the Importance of Food in Episode 5

One very stinky pheasant helps drive home the cultural differences at play in Shogun.

“SHOGUN” -- "Broken to the Fist" -- Episode 5 (Airs March 19) Pictured: Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga holding a falcon.
Photo: Katie Yu | FX

This article contains spoilers for Shogun episode 5.

Food plays an important role in FX miniseries Shōgun. In the show’s fourth episode, English “barbarian” John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) signals that he’s growing more comfortable in his Sengoku-period Japanese environs by not only trying but enjoying natto – a bowl of fermented soybeans.

In episode 5 “Broken to the Fist,” however, food takes on an even more important meaning than before. Through two dishes – English rabbit stew, and fermented pheasant – Shōgun reveals that mistranslations can extend beyond even language.

What is English Rabbit Stew?

While Shōgun is an epic saga featuring political intrigue, sword fights, and body-vaporizing cannon fire, its most tense scene yet occurs over a simple dinner. Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai) believed her husband Toda Hirokatsu a.k.a. “Buntaro” (Shinnosuke “Shin” Abe) to have died in battle. This is understandable as the last thing she saw before looking away was a whole host of samurai bearing down upon him with their swords drawn. It would seem though that she underrated Buntaro’s ability as he turns up in the fishing village in which she is staying with the rest of Lord Toranaga’s (Hiroyuki Sanada) court.

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This is not particularly welcome news for Mariko since: A. Buntaro is a major asshole, and B. Mariko just slept with Blackthorne, believing herself to be a widow. Complicating matters is that Lord Toranaga wishes Mariko to stay close with Blackthorne as his translator, meaning that Buntaro has to go live at Blackthorne’s house as an unwilling guest. This all culminates in a dinner among Buntaro, Mariko, Blackthorne, and Blackthorne’s consort Fuji (Moeka Hoshi) in which the gang tries to enjoy some of the Anjin’s English home cooking.

As reported by Men’s Journal, English rabbit stew is a recipe mentioned in the 14th century English recipe book The Forme of Cury. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a simple stew with some rabbit and other available vegetables and spices. Blackthorne’s version isn’t perfectly authentic, given that he had to use sake instead of sherry but it’s certainly close enough. Unfortunately none of his Japanese guests are interested in trying it.

Thematically, this might suggest that Blackthorne is warming up to his Japanese peers faster than they are warming up to him. Or it could be a commentary on how much Buntaro’s presence has upended the Blackthorne household. One could easily imagine Fuji and Mariko giving Blackthorne’s foreign flavors a shot if Buntaro weren’t breathing down their neck ready to find anything at fault with this barbarian’s hospitality.

The biggest contributing factor to the balking at the rabbit stew, however, probably comes down to the overwhelming odor of episode 5’s other major dish.

What Is Fermented Pheasant?

So what the hell was Blackthorne doing with that rotting pheasant? When Lord Toranaga catches and gifts a pheasant to Blackthorne, the Englishman has a very specific idea of what to do with it to honor his lord. The bird must be strung up in the courtyard to rot and ferment for at least a week. Then it will be served.

I’m not a Michelin star chef but I am, at least, familiar with the concept of aging meats. Bacteria can be a major component of many delectable meals as anyone who has eaten a dry-aged steak can tell you. But a full week out in the elements seems pretty aggressive for poultry, no? Well it turns out that this barbarian just might know what he’s doing on this one.

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In this charming 2008 blog post about the joys of hanging game bird meat, writer Hank Shaw uncovers some sage advice on pheasant prep from an Australian government study: “Pheasants hung for 9 days at 50°F have been found by overseas taste panels to be more acceptable than those hung for 4 days at 59°F or for 18 days at 41°F.

Hank endeavored to hang his pheasants for at least for at least three days at 50-55 degrees. He reported back that “the birds were fantastic – much more interesting in flavor, a little gamey, but in a good way.”

Recall that it isn’t summer currently in Shōgun‘s timeline. The temperature in Ajiro is likely in the 40-59°F range. That pheasant probably would have tasted great … if anyone ever got the chance to eat it.

Why is Food in Important in Episode 5?

Of course, Shōgun isn’t just about the safe and sanitary preparation of meats. There is a reason for the fermented pheasant’s inclusion in episode 5. That’s because the poor bird becomes the latest example in the show’s favorite theme: the difficulty of proper translation.

Blackthorne hasn’t been in Japan very long but he is slowly developing a formidable vocabulary of Japanese words. Unfortunately he is unable to communicate just why his beloved rotting pheasant shouldn’t be disposed of regardless of how bad it smells. The best he can muster is something akin to a hyperbolic joke: “If touch – die.” Well someone touches Blackthorne’s bird, the gardener Uejirou, and he is indeed killed.

Up to this point things had been going pretty well for Blackthorne in Japan. He’s got a house, a consort, and even the makings of a girlfriend (before Buntaro returns at least). This incident with the pheasant and the peasant, however, suggests to him that maybe he will never be able to properly assimilate into this culture. This misunderstanding over simple food prep ends with him doubting his entire destiny in Japan. In this world, what you think or feel isn’t as important as how you can communicate what you think or feel.

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Interestingly, this episode also ends with a reminder as to why feudal Japanese culture is so strict. Back when Blackthorne experienced his first earthquake, Mariko explained to him just how hostile this land can be to the human beings on top of it. The earthquakes are why their homes can be rebuilt just as quickly as they were torn down – because they will be torn down. It’s an inevitability. Blackthorne endures another particularly violent earthquake in episode 5. This time it almost claims the life of Lord Toranaga and with him the lives of everyone who supports him.

When the difference between life and death comes down to the whims of tectonic plates, following even the simplest rules like “don’t touch that bird” certainly carry an outsized importance. Hopefully there’s some space in the middle between obedience and executions. Blackthorne now seems determined to find it.

Five episodes of Shōgun are available to stream on Hulu now. New episodes premiere Tuesdays on Hulu and Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. ET on FX.