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Souperchef Anna Travels | Taste Japan

by Souperchef Anna on

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A summary of some of the places we have been and the produce highlights of these regions in my quest to discover Japanese comfort foods. Mouse over the icons on the map to find out more about my trip!

 

This is a third instalment of Souperchefannatravels series, this time Take Me To Japan. How many of us watch Japan Hour?  I used to be watch it every Sunday and on the days I would not be home, I actually have it recorded. That is how much I love Japan! LOL! Japanese food is one of the most well loved foods in the world, best known for the freshness of their ingredients and their clean flavours. Over the years, I have done a couple of Japanese inspired soups, most notably Tokyo Chicken Stew, one of the most well loved soups at The Soup Spoon. My understanding of Japanese food and her culture has been reinforced by my travels in previous years over numerous occasions to Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. I think this is the case for most tourists visiting Japan.  From the slopes of Mount Fuji, to Tsukiji market, to the temple streets of Kyoto, tourists are cramming Japan’s prime sightseeing spots, puzzling their way through Tokyo subways, and splashing out cash on souvenirs, sushi and high-tech equipment like cameras.

Is Japan tourism and food only confined to these few big cities? I am souper guilty of this. I admit my ignorance! But this has all changed.  Here at The Soup Spoon, we are souper stoked to collaborate with JNTO (Japan National Tourism Organisation) and Diners World Travel to explore regions not normally visited and create new souperinspirations based on our travels through the regions of  Kyushu, Chubu and Tohoku. I have learnt a lot during this trip and special thanks to 3 ladies, Junko, Rie and Kayano who have worked tirelessly to make the trip as smooth as it can be and most importantly sharing personal stories of your homeland with me.

The schedule had been a hectic one as we travelled from Kagoshima through to Takayama to Miyagi prefecture to Iwate which is from the southern part of Japan to the norther part of Japan just before the island of Hokkaido in a whirlwind 6 days. We visited some of the of the most beautiful parts of Japan blessed with abundance, coexisting with dangerous elements such as active volcano Sakurajima and meeting artisanal craftsmen filled with passion.  From Kagoshima Kurobuta pork to her sweet potatoes, the different types of miso, the cattle range in Tohoku, staying in a ryokan in the beautiful preserved old town of Takayama in the Chubu prefecture, replica food making in Gujo Hachiman, the condiments used for seasoning foods, traditional hotpots eaten here, visiting a wasabi farm and a visit to wholesale seafood markets other than the most famous one seemed like a lot places in a short 6 days!  The hospitality we have received has been heartwarming and truly inspirational. The Tohoku region is still struggling to rebuild herself after the devastating tsunami and the nuclear meltdown. I admit that I was very apprehensive to be near Fukushima but I was glad we went and could hear the stories of people most hit and how they have come together to rebuild their lives.  Obviously, things have started to normalise, but hearing their stories first hand, I could not help but feel the tenacity of the people and their sense of pride.

I would like to thank JNTO and many of the prefecture tourist officers for making this trip possible. I feel honored to be your guest and through this journal, I would love to tell the story of your culture through your foods and your people. I would love to share my experience of this food tour, some snippets of personal stories from my interactions with the gracious people who hosted us and also share the inspirations behind the new souperinspirations created for #TSSTAKEMETOJAPAN campaign. It made me realise that Japan is not only the first tier cities of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. To know her deeper, we must embrace her all.

Here, we would be able to bring souperinspirations inspired from our travels in Japan, to our kitchen to you. Till we meet again!

いただきますItadakimasu! (Let’s eat!)

 

A journal of Souperchefanna travels in Japan in her quest to find true Japanese comfort foods of the different regions

Umami Miso

I must admit I struggled with the introduction to this. How do you put into words that absolute delight when you taste something ‘umami’? Possibly the person who discovered it says it best – it’s simply yet profoundly a “delicious taste”. Discovered in 1908 by Japanese chemist, Kikunae Ikeda, it was not until 100 years later that it was recognised globally as a flavour, a distinct flavour that some have described as “savoury yet subtle”. The essence of umami relates to the naturally occurring amino acid glutamate that lends a remarkably distinct flavour to foods, and is commonly found in meats, fish, tomatoes, as well as in fermented products like miso, soy sauce and fish sauce. The former two are undoubtedly the crowning jewels in Japanese cuisine, the flavours of Japan. There have been references that miso and rice for Japanese are like ‘meat and potatoes for Americans’. Despite how the Japanese cuisine has evolved over the recent years, rice with a dish of pickles and a bowl of miso soup remains the archetypal Japanese meal.

 

Shinhu miso master brewer Hayashi san

Meet Hayashi san, 2nd generation shinshu miso brewer of Marusho explaining to us about the different types of shinshu miso he sells in store, ranging from 6-8 months fermentation to one as long as 2 years old.

 

In Matsumoto City, we met , the president and master shinshu miso maker at Marusho Jozo. Through our conversations, I found out he is 80 years old. But the man does not look a day past 65 years old! His complexion, the tautness and most importantly, his agility climbing up the ladder to the miso barrels, was impressive to say the least. I asked him for his secret to his youth and strength – miso soup of course! Every morning, his wife would make miso soup for him for breakfast. This was enough to convince me that miso may well be the answer to longevity and souperb health!

Making miso is an art. Hundreds of varieties of this classic Japanese staple can be found across the country. Miso is created from soybeans, grain (usually rice or barley) and salt. To activate fermentation, a koji (starter) is added, usually one that includes a mould called Aspergillus oryzae.

Each miso’s fermentation and aging process involves a multitude of factors from the type of koji used, to the cooking technique and even the length of time, all resulting in variances of taste, colour and texture. Naturally-made miso can go through a cycle of fermentation and aging that lasts as long as three years. In our two trips to Japan, we visited several artisanal miso factories that produce different types of miso, namely hatcho miso, shinshu miso, gujo miso, and akita miso.

 

Hatcho Miso

Aged buildings, with timber sides and supports, house the original Edo-period cedar wood barrels used to store the soybeans during the fermentation period; they looked like car-size replicas of grape-crushing vats, held together by bamboo strapping on the left and iron on the right. The beans ferment in these vats for almost three years in the un-airconditioned environment. Nothing is added in the way of preservatives or chemicals, they just use the identical time-honoured process.

Aged buildings, with timber sides and supports, house the original Edo-period cedar wood barrels used to store the soybeans during the fermentation period; they looked like car-size replicas of grape-crushing vats, held together by bamboo strapping on the left and iron on the right. The beans ferment in these vats for almost three years in the un-airconditioned environment. Nothing is added in the way of preservatives or chemicals, they just use the identical time-honoured process.

 

Known for its particularly bitter, acidic and astringent flavour, hatcho miso is made by the Hatcho Miso Company in Hatcho (Eighth Street), to the west of Okazaki castle. Produced using a long-established artisan technique, hatcho miso is the rarest type of miso, comprising just 0.2% of the total volume of miso produced in Japan. With a long fermentation process, it has the most reduced water content compared to other types of miso. It is also easy to digest and is a natural food since neither food additives nor pasteurisation are used.

 

Gujo Miso

Produced specifically in Gujo Hachiman, gujo miso is a type of mame miso that is also known as jimiso, which means local miso, alluding to how every household that makes it has a slightly different rendition of it. However, to be classified as mame miso, it should not detract too much from using only soybeans and mame soybean malt, and the length of fermentation should be at least one year.

 

Meet 37 year old Hiroyuki san, a very unlikely looking gujo miso master, he took over the family business of making gujo miso at 25 years old. He learnt the craft of making traditional gujo miso from his grandfather who started the business 70 years ago.

Meet 37 year old Hiroyuki san, a very unlikely looking gujo miso master, he took over the family business of making gujo miso at 25 years old. He learnt the craft of making traditional gujo miso from his grandfather who started the business 70 years ago.

 

Daikokuya is a family-run business that started 70 years ago in the charismatic old town of Gujo Hachiman, and is well known for its homemade miso made from local grown soybeans and fresh water. Gujo jimiso has more salt added and hence requires a longer time to reach maturity compared to shiro miso. Daikokuya ferments miso for at least 1.5 years. The colour of gujo jimiso is dark red in colour due to its prolonged fermentation process. The gujo jimiso is not blended and the whole soybeans can be seen in the miso. It actually reminded me very much of the salty “taucheo” by the Chinese known as the salty preserved soybeans!

Besides making miso, Daikokuya also brews tamari and mirin. Previously, when I was doing research on gluten-free foods, I chanced upon tamari and had assumed it is a gluten-free soy sauce with a fancy branding. On the trip, I learned tamari is actually a by-product of miso production, the liquid piled up on top of miso during fermentation. Equally umami, tamari is great to use for dipping of sashimi with characteristics of aged balsamic vinegar and complex sourish notes.

 

Hoba Miso

Hoba miso

 

One of the most curious looking varieties, hoba miso is miso wrapped in hoba leaves, the leaves of the Japanese magnolia. The large leaves of the ho tree (a type of magnolia) have antibacterial properties, and in this area, they are used to wrap portions of sushi or mochi rice cakes. A specialty of the Takayama area, the custom originated as a way to thaw out pickles that were frozen solid in the depth of winter. Apparently, water in Takayama area is hard, so it is unfit for miso soup. Hence the locals thought of a way to enjoy miso without the soup. Chopped negi (green onion), mushrooms and wild plants are mixed and seasoned with miso on a hoba and then broiled. Miso soup here is now served in any ryokans and restaurants with the help of a water filter, but hoba miso remains a local favourite dish.

 

Shinshu miso

Shinsu miso

 

Glossy and golden yellow, this nutritious seasoning made of soybeans, malted rice and salt has been valued by locals as a source of energy since ancient times. It is a very popular variety of miso with residents from Tokyo according to our interpreter, Rie-san, compared to gujo miso and hatcho miso. Shinshu miso is a form of kome miso using rice malt rather than soybean malt. It can be however be full-bodied in taste like that of hatcho miso with a two-year fermentation process, achieving a dark red colour.

At Marusho Brewing Co., Ltd in Nagano Prefecture, Hayashi-san’s grandfather started the business 120 years ago in 1895, and since its inception, the brewery is proud to continue making shinshu miso the traditional way using carefully selected raw materials. He explained that what makes Nagano perfect for miso production was its purity of the water and air quality. Here, rice malt is mainly used for the fermentation. However, Hayashi-san innovatively used buckwheat malt mixed in with the rice malt to create new types of miso. Around his shop, you can see that his creative products of miso-filled doriyaki, miso pan (breads), miso donuts and a variety of miso-coated rice snacks and nuts. In summer, he even makes miso ice cream!

 

Akita Miso

Akita Miso

 

One of our biggest surprises in our learning journey on miso has to be meeting the youngest owner we have seen so far, Yusuka Ando. A Tokyo University graduate, the 31-year-old young man worked in Tokyo for five years before taking over the family business as the 8th generation owner two years ago. He shared that it was his family’s wishes for the children to hone their skills elsewhere first before they manage the miso business.

 

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Akita miso is a kind of kome miso, made using rice malt. The end product after a fermentation process of 1-3 years in traditional wooden barrels is a red-coloured miso, one of the most popular varieties in Japan. Yusuka-san does not innovate on the production technique but is keen to    explore new ways of consuming miso and soy sauce as well as new packaging ways to cater for reduced usage in smaller families. He has produced recipe cards detailing innovative ways of enjoying soy sauce. We love his soy sauce ice cream that tasted wondrously like caramel ice cream but with a slightly salty soy sauce finish.

Yusuka-san is himself a father of two sons, 4-year-old Osuke and 1-year-old Shosuke. Following Japanese traditions, the akita miso business is likely to fall into the hands of Osuke as the first-born in his generation. Shosuke is thus often encouraged to carve his own career – “a dentist or lawyer maybe”.

 

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How privileged are we to learn so much from the master brewers themselves. Beyond the art of making miso, we are deeply inspired by the commitment to continuously innovate on new products to keep up with the trends. Quality miso doesn’t come cheap. And you can now see why. It’s a lifetime of work, consistency, research and innovation. The next time we take miso, let’s also take some time to savour the umami slowly and gratefully.

Farm to Table

Taste Japan Farm to Table

 

It’s the culinary buzzword (or phrase), and going clean and green is all the rage. We bring you to a gem in the Yamagata Prefecture in Tohoku Region – one that takes great strides in producing organic crops, and designing a well-loved seasonal menu around them, despite the odds.

I took a double take when I heard we were going to visit the dadachamame farm. Dada what?

 

Dadachamame

Dadachamame

 

So dadachamame is a kind of edamame or young soya beans, or some may say, ‘king of edamame’. The regular edamame has three pods, while the dadachamame has only two. Popularised about a decade ago, dadachamame is fragrant and can dramatically increase the umami flavour in dishes. I was told the stories of how the name could have come about and they are adorable! One version tells of how the Lord of Shonai in the Edo period uttered, “These delicious beans, which daddy produced them?” And hence the name, dadacha. Another local version describes how it was the father of the family, also known as dadacha in the local dialect (thought not deemed a polite term), who first tasted the beans, giving rise to this name.

 

aste Japan Farm to Table

 

After a three-hour journey by car to Yamagata Prefecture, Tsuruoka City, we were introduced to 34-year-old Onodera Norimasa, owner of the dadachamame farm, and also chef of the restaurant Naa on the farm premise. I’m abashed to say we swooned a little when we met him! He looks like the actor Sorimachi Takashi, doesn’t he?

 

Taste Japan Farm to Table

Taste Japan Farm to Table

 

Norimasa’s family is one of the first few to establish organic farming, and till today, remains one of the 3 in over 200 farmers in the community to practise organic farming. He grows 12 kinds of edamame, including dadachamame. On average, the crops take 90 days to grow and five days to harvest. Every day, he harvests some 300kg of beans, gathering about 7.5 tonnes for the season.

Unlike many of the traditional Japanese farms and family businesses that are struggling with continuity in light of modernity, this farm has seen an unprecedented rejuvenation when Norimasa decided to take it over from his aging parents. He used to work for a big steel company in Yokohama, but when his mother fell ill three years ago, he returned to his hometown to learn the ropes of farming. There were plans by the family to close down the restaurant, but again, the sense of nostalgia led Norimasa to learn culinary skills from his mother.

 

Dishes at Naa.

Dishes at Naa.

 

Today, the restaurant Naa enjoys a year-round popularity who have come to savour the menu designed around the seasons, with the famed dadachamame, organic goodness and a farm-to-table experience.

 

Dishes at Naa.

Dishes at Naa.

 

According to the lanky, well-mannered Norimasa, while dadachame has seen an increased demand due to its nutritional value and taste, it doesn’t keep well and rots within a day. Hence today, the beans are sent to Tokyo and other regions in the form of cold chain delivery. He also sells his vegetables direct to customers who mail orders with him.

 

Naa Restaurant.

Naa Restaurant.

 

The success of the farm and restaurant is fueled by passion for food, driven by a love for his mother and her cooking. It touched me deeply when he shared that on hindsight, it was a good thing that he wasn’t professionally trained in the kitchen. All his recipes were developed from memory of the tastes of his mother’s cooking. No pesticides despite the challenges of keeping the crops well, since “we are what we eat”, he stressed with a strong conviction. Let the fresh ingredients shine. Let nostalgia be the seasoning of the food.

 

Taste Japan Farm to Table

Salt-making

The Agehama Enden Salt Pan in Suzu City, 30 minutes from Wajima Asaichi.

The Agehama Enden Salt Pan in Suzu City, 30 minutes from Wajima Asaichi.

 

The folks of Wajima are a tough lot, quietly industrious, and outwardly big-hearted, and a visit to the city wouldn’t be complete without knowing its quintessential craft and flavour. Wajima has a long history of salt farming using the most traditional method of harvesting salt in the world. Agehama literally means ‘risen beach’, while Enden means ‘salt field’. There were previously many salt fields by the beach, but like many old practices and cultures in Japan, they have come to a reluctant close in recent years. Welcome to the Agehama Enden Salt Pan in Suzu City, 30 minutes from Wajima Asaichi.

 

Taste Japan Salt-making

 

This traditional method is labour-intensive, though the concept behind it is fairly straightforward. At 4 am, craftsmen draw up the sea water and spread it onto the salt pans, over the sand. After about eight hours in the sun, they will gather the sand with the salt crystals, add filtered water called kansui which has been simmered for 24 hours, to further concentrate it. Sea water has a 3.5% concentration of salt, and the additional filtration will help to bring the concentration up to 15%. The colour of the filtered water may differ from batch to batch due to the different mineral content, but the skilled craftsmen here are trained to retain the mild taste of the minerals while harshness is removed.

 

Taste Japan Salt-making

Taste Japan Salt-making

 

We were told that the first salt production started centuries back in 1596, and the salt was used as an annual tribute to the feudal lords as taxes. Once out of use because of monopolisation by the Japanese government, traditional salts are now back in production with the liberalisation of laws in 2002. The Suzu Endenmura Roadside Station Salt Making Experience is the only one available in Wajima.

 

Having a go at this labourious task of harvesting salt!

Having a go at this labourious task of harvesting salt!

 

My back-breaking experience of drawing and scattering sea water, gathering sand and the works left me in aches for a few days. Good flavours are cultivated carefully, and they never come easy. Wajima’s almost-mythic salt is a result of skill, tenacity and sacrifice. And I know now to always remember the spectacular natural blessing and the incredibly hard work that goes behind harvesting this flavour.

 

Taste Japan Salt-making

 

Taste Japan | Loving Ume

Taste Japan Loving Ume 

You know how sometimes you meet people for the first time, but feel like you have known them for the longest time? The gregarious elderly couple in the ume farm located in Mikata-Kaminaka-gun in Fukui Prefecture shone with their good-natured banter. At various points, we even forgot we were there to learn about ume!

 

Taste Japan Loving Ume

 

79-year-old Fukagawa is a 3rd generation ume farmer, who used to grow trees for printing before changing to the more lucrative ume crop. Together with his wife, Setsuko, they now care for over 700 ume trees and some rice fields. They sell 1/3 of their harvest to the Agriculture Department and salt the rest to be sold as salted dried ume. These plums are extremely sour with low sugar content and hence not consumed as fruits. Yield has declined drastically, from 30 tonnes in the previous year to just 15 this year. Fukagawa is therefore all the more insistent that there should be no wastage and asked us for suggestions on what he could do with ume. “Stop making new things! I am very busy and you need to rest!” rejoined Setsuko. Too cute.

 

Taste Japan Loving Ume

 

We loved their homemade ume jam that went beautifully with yoghurt and ice cream. So much love here. Do go visit and support their labour of love!

 

Taste Japan Loving Ume

 

Read more on SouperChef Anna’s travel to Japan on our e-magazine. Download Here.

Fusion of Flavours

A replica of Dejima, old Dutch quarters, and the Blue Building, Japan's oldest Protestant Seminary. For more than 200 years, Dejima acted as the only window open to overseas trade. Nagasaki was very important as a trading post for sugar during the Edo period.

A replica of Dejima, the old Dutch quarters, and the Blue Building, Japan’s oldest Protestant Seminary. For more than 200 years, Dejima acted as the only window open to overseas trade. Nagasaki was very important as a trading post for sugar during the Edo period.

 

In the beginning, Dejima was that fan-shaped man-made island built in 1636 to segregate the foreigners, mainly the Portuguese, from the Japanese population, in a bid to control the missionary activities. In 1641, the Tokugawa shogunate (last Japanese feudal military government) banished all foreigners from Japan, and the Dutch Trading Station in Hirado was moved to Dejima. For more than two centuries till the 1850s, the enclosed quarter was the only sanctioned foreign presence in Japan, the only window open to overseas trade. For a good 218 years, Dejima played a central role in the modernisation of Japan.

Fast forward to the present day, Dejima’s surrounding area has been reclaimed and much of her past, restored. Residences, walls, structures and warehouses etc have been painstakingly reconstructed, and you can even see a miniature Dejima in the Dejima Museum.

The backstory of Dejima and her colourful trading history is the perfect way to understand the fusion culinary scene in Nagasaki. This city boasts of one of Japan’s most diverse dining scenes and at a culinary crossroads, Nagasaki’s flavours embraces the best of the east and west.

 

Taste Japan | Fusion of Flavours

 

Meet Nagasaki’s Shippoku cuisine, what you get when you cross European, Chinese and Japanese cooking, a culinary blend unique to the city. The literal meaning of Shippoku is table cloth, signifying the Chinese banquet style of eating at a round table. Shippoku cuisine is an original creation of the Chinese living in the Chinese quarter, and was intended to entertain Japanese and foreign visitors. Over time, the cuisine evolved as a result of exchanges between the Japanese in Nagasaki and the Chinese, Portuguese and Dutch traders who have come through for the important “Sugar Road” enroute to Edo (modern day Tokyo). Today, it is being served in many Nagasaki households and even in traditional Japanese restaurants, as a feast around a lacquered round table.

 

Lacquered bowls used for soup served on round red lacquered table with mesh design

Lacquered bowls used for soup served on round red lacquered table with mesh design.

 

We had the privilege of dining in Sakamotoya, a 120-year-old restaurant and the first ryokan to offer Shippoku cuisine in Nagasaki. You know the meal is going to be souperb when it begins with this hearty greeting “O-hire O-dozo” which means “Enjoy the fin of the fish too” by the host, known as the Okattsama (local dialect for ‘house madam’). O-hire is a clear broth with fish containing slices of sea bream, and the term means that the whole bream, including the fin, was served, alluding to the generous and immaculate hospitality.

 

Shippoku cuisine is the first Japanese fusion cuisine, a mixture of traditional Japanese, Chinese and Western dishes from Nagasaki. As can see here, this is dongpo pork, traditionally from China.

Shippoku cuisine is the first Japanese fusion cuisine, a mixture of traditional Japanese, Chinese and Western dishes from Nagasaki. As can be seen here, this is dongpo pork, traditionally from China.


A very western cheese grilled lobster with cheese is one of the courses of a shippoku meal.

A very western cheese grilled lobster with cheese is one of the courses of a shippoku meal.

 

When dining in Shippoku style, few rules apply. The ease of the cuisine lies in the common sharing of the food round the table, diners serving themselves, creating a relaxed atmosphere. No dish sequence to follow, no complicated rules on cutlery. Food is passed around in dishes of various sizes. We were pleasantly surprised by how the different elements from the various countries’ cooking blended so harmoniously together. One of my favourites was a dish with the sea bream, mochi and mushroom in a bonito kobu stock – so syncretic and so distinctly Shippoku! Like much of Japanese cuisine, the flavours are kept clean, allowing the superior ingredients to shine in their own right.

 

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16-grain rice used in the healthier version of kaisendon.

 

The constantly evolving flavours of Japan were also evident in Rakushintei, a quaint restaurant in a quiet building. Affectionately known as the Heart Lounge, the restaurant is the only one in Nagasaki with a focus on healthy eating. The chef has swopped out the much-loved short-grain sushi rice in kaisendon for the healthier 16-grain mixed rice. He has also curiously but successfully paired the kaisendon with hikado, a Shippoku dish of vegetable and hashed meat stew, typically eaten only during winter. Originating from Picado of Portuguese influence, the dish has gained popularity with the Japanese and became known as hikado, enjoyed by mainly the older Japanese. I was surprised that many younger Japanese have not even heard of hikado!

Rakushintei’s renditions have won him the hearts of many locals, particularly the seniors who are into healthier eating. It is the chef’s desire to sustain a menu driven by health, created with locally farmed or sourced produce, inspired by seasonal changes. “Food is very important for health, especially as you age. My passion is to create more healthy food for people,” the 46-year-old chef left us with his wise words.

And we leave you lingering over Japan’s flavours, seasoned with care, culture and creativity.

Kiritanpo, Always Handmade

Taste Japan | Kiritanpo, Always Handmade

 

I don’t think I can ever thank JNTO enough for arranging an itinerary that goes beyond the usual touristy sights and tastes. How then would I be able to experience this warm hospitality of the locals, even learning how to make this traditional gastronomy of Akita Prefecture?

 

Taste Japan | Kiritanpo, Always Handmade

 

This is kiritanpo (kiri meaning cut, and tanpo meaning spear), freshly cooked rice pounded till mashed, then shaped into cylinders around cedar skewers and toasted over an open fire. Add some sweet miso sauce, then grill it, and you have yourself a hefty snack. Mash 50% of the rice and you get a rice stick. Mash 70% and you can enjoy it in a Kiritanpo Nabe with burdock, preserved vegetables and pickles. This is also a popular dish in weddings, and always cooked from scratch, hand-torn, never with knives as Japanese believe that may ‘sever or cut’ relationships!

 

Taste Japan | Kiritanpo, Always Handmade

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Taste Japan | Kiritanpo, Always Handmade

 

The highlight of this cooking lesson has got to be meeting my teacher, 62-year-old Kazuko Ishigaki. She started her business much later than many entrepreneurs, only at 47. Coincidentally, the day we visited also marked 15 years of her business! Originally a farmer with apple orchards and rice fields, her love for traditional foods led her to establish businesses that will allow her to share these culinary classics in a rapidly modernising Japan that tends to gravitate towards Western influence. The gutsy lady went on to set up a small hotel and restaurant amongst other businesses.

 

Taste Japan | Kiritanpo, Always Handmade

 

She also served us trays of mushi-pan and we were smitten with it despite feeling stuffed with kiritanpo. Dear Kazuko Ishigaki has kindly shared her recipe with us, so we are all in for a treat! Check it out in the recipe that follows!

 

Mushipan

Mushipan

Dreamy Junsai

When it comes to stunning vistas, it’s hard to top the beauty of the Tohoku region. Comprising six prefectures in the north of Japan’s largest island, Honshu, the region has bounced back voraciously from the tsunami and nuclear devastation to treat visitors to its scenic countryside, fresh waters and thriving miso production.

 

Taste Japan Dreamy Junsai

 

Junsai is a specialty of Akita Prefecture, more precisely of Mitanechô, a two-hour drive from Akita into the mountainous area. A kind of water weed that only grows in ponds with premium water quality, Junsai is coveted for its fibre content, anti-bacterial property, as a skin food for elasticity and smooth complexion, as well as the fine, springy texture it lends to dishes. With abundant water from the surrounding Shirakami mountain range, this area has become suitably known as the “town of Junsai”. I was first struck by the serenity of the Junsai ponds. Looking very much like tranquil lotus ponds but with tiny leaves and flowers, it’s hard to imagine that this is home to 90% of Japan’s Junsai production.

 

Taste Japan Dreamy Junsai

Looks easy, but it isn't! Try balancing on a small boat with a steering stick, an umbrella in the drizzle and looking for slimy junsai!

Looks easy, but it isn’t! Try balancing on a small boat with a steering stick, an umbrella in the drizzle and looking for slimy junsai!

 

Harvesting is done around mid-May to beginning of September, usually by women who will handpick the Junsai in small boats. I really wasn’t cut out for the job! While trying to maintain balance in the boat, steering with the stick, harvesters have to get to the tiny buds tangled underneath. As a natural defense of the Junsai, they are slimy and covered with clear, gelatinous coating, and they kept slipping out of my hands. I was also told to always pluck a big bud with a small bud attached. After half an hour in a light drizzle, all I harvested was an unrewarding bit of Junsai! We met a harvester, Toriko,  who used to be able to pick 30 kg a day, though because of changes in the water, he was only able to harvest 15kg now. No wonder much of fresh Junsai is cured in a little vinegar to preserve it!

 

Taste Japan Dreamy Junsai

Taste Japan Dreamy Junsai

 

We were souper stoked to be shown the application of Junsai by Chef Masaya Yamada in his restaurant. Traditional ways include eating with ponzu, wasabi, shoyu or miso with vinegar, simple ways that do not destroy the gelatinous exterior. His new applications innovatively create aesthetically pleasing ways of enjoying Junsai. We thoroughly enjoyed the cold broad bean soup with marinated Junsai and barley grass powder, as well as puff pastry stuffed with minced Junsai and topped with brown sugar syrup and kinoko powder. Do seize the rare opportunity to harvest and taste Junsai if you are in Akita!

 

Taste Japan Dreamy Junsai

 

Old and Gold

Higashichaya Old Town

Taste Japan Old and Gold

 

Also known as Little Kyoto in Kanazawa, the charming grounds housed beautiful latticed buildings that were established in the early 19th century for geishas to entertain wealthy patrons. These historic wooden facades are still beautifully preserved today.

The Shima Geisha House, once a carefully conserved Edo-era chaya house from 1820, is now a museum with an impressive collection of elaborate combs, tatami mats, lacquered bowls, musical instruments that provide an authentic peek into feudal Japan entertainment district.

 

Taste Japan Old and Gold

 

When we were there at 5.30pm, the streets were quiet and still and some geishas were shuffling in their elaborate kimono, probably off to an engagement, we were told by our hosts. Today, you can still engage a geisha or two for two hours at about 200,000 yen (~S$2700).

 

Hakuichi Hakuko-kan

Taste Japan Old and Gold

 

Want to have a taste of gold? You can, in Kanazawa, where 99% of Japan’s gold leaf production is done! This store promises to add some glitter into your sweet treat, while being friendly on the purse strings! Gold leaf is made by mixing silver and copper with gold, skillfully processed into the finest thickness. We were bemused when told that gold leaf aids digestion – now all the more reason to eat gold!

The soft serve ice cream has layers of intense yellow swirls that are made purely from egg yolk, of specifically the Ukokkei breed. The generous gold dust itself is pretty tasteless, but it certainly looks pretty! As I licked up that last speck of gold leaf, this saying came to my mind – “All that glitters is not gold”. In this case, it really is!

 

Taste Japan Old and Gold

 

This store is situated in the Higashichaya district, so have an indulgent treat after your walk around the old town!

Yuzu & Yuzukosho

Production of yuzukosho. This is green yuzukosho made from green chillies and green yuzu peel (unripe yuzu)

Production of yuzukosho. This is green yuzukosho made from green chillies and green yuzu peel (unripe yuzu).

 

Salt and pepper just go. Like bread and butter. Almost every recipe signs off with ‘season with salt and pepper’, and for good reasons. Pepper is still the world’s most traded and possibly, most popular spice. The Japanese, however, brings it up a notch higher by flavouring the spice with its treasured tart and fragrant citrus fruit, the yuzu. The distinctive flavour profile of yuzu has made this signature fruit an enviable ingredient for cuisines worldwide. Last year during our trip to Japan with JNTO, we enjoyed our chicken hotpot with yuzukosho at Mizutaki so much we simply had to arrange for a visit to the yuzu pepper factory this year!

A Japanese pasty condiment made from chillies or peppers then cured with salt and yuzu zest and juice, yuzukosho gained international fame with its unique and intense taste profile. With the saltiness from the fermentation process, spiciness from the chilli peppers and delicate tartness from the yuzu fruit, yuzukosho has become a wildly popular secret weapon for chefs who want that extra edge and flare in their dishes.

 

IMG_3480

 

Just 1.5 hours’ drive from the Fukuoka Airport is the yuzukosho factory, a family business that began in 1918. Surrounded by rice fields, the 3rd generation owner bought over some mountainous land to plant some 1000 yuzu trees. Yuzukosho is a Kyushu specialty, with almost every family having its own recipe. Unique to Kyushu is its use of yuzukosho to replace wasabi for sashimi, while in most parts of Japan, the condiment is used as a dip for hot pot dishes and miso soup.

We learned from the visit that the yuzu trees fruit only every ten years with fluctuating harvest yields according to the climate. When the fruits ripen in winter, they are harvested, peeled and juiced, then frozen to be kept for the year. Five yuzu fruits yield approximately 100ml of juice that can in turn be used in ponzu sauce, salad dressing, or simply enjoyed as a refreshing drink. Yuzu peel requires many fruits, and as such, is expensive and not typically popular amongst the Japanese. The factory places its focus on producing yuzukosho that is sold in both domestic and international markets.

A pricey gem of a citrus, this fruit has its origins in China but gained its stronghold in Japan with its versatility in bath, medicinal and culinary uses. The owner of the yuzukosho has also set up a yuzu specialty café. All things yuzu. Won’t you like that too?

 

The pristine lawns at Mifukan in Saga City, Kyushu, an artsan producer of yuzukosho.

The pristine lawns at Mifukan in Saga City, Kyushu, an artsan producer of yuzukosho.

 

Inside this stylish hipster café sitting on pristine manicured lawns is an astonishing array of yuzu products. I love all the bells and whistles of this yuzu-themed café, not just because of my partiality towards yuzu, but how delicate everything is here!

First up, the good old yuzu juice, straight. Yuzu juice drunk neat is extremely sour, but it doesn’t cut the tongue the way lemon juice does. Less acidic, softer on the palate, more fragrant and finishes with a bright floral profile. Yuzu isn’t taken straight usually, but getting to taste it this way has certainly helped me to understand how it has become the darling of chefs worldwide.

 

Colourful yuzukosho from red, green and yellow chiilies at Mifukan

Colourful yuzukosho from red, green and yellow chiilies at Mifukan

 

We were shown the green, red and yellow yuzukosho, the type of chillies used determining the colour and taste of this salt-cured condiment. Green yuzukosho, the most common form, lends a dramatic depth to jelly and oysters, while the red variant is used typically in dumplings and oden (Japanese winter dish with egg, fish cake, octopus etc in a flavourful dashi stock). Yellow yuzukosho has more mature notes of bitterness and is used to season the steaks served on board Japan Airlines International (JAL) First Class flights. We were instantly smitten with the chiffon cake made with yellow yuzukosho that gives the aromatic dessert a complex salty and tart taste with a slightly spicy after-taste. So pillowy light and refreshing I really struggled to stop at one piece!

 

Yuzukosho Chiffon Cake!

Yuzukosho Chiffon Cake!


Yuzu Geleto!

Yuzu Geleto!

 

Given the versatility of yuzu, it is also made into powder to be used as salt for tequila and tempura. There are also the beverages like yuzu cider, yuzu soda water. And the list goes on.

From its intensely sour origin to clean-tasting, umami-rich flavouring for savury dishes and sublime spin to sweets, you can certainly put Japan’s citrus crown on pretty much anything! The flavour that gives and gives.

The art of miso | why you should eat miso daily?

Why you should eat miso daily?

There has been references that miso and rice for Japanese people are like ‘meat and potatoes for Americans’. Miso is Japan’s traditional seasoning and health food. Making miso is an art. Hundreds of varieties of this classic Japanese staple can be found across the country, and like wine and cheese, it reflects local customs, almost to the extent of having a D.O.P. Each miso’s fermentation and aging process involves a multitude of factors from the type of koji used, to the cooking technique and even the length of time, all resulting in variances of taste, colour and texture. Made from fermented soybeans, there are many well documented health benefits.  On this trip to Japan, in Matsumoto City, we met Hayashi san, the president and master shinshu miso maker at Marusho Jozo. Through our conversations, I found out he is 80 years old. But the man, does not look a day past 65 years old. The complexion of his skin, its tautness and most importantly his agility climbing up the ladder to the miso barrels was impressive. I asked him what was his secret. Miso soup of course! Every morning, his wife would make miso soup for him for breakfast. This was enough to convince me that miso may be the answer and we all should be eating miso daily!

 

Shinshu miso from Matsumoto

Shinshu miso from Nagano prefecture

 

Hiyashi san, master shinsu maker is 80 years old with great complexion, skin tautness and agility to boot! His secret was eating miso soup made by his wife every morning.

Hiyashi san, master shinshu maker is 80 years old with great complexion, skin tautness and agility to boot! His secret was eating miso soup made by his wife every morning.

 

Health effects of eating miso

  • Many studies have shown the health benefits of miso on humans and animals. Benefits include reduced risks of breast, lung, prostate, and colon cancer, and protection from radiation. Researchers have found that consuming one bowl of miso soup per day, as do most residents of Japan, can drastically lower the risks of breast cancer.
  • Miso has a very alkalizing effect on the body and strengthens the immune system to combat infection. Its high antioxidant levels of vitamin E, amino acids, saponin and lipofuscin gives it anti-aging properties.
  • Miso helps the body maintain nutritional balance. It is loaded with other nutrients along with its beneficial bacteria and enzymes. Miso provides protein, vitamin B12, vitamin B2, vitamin E, vitamin K, choline, linoleic acid, lecithin, and dietary fiber. It aids in digestion too. Its high content of the amino acid tryptophan makes miso a good choice right before bedtime. Tryptophan is nature’s sleep inducer.
  • Miso helps preserve skin beauty through its content of linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid that helps skin stay soft and free of pigment.
  • Miso is a good choice for women with menopausal complaints because it is able to fill estrogen receptors and produce some of the actions of estrogen in the body.

 

Where does it come from?

It is said that miso was brought from China or the Korean Peninsula, its method for making originated from the application of a fermented spice made from ground fish, meat and salt, and a type of fermented soybeans and millet in the 7th century. However it is also said that Japan’s warm and humid weather created the existing miso at the time. Although miso-like food was found from remains from the Jomon Period, the early authentic literature on miso was released during the Heian Period.

 

Umm for Umami

Many have wondered what makes miso so umami? Similar to savoring a piece of parmesan cheese, a sizzling T-bone steak and perfectly ripe tomatoes, miso does evoke some of these irresistible savory appeal and a complex robust flavour sensation making us wanting more. Before this trip, I knew of the existence of white and red miso and mainly the commercially available ones with hurried fermentation. During this trip, I learnt that little bit more about Japanese miso and the traditional art of making miso. Miso is created from soybeans (or, sometimes, other beans), grain—usually rice or barley—and salt. To activate fermentation a koji (starter) is added, usually one that includes a mold called Aspergillus oryzae. Koji is a type of fungus which secretes deigestive enzymes. The aminolysis of soy protein and fat is largely due to the Koji. When the ingredients are mixed with Koji, they are called mame-koji for mame-miso, kome-koji for kome-miso and mugi-koji for mugi-miso. Although the Koji mould spores themselves disappear when they are mixed with water and salt, the digestive enzymes are still alive and the activity of the enzymes is the key point of miso making. Kome-koji is high in salt content. Shinshu-miso (kome-miso)contains 12-18% of salt whereas Hatcho Miso holds 9-12% only. Naturally made miso can go through a cycle of fermentation and aging that lasts as long as long as three years. We visited 3 artisanal miso places making different types of miso, namely shinshu miso (a type of yellow kome-rice malt miso), gujo miso (a kind of mame-soybean malt miso) and hatcho miso (mame-soybean malt miso), the rarest type that represents 0.2% of Japanese miso production.

 

Hatcho miso

Known for its distinctive acidic, astringent and bitter flavor, Hatcho Miso is made by the Hatcho Miso Company in Hatcho (Eighth street), to the west of Okazaki castle. Hatcho is the place where Hatcho Miso originated and it is “hatcho= eight cho”(cho is an old unit of length used in Japan to measure distance: one cho is equal to 108 metres) away from Okazaki castle where Tokugawa Ieyasu, who founded the Edo feudal government, lived.  In the Meiji era, Hatcho Miso became the daily choice of the Emperor of Japan. Produced using a long-established artisan technique, Hatcho Miso comprises just approximately 0.2% of the total volume of miso produced in Japan. Hatcho Miso is famous for the same reason that Okazaki is famous: Tokugawa Ieyasu, stone products, and fireworks.

It’s an all-soybean miso, which is about medium on the sweet/strength/saltiness scale, and is a good general purpose miso. With a long fermentation process, it has a reduced water content compared to other types of miso. It is easy to digest due to the aminolysis of the soy protein and is high in vitamins and minerals. Most importantly, it is a natural food since neither food additives nor pasteurisation is used.  Koji mould in miso needs carbohydrates, the right temperature and enzymes. Summer in the Tokai area(the middle part of Japan) is hot and the hot weather accelerates koji mould fermentation very quickly in kome (rice)-miso or mugi (barley)-miso. Thus Hatcho Miso developed mame (beans)-miso which contains less carbohydrates and tolerates the hot weather much better. It was Tokugawa Ieyasu’s favourite and his armies were supplied with hatcho miso because it has a longer shelf life due to its reduced water content. It also has been taken on Japanese expeditions to the South Pole.

Kakukyu Hatcho Miso (〒444-0923 69, Oukan-dori, Aza, Hatcho-cho, Okazaki-shi, Aichi, Japan)

Based on traditional techniques, Kakukyu has been providing hatcho miso with its long history and traditional flavor handed down for 19 generations since 1645. The Hatcho is located on the banks of the Yahagi River, as it was easy to transport soybeans and sea salt there. Also Hatcho is the best place where high-quality springwater is easily accessible from the granitoid ground in Okazaki and is endowed with the right temperature and suitable humidity in order to make Hatcho Miso. Yahagi soybeans or Nanbu soybeans (Touhoku) and Aiba salt (Kira at the mouth of Yahagi River) were mainly used back then, however currently the ingredients are from all over the nation such as soybeans from Hokkaido and sea salt from.

During the olden days, salt, Yoshino cedar for miso vats  and river stones for piling on miso were transported by ship. Half a shipful of salt was unloaded  and the rest were carried to Asuke at the upper reaches of the Yahagi River. The salt was transported on foot or by horse from there to Shiojiri along a road called “shio no michi (The road of salt)”. Then the empty ship was loaded with a lot of river stones and brought them back to Hatcho.  It was paid for by miso as a replacement for money and the ship owner left a certain amount of miso for himself and sold the rest in Osaka or Edo.

 

Kakukya Hatcho miso

Kakukyu has been providing hatcho miso with its long history and traditional flavor handed down for 19 generations since 1645. The buildings have old tile roofs and the buildings here have been around for five centuries.

 

Hatcho miso plant

Kakukya Hatcho Miso Premises is a mix of old and new buidings

 

The original store preserved

A replica of the original store where hatcho miso was sold and the place where hatcho miso was also made in the back rooms.

 

170 year old Hatcho miso vat

This vat barrel in the museum is 170 years old, 180 cm wide. Vats are decided by expert craftsmen whether are ok and can be used. Mostly about 100 years.

 

Making Hatcho Miso

Firstly, the carefully-selected soybeans are immersed in water and are left to soak up moisture in moderate amounts depending on the temperature, humidity and actual state of the basic ingredients. This process is one of the crucial elements in producing miso and significantly influences the quality of the final product. Following this, the soybeans are steamed with hot vapor for 2 hours and left in the closed cooker overnight. We were told it is this process that gives hatcho miso its deep, cocoa brown colour and characteristic smoky flavour. The koji mold [Aspergillus oryzae]  is added to the surface of the beans, and the soybeans are left to ferment. Next, salt and water are added to the fermented soybeans and thoroughly blended together, after which the mixture is laid into a wooden vat large enough to hold 6 tons of miso. The miso is left to slowly mature over a period spanning more than two years.

Protein within the miso break down whilst inside the wooden casks, enabling it to transform into miso. Then, as the miso continues to ferment, amino acid starts to crystallize and white grains known as ‘millet grains’ (so named due to their resemblance to millets) start beginning to appear. When the millet grains start to surface, it is a sign that the miso has matured, and this can be likened to the crystallization of amino acids in cheese that has been matured over long periods. Throughout this lengthy period of maturing, the salt harmonizes with the miso, giving it a mellow saltiness.

 

In the museum, wax figures show how hatcho miso was made. Before the beans get to the casks, they go through a process of sorting, washing, steaming, drying, and cooling. Once cooked, workers mould the beans into baseball-sized balls and inject koji spores. The spores web around the sphere and lactic-acid producing bacteria work into the core. These vaccinated balls go into the vats with water and sea salt. To make Hatcho-miso less water and salt are used than other brands, so the fermentation takes longer. Then the miso is carried into a big cedar vat and beaten out. After putting 6 tonnes of miso in a vat, cover the top with a linen cloth and 15-20 of thin and long wooden boards are to be placed as a lid. 

In the museum, wax figures show how hatcho miso was made. Before the beans get to the casks, they go through a process of sorting, washing, steaming, drying, and cooling. Once cooked, workers mould the beans into baseball-sized balls and inject koji spores. The spores web around the sphere and lactic-acid producing bacteria work into the core. These vaccinated balls go into the vats with water and sea salt. To make Hatcho-miso less water and salt are used than other brands, so the fermentation takes longer.

 

Then the miso is carried into a big cedar vat and beaten out. After putting 6 tonnes of miso in a vat, cover the top with a linen cloth and 15-20 of thin and long wooden boards are to be placed as a lid. The 3 tonnes of river stones would be laid in a pyramid shaped by expert stone layers.

 

Kakukya has 10 storehouses altogether on its premises. These store houses are 80 years old. Typically there are about 100 vats in each of these store houses.

Kakukya has 10 storehouses altogether on its premises. These store houses are 80 years old. Typically there are about 100 vats in each of these store houses. Altogether Kakukya has 500 vats, all labeled with numbers. It takes an expert to check on a yearly basis when to retire the vats.

 

The most difficult job in the production line goes to the stone-layers. Once in the barrels, the beans are covered with a cloth tarp. The stone-layers must create a stone cone pyramid of 3 tonnes. This process is still done by hand. The pyramid like river stones are not merely piled up randomly. It is carefully-calculated not to collapse. The stones are piled up by making the outside higher and putting pressure on the centre. This structure operates similar to stone walls of old Japanese castles and can withstand earthquakes with a seismic intensity of 3 or 4. It requires 10 years of experience to pile up stones in a good shape. The reason why one big stone of 3 tonnes cannot be used is because there would be deviations to one side or the other. This shape puts an equal amount of pressure over the paste to keep the moisture separating from the solids, maintaining product quality throughout the entire tub.

 

Hatcho miso vats

When one enters the Kakukyu storehouse one will find rows of traditional large wooden casks, which are used to prepare miso. One by one, craftsmen place by hand large quantities of stone on top of the wooden casks so that they act as weights. In the past these stones have never collapsed, even in the event of large earthquakes. Under the weight and pressure of three tons of river rocks, 6 tons of Hatcho miso is left to slowly mature throughout the hot, humid summers and relatively mild winters of Hatchocho.

 

How this works is the extreme pressure of the stones on the dry miso creates a low oxygen environment that encourages the growth of Hatcho’s special type of micro-organisms. Over the centuries, a particular strain of Aspergillus, known as Aspergillus hatcho, has made its home in the cracks and crevices of the old seasoned vats and throughout the fermentation rooms seen here.

 

Aged buildings, with timber sides and supports, house the original Edo-period cedar wood barrels used to store the soybeans during the fermentation period; they looked like car-size replicas of grape-crushing vats, held together by bamboo strapping on the left and iron on the right. The beans ferment in these vats for almost three years in the un-airconditioned environment. Nothing is added in the way of preservatives or chemicals, they just use the identical time-honoured process.

Aged buildings, with timber sides and supports, house the original Edo-period cedar wood barrels used to store the soybeans during the fermentation period; they looked like car-size replicas of grape-crushing vats, held together by bamboo strapping on the left and iron on the right. The beans ferment in these vats for almost three years in the un-airconditioned environment. Nothing is added in the way of preservatives or chemicals, they just use the identical time-honoured process.

 

A farm aroma wafts around the building—a mixture of a sweet scent, like wet hay, and the smell of ocean breezes. Occasionally, there would be drippings of a black liquid at the side of the vats. And this is tamari, a byproduct of the fermentation process of miso. During the production of Hatchō Miso, the microbial communities already living inside the factories begin to operate and exert their influence on the miso's flavor. They pay meticulous care not to destroy this microbial environment and continue to produce Hatcho Miso.

A farm aroma wafts around the building—a mixture of a sweet scent, like wet hay, and the smell of ocean breezes. Occasionally, there would be drippings of a black liquid at the side of the vats. And this is tamari, a byproduct of the fermentation process of miso. During the production of Hatchō Miso, the microbial communities already living inside the factories begin to operate and exert their influence on the miso’s flavor. They pay meticulous care not to destroy this microbial environment and continue to produce Hatcho Miso.

 

The empty miso vats with bits of miso stuck to prevent the wood vats from drying out.

Empty miso vat with a bit of miso stuck (the small blackish lumps) to it Nowadays almost all of the production process is done by machine though the miso vats used currently are about 100 years old. At the back of the miso vat, there are some letters which indicate the name of person(s) who made it and the year it was made. There are some reasons why the 100-year-old vats are still used. The first one is due to the live microorganism called Aspergillus. This microorganism lives over centuries and creates a unique Hatcho Miso flavour. Vats are not washed until the next time miso is carried into it. If the vats are washed right after, they immediately dry and become loose. Thus miso sits a little bit on the surface of used vats.

 

Kakukya has also moved with the times. The packaging of the "Black Gold" is done in a relatively clean room and automated. As can be seen from the packaging, the hatcho miso is really dark in colour with a brick like texture due to the long fermentation process and very little water added. The Hatcho miso are not pastuerized.

Kakukya has also moved with the times. The packaging of the “Black Gold” is done in a relatively clean room and automated. As can be seen from the packaging, the hatcho miso is really dark in colour with a brick like texture due to the long fermentation process and very little water added. The Hatcho miso are not pastuerized.

 

One way of enjoying hatcho miso, is mixed together with pieces of konnyaku. Seen here the miso is rich dark colour. This is typical of hatcho miso. The main element that decides the colour is "Maillard Chemistry". This is a non-enzymatic browning reaction and happens when sugar molecules and amino acids are heated together. The degree of Maillard Chemistry depends on ingredients and the method of production, but generally the more the reaction happens, the more brown miso becomes. Therefore, mame-miso is usually a dark colour and needs longer time to ferment. Hatcho Miso turns brownish as a result of steamed soybeans. Apparently, steaming soybeans is much more nutritional than boiling them. 

One way of enjoying hatcho miso, is mixed together with pieces of konnyaku. Seen here the miso is rich dark colour. This is typical of hatcho miso. The main element that decides the colour is “Maillard Chemistry”. This is a non-enzymatic browning reaction and happens when sugar molecules and amino acids are heated together. The degree of Maillard Chemistry depends on ingredients and the method of production, but generally the more the reaction happens, the more brown miso becomes. Therefore, mame-miso is usually a dark colour and needs longer time to ferment. Hatcho Miso turns brownish as a result of steamed soybeans. Apparently, steaming soybeans is much more nutritional than boiling them.

 

Today, the traditional Yahagi blend is not sold. Every year, this blend is presented to the shrine for worship activities. Most of what is sold are of the Hokkaido soybean blend. The miso is rich dark, full bodied, intense in flavour, almost alcoholic. It is also less sweet taking on the qualities of a fine bottle of aged whisky. I personally quite like this blend as it exudes a lot of character and is a testament to true craftsmanship, the process was done the obeying traditional method of making miso dating back 400 years ago.

 

Kakukyu Hatcho Miso

Hatcho miso in traditional packaging for the gifting market. Hatcho miso is also known as mamemiso. This category includes the richest, darkest (red) and deepest-flavored miso. It is best paired with strong flavored foods like meat and root vegetables. Hatcho miso is also less salty compared to other forms of mame miso. Hatcho miso is a cultural artifact, and, more than most Japanese foods, is the authentic taste of old Japan.The exacting ancient process gives this miso its savory aroma, mellow sweetness, and astringent flavor.

 

Hatcho miso with udon

Taishoan Kamahalu: 100 year old instituiton serving freshly handmade Nagoya style udon. The special taste of hatcho miso created by the long fermentation period is a crucial ingredient for the local food in the Tokai area such as “Miso-nikomi Udon (udon noodle simmered with miso)” This is a very popular winter comfort meal . One interesting thing to note is the udon was pratically hard as they prefer it not overcooked. But I think it was just a little too al dente.

Gujo miso

Produced specifically in Gujo Hachiman, is a type of mame-miso known as Gujo miso. Apparently, it is also called jimiso which means local miso, meaning that every household who makes it, makes it slightly different. However, to be classified as mame miso, it should not detract too much from using only soybeans and mame-soybean malt and the length of fermentation is at least 1 year.

 

Gujo Hachiman

Gujo Hachiman is a small, riverside town in Gifu Prefecture, known for its pristine waterways and its distinctive summer dance festival. The town was founded in the 16th century following the construction of Hachiman Castle. Gujo’s waterways function in much the same capacity as they did in the 1600s. Walking through the “old post”town provides visitors with a look at the many canals, fountains and waterways that are still used for washing rice, vegetables and laundry.

Daikokuya (Honmachi, Gujo Hachiman, Gifu Ken, 501-4216)

Anywhere you visit in Japan, you will find regional types of miso paste produced by long-established family-run businesses using traditional methods and one must-have ingredient—the micro-organism that dwells in miso makers’ old wooden buildings. Daikokuya is well known for its homemade miso made from local grown soybeans and fresh water. This is a family run business started 70 years ago right in this charismatic old town.

 

Gujo miso

Daikokuya shopfront with a retail shop and the operations for making gujo miso at the back of the shop

 

If you look closely to the picture hanging on the wall in the photo below, you can see the texture of gujo jimiso. It is pretty watery due to the higher water content added and very different from the brick like dark red Hatcho miso produced. Gujo jimiso has more salt added and hence requires a longer time to reach maturity compared to shiro miso. Daikokuya ferments miso for at least 1.5 years. The colour of gujo jimiso is dark red in colour due to its prolonged fermentation process. The gujo jimiso is not blended and the whole soybeans can be seen in the miso. It actually reminded me very much of the salty “taucheo” by the Chinese known as the salty preserved soy beans.

 

Gujo miso

Miso products with all the different variations in sizes, innovative new products like miso infused snacks are sold here. Daikokuya makes their own tamari to be sold.

 

Meet 37 year old Hiroyuki san, a very unlikely looking gujo miso master, he took over the family business of making gujo miso at 25 years old. He learnt the craft of making traditional gujo miso from his grandfather who started the business 70 years ago.

Meet 37 year old Hiroyuki san, a very unlikely looking gujo miso master, he took over the family business of making gujo miso at 25 years old. He learnt the craft of making traditional gujo miso from his grandfather who started the business 70 years ago. If you notice on his shirt, it is written gujojimiso, the ji means local, it is gujo locally made miso. Totally loved the T shirt and the cool looking demeanor of our gujo miso master. We heard from him his story about his youth. Like every guy that grew up in a small little town, he aspired to work in the big city. After graduating with a polytechnic type of diploma, he worked in Tokyo for a good number of years. As he grew older and more mature, he wanted to do something different, something that would be meaningful instead of working long hours climbing the corporate ladder. Kudos to the next generation of artisan craftsmen of wanting to keep the traditional art of miso making alive! Being young and more tech savvy, he sells his products online and have them delivered to anywhere in Japan.

 

The wooden vats used by Daikokuya are about 70 to 100 years old too. When Hiroyuki san’s grandfather started the business 70 years ago, these vats were bought from elsewhere. At Daikokuya, he has about 10 vats. Each vat holds 1 tonne of soybean mix, a far cry from the 6 tonnes that Kakukya’s vats hold. The method of production of gujo jimiso is that of mame-miso and it is quite similar to that of hatcho miso as detailed above. The only difference is the salt added and the water amount used. Gujo jimiso uses the soybean malt method as well. He explained to us to that it takes him 1 week to do 200-300 kg of miso so technically, each vat requires at least 4 weeks to fill up before he seals it for fermentation. Increasingly, these barrels will be retired due to hygiene concerns by the health authority. He has started using plastic vats with covers due to new government regulations. Today, only Hatcho miso artisan makers are approved to use the cedar vats for their natural maturation process due to the uniqueness of the process and the relatively low oxygen and water used. The special Aspergillus Hatcho mold cannot be replicated in other places thus far.

 

Gujo miso wood vats

According to Hiroyuki san, these barrels were bought from elsewhere when his grandfather started the business. Each barrel takes about 1 tonne, which is significantly less than the 6 tonnes Kakukya Hatcho miso uses. This is a cottage business. He shared with us how the temperatures would soar high in the summer months rendering it not suitable to make miso. He works from October to June every year.

 

Besides making miso, Daikokuya also brews tamari and mirin. Previously, when I was doing research on gluten free, in an attempt to find a substitute for soy sauce which almost always contain gluten, I chanced upon tamari and had always assume it is gluten free soy sauce with a fancy name. I have learnt that tamari is specifically Japanese soy sauce and it is in actual fact a by product of miso production. It is the liquid piled up on top of miso during fermentation as can be seen in the below picture.

The tamari is great to use for dipping of sashimi. It is very rich, complex and thick. It had the characteristics of aged balsamico vinegar, with sourish notes.

 

A lot more water is added to gujo miso compared to hatcho miso

One interesting thing I discovered is that, while soy sauce is “brewed” or fermented as a specific product, tamari is actually a by product of miso production. Miso ages into a thick paste while the tamari is the liquid that gathers in the vat as miso ages or matures, sort of in the same way that whey runs off cheese as it is pressed. The word tamari is actually loosely translated as “puddle” since it puddles up during miso production! Tamari is a bit thicker and darker in color than Chinese made soy sauce. Flavorwise, it is smoother and less salty than soy sauce.

 

Tamari's history dates back to 7th century AD, when it was brought to Japan from China. It has been known since ancient times that cooked and fermented soybeans will produce a tasty, dark red paste, which the Japanese call miso. During the miso ripening process, a protein-rich liquid accumulates. This liquid was given the name tamari, or "that which accumulates." Tamari is the origin of Japanese soy sauce.

Tamari’s history dates back to 7th century AD, when it was brought to Japan from China. It has been known since ancient times that cooked and fermented soybeans will produce a tasty, dark red paste, which the Japanese call miso. During the miso ripening process, a protein-rich liquid accumulates. This liquid was given the name tamari, or “that which accumulates.” Tamari is the origin of Japanese soy sauce.

 

Hoba-miso

We found these interesting packs at Daikokuya. This was in fact miso wrapped in hoba leaves. Hoba is the leaf of the Japanese magnolia. The large leaves of the ho tree (a type of magnolia) have antibacterial properties, and in this area are used to wrap portions of sushi or mochi rice cakes. Dried, the leaves are used to prepare hoba miso.

This is a speciality of the Takayama area. The custom originated as a way to thaw out pickles that were frozen solid in the depth of winter. Apparently, water in Takayama area is hard, so it is unfit for miso soup. Hence the locals thought of a way to enjoy miso without the soup. Chopped negi (green onion), mushrooms and wild plants are mixed and seasoned with miso on a hoba and they are broiled. Now miso soup has been served in any ryokans and restaurants by using water filter, but hoba-miso remains a local favourite dish.

 

Hoba miso

Hoba miso: Savory miso paste is mixed with leek, shiitake mushroom, pickles, or other ingredients, placed on a dried leaf, then heated over a charcoal fire.

 

Gujo miso

No visit would be complete with the sampling of the miso soup made from gujo jimiso. It was dark and intense and had sourish salty notes thanks to its long maturation process. We bought a lot of stuff from here as I totally believe in supporting small businesses like his who is trying his best to follow his heart and making miso the age old way and not succumbing to pressures of making it cheaper and faster.

Shinshu miso

Miso is a local traditional seasoning that represents the Shinshu region, the former name of Nagano Prefecture, which produces Japan’s largest volume of the fermented soybean paste. Glossy and golden yellow, the nutritious seasoning made of soybeans, malted rice and salt has been valued by locals as a source of energy since long ago. It is a very popular variety of miso with residents from Tokyo as told to me by my interpreter, Rie san as compared to gujo miso and hatcho miso. Shinshu miso is a form of kome miso using rice malt rather than soybean malt. It however can be full bodied in taste like that of hatcho miso with a 2 year fermentation process achieving a dark red colour too as seen in the pictures to follow.

 

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto is the second largest city in Nagano Prefecture. It is most famous for Matsumotojo, one of Japan’s most beautiful original castles. The Nagano Prefecture where Matsumoto is included is the top producer of miso (46%) in Japan. Matsumoto has the perfect climate for making miso as it is surrounded by the Japanese Alps, and therefore has clear and dry air. The water is also pure, and it is thawed water from Japanese Alps which irrigates the rice fields
Marusho Brewing Co., Ltd. (Yubinbango390-0826 Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture Degawa cho 7-7)

 

Hayashi san’s grandfather started the business 120 years ago in 1895, and since its inception, the brewery is proud to continue making shinshu miso the traditional way using carefully selected raw materials. He explained what makes Nagano perfect was the purity of the water and air in Nagano, and it being at a fairly high altitude being surrounded by mountains thus having cold winters, warm summers, excellent spring and fall weather.

Here, rice malt is mainly used for the fermentation. However, we have learnt Hayashi san is a pretty innovative person using buckwheat malt mixing in with the rice malt to create new types of miso via varying the ratios used.  A wide variety of kome-rice malted miso is sold here, ranging from those that are 6-8 months, 1 year and the highly priced 2 year old miso  and among these, the reddish and strong-flavored shinshu miso is used widely in most households.  Walking around his shop, you can see that he is very creative with miso filled doriyaki, miso pan (breads), miso donuts and a variety of miso coated rice snacks and nuts. I loved the azumino miso rice crackers that he sells.  In summer, he even makes miso ice cream! He makes a wide variety of miso based sauces for cooking and salad dressings too. 

 

Shinsu miso

“Marusho” is a well-established producer which takes pride in its business for 120 years, has built a reputation for its uncompromised work of producing Miso, and has a large number of fans throughout Japan.

 

Shinhu miso master brewer Hayashi san

Meet Hayashi san, 3rd generation shinshu miso brewer of Marusho explaining to us about the different types of shinshu miso he sells in store, ranging from 6-8 months fermentation to one as long as 2 years old. From this picture, we can see the colour difference of the miso from lightest to darkest at the furthest end. We also were given samples to try as he explained to us the difference in the ratio of soybeans to malted rice. Those that are typically 6-8 months old, have a ration of 1:1 for soybeans to rice malt. And those darker red ones have a ratio of 1 to 0.5. This could be attributed to his love and dedication to miso. He started working in the business after graduating from university when he was 24 years old.

 

Shinsu miso from Matsumoto

Shinsu miso from Matsumoto. It is favored for its pale color and light taste.  It is fermented slightly longer than white miso, yellow miso ranges from light yellow to light brown, and is adaptable to most cooking applications, from soups to glazes.

 

Shinsu miso

After knowing that little bit more about miso since I have visited Kakukya and Daikokuya, I was eager to know what is the difference between his miso and that of the other two places we visited. Kome miso using rice malt has a sweeter taste and tends to be lighter, explained our host. The most expensive miso he has at his store is selling for 1500 yen per kg and the range is from 500 yen onwards per kg.

 

With a vocational training in mechanical engineering, it was no surprise when we toured his miso making facilities. It was pretty automated in the process from the steaming of the soybeans until the addition into the vats for fermentation. He shared with us that in the 1970s, was when he started to introduce machines and slowly automating the system. He too has changed to using plastic vats due to government regulations which prohibit making of miso in wood vats for safety reasons.

Shinsu miso

Hiyashi san embraces technology. It may not be state of the art, but it definitely makes the back breaking work of steaming the soy beans, filling the vats easier.

 

Shinsu miso

The soybean mixed with the kome koji ready for fermentation and aging. Salt water has already been added to this.

 

Shinsu miso

Hiyashi san, singlehandedly climbed up the ladder and got us some samples to try. Definitely we all should be taking more miso! The mix is pretty pale and yellow in colour here. Whether the soybeans have been steamed or boiled, makes a difference on the colour of the miso. We tasted this, and it was just salty!

 

Shinsu miso

Shinshu miso is a golden yellow, all-purpose variety with a mellow flavor and rather high salt content.

 

Summary

Indeed, I feel truly privileged to actually learn so much from the master brewers themselves about the art to making miso, the commitment to make the best miso as how they have been taught and to also continuously innovate on new products using miso to keep up with the trends and habits. Hayashi san, also has an online store and does delivery to homes and other businesses. I never realised that there is so much art that goes into miso making with the variances of the malt used, the fermentation periods and even the adaptation to the regions where they are produced.

Generally, good miso is expensive. Like good yoghurt, it is a living food, full of enzymes, micronutrients and active cultures. Since pasteurization kills any beneficial microorganisms (and some taste) along with undesirable ones, it’s best to buy unpasteurized miso. Organic, traditionally made Japanese misos are ideal and worth the money. Miso must be stored in the refrigerator, where it will keep for months. Maybe years. To keep it from spoiling, always use a clean spoon when you remove it from the container.

The color can be a fairly good indicator of the strength of flavor, age and saltiness of the miso. Generally speaking, the lighter in miso color, the sweeter (less salty) it is. Light colored misos are also younger than dark colored ones in general. The longer a miso is aged, the deeper in flavor it gets, though it can get bitter if aged too long. Commercially available miso is usually aged from 3-6 months to 2 years.

Besides miso soup, there have been many new innovative ways of having miso, like as miso butter, miso mayo, as marinade for grilling vegetables and meats. Go forth and explore! As a general rule of thumb, the white miso or sweet miso which has a milder and more delicate flavour, is great for soups, dressings and light sauces for salads, seafood and even mashed potatoes and probably best not for prolonged cooking. Yellow or shinshu miso which is fermented longer is more adaptable to most cooking applications from soups to glazes. The red miso or aka miso which is generally stronger, is best used for rich soups, braises and marinades. As the taste can be overwhelming, it is best to use sparingly.

Daio Wasabi farm | All about real fresh wasabi

All about real fresh wasabi

The global vogue for all things wasabi have seen products such as wasabi peas, wasabi popcorn, wasabi seaweed snacks, wasabi hummus and dips hit the shelves and becoming popular. However, maybe not many of us, know that all these years, the wasabi used in these products, the pasty green stuff that gets mixed in with the soy sauce which causes teary eyes, is actually not wasabi but horseradish. What we are being served on our platter of sushi is in fact a mix of horseradish, mustard, a little food colouring that have been reconstituted with water from a powder form. The likelihood of having ever tried the real thing outside of Japan is slim to none. If you look at the tube of paste or tin of powder that is claimed to be “wasabi” at the supermarket, you’ll find it will likely state on the packaging that it comes from Japan.

 

Daio Wasabi Farm

Wasabia japonica, is very rare. Even in its native Japan, demand constantly outstrips supply, and it’s expensive to import and notoriously tricky to grow. Wasabi is a member of the Brassicaceae family, which includes cabbages, horseradish and mustard. This very pungent green fleshed root is used grated as a condiment, particularly to accompany sushi. Its hotness is more akin to that of a hot mustard than the capsaicin in a chili pepper, producing vapours that stimulate the nasal passages more than the tongue. Its flavor is extremely perishable. Real wasabi is crammed full of potassium, calcium and vitamin C.

 

So what is the real deal?

Real wasabi (Wasabia japonica, or Japanese horseradish) is native to Japan, where it has been cultivated for at least a thousand years. It is extremely difficult to cultivate and the plant will not grow outside of Japan as it grows only in clear running water in high altitudes above 1000m. Another issue is that it takes 2 years for a single plant to reach maturity. These factors combine to make the cost of real Wasabi at up to $200 per Kg, far too expensive for the average restaurant or sushi lover. For these reasons, genuine wasabi is expensive and is rarely seen outside of Japan. The wasabi has a lot of spicy relatives. It’s a member of the Brassicaceae family, along with broccoli, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, mustard, and (European) horseradish. And it’s the European horseradish that we normally get with our sushi platters, ground into a nose-tingling paste, with an added dash of mustard and a splash of green food coloring. Wasabi and European horseradish are similar in the taste and pungency but wasabi is hotter and greener. A prime constituent of both is the sinus-zapping allyl isothiocyanate, where the heat is felt in the trigeminal nerve near the nose rather than in the back of the throat.

 

What is the difference then between wasabi and horseradish?

For one thing, the ingredients of real wasabi are volatile. The real wasabi stems lose potency 15 minutes after grating. Horseradish, on the other hand, stays hot for hours. Real wasabi has a more refined hotness, a sweet after-taste and is not nearly so bright a green as horseradish. Real wasabi starts to lose its flavor just minutes after grinding. It can’t be stored long enough to get it to supermarkets or home kitchens in paste form, and most people don’t know how to grind wasabi roots, which can makes it hard to get the right amount of wasabi into their dishes.

 

Why use horseradish?

Horseradish solves all of these problems. Horseradish becomes a good substitute with the right flavour profile and the most convenient way to capture that heat is to buy “wasabi” paste in a metal or plastic tube—one that won’t retain any air, which hastens the loss of flavor. The paste can be stored in the refrigerator with a shelf life of a few months. Wasabi powder will keep in its tin in a cool, dark place for several months too. As such, today, horseradish from Japan is exported as wasabi in the paste and powder format mixed with a little mustard, cornflour and food colouring.

Being able to get your hands on real wasabi would be a treat but the truth is, real wasabi is rare outside of Japan. Hence the product we most often use isn’t real wasabi—but it probably is the flavour we know and love. Wasabi paste today is used to compliment sushi, sashimi, and other Japanese dishes like soba noodles and added to salad dressings or even tempura batter. You can stir it into ketchup, mayonnaise, or guacamole for a hot spread or a spicy dip, or whisk it into soy sauce or  make a marinade for beef.

We had the privilege of visiting a real wasabi farm in Nagano and it further deepened my understanding why real wasabi is so rare hence so expensive and hardly available outside of Japan.

Daio Wasabi farm (3640 Hotaka, Azumino, Nagano Prefecture 399-8303, Japan)

Daio Wasabi Farm is 155,000 sqm in size and it is the largest wasabi farm in Japan, producing 130 tonnes a year, 1/10 of the total Japanese production. The idyllic scene of old-fashioned, wooden water wheels alongside the river at the Daio Wasabi farm in rural Azumino City in Nagano just made wasabi that little more special. The farm has multiple large fields with a meticulously maintained network of small streams that constantly provides each wasabi plant with clear, flowing water from the Northern Alps. Only under such pristine conditions is wasabi cultivation possible. The farm is spread out over a wide area, with a restaurant, small shrines and shops linked by winding paths. It’s very peaceful and picturesque place to walk around. The whole area is surrounded by the stunning snow capped Japanese Alps. We were hosted by Wasabi Master Shigetoshi san, who is also the Chief Storyteller and Farmguide. I must say, our wasabi master is one hip and charming man that reminded me very much of Richard Gere.

 

Daio Wasabi Farm

An idyllic scene of old-fashioned, wooden water wheels alongside the river can also be enjoyed from the walking trails. The water wheels were constructed here for the filming of Kurosawa Akira’s “Dreams” in 1989 and have been left standing. Only pure pristine  mountain water flowing at a constant temperature may be used in the culture of wasabi. Daio Wasabi Farm cultivates wasabi plants using crystal clear snow-melt from the northern Japanese Alps.  The temperature of the water of Daio Wasabi Farm is kept 13℃ all year.

 

Daio Wasabi Farm

Outside of Japan, the site is best known for its appearance in the 1990 film Dreams by world famous director Akira Kurosawa in the segment called “Village of the Watermills”. Just next to the waterwill, is a huge piece of rock/stone. According to our host Shigetoshi san, it was on this stone, Director Kurosawa san sat to direct the film and where he would call out “ACTION!” Today it is known as  Kurosowa stone or the Dream stone paying respect to the great director.

 

Daio Wasabi Farm

An old picture taken in 1917. According to Wasabi Master, the farm was previously a nashi pear farm. Due to constant flooding, it was converted to a wasabi farm. This place was just not suitable for other types of vegetables. It took 240 people to help built the dykes around the farm in winter. The farmers would be working elsewhere to grow vegetables and only were free to help in winter.

 

Daio Wasabi Farm

There are row upon row of flooded gravel beds with the cold clear water slowly moving through them, which is what the wasabi needs to grow. Wasabi growing is backbreaking work. It needs a constant temperature, so it has to be located at a certain altitude (well over 1,000 metres in some cases) as extreme heat and cold are not welcome. From May to October, the fields are protected from the sun by black mesh nets.

 

Daio Wasabi Farm

Above the plants about 1.5m high is black mesh net. Fields need constant care during the two years it takes for roots to be mature. The whole field is covered with a black mesh net to protect it from too much exposure to the sun. These nets are stretched over the field only when it is directly under the path of the sun.

 

Daio Wasabi Farm

The Three Musketeers (Me, Junko and Rie) all ready to descend onto the wasabi fields, suited in our Wellington boots!

 

Daio Wasabi Farm

Wasabi plants growing on the highly manicured artificial stream beds, where rows of rocks are made into mounds, like soil would be for most other crops. Between the rows of rock is a constant stream of fresh clear water that comes down from the Alps.  On each mound two wasabi plants are planted one on each side closest to the water.

 

Daio Wasabi Farm

Me seen here in action with Wasabi Master. The plant is very strong. It takes a lot of effort to actually pull the whole plant out . The plant itself consists of the rhizome or root and clusters of long stemmed heart like leaves. After 2 years the wasabi plant matures to almost one metre in height, root, stems and leaves included. Subsidiary plants will grow from the bottom of the main large root. These will be cut out to be replanted. The large root will be harvested for the wasabi paste. The stems will be pickled in Japanese sake to  become “Wasabi Tsuke”, a delicacy one can use to season his/her bowl of freshly steamed rice.

 

Daio Wasabi Farm

Like ginger, turmeric, and galangal, the part of the wasabi plant with widespread culinary use is the rhizome, the horizontal plant stem that produces the roots of the plant.

 

Daio Wasabi Farm

After a brisk washing in lots of cold water, Wasabi Master deftly trims away the leaves (which are edible), cutting the rhizome just below the base stem and holds out a knobby, 3-inch-long, greenish, root-like object: the coveted wasabi rhizome.  The rhizome serves as storage for the plant’s nutrients and is where the flavors tend to be most concentrated.

 

Daio Wasabi Farm

Wasabi Master explained to me how the wasabi rhizome grows. The green stems on the top would slowly become the wasabi rhizome. This is why we can see the knobs on the rhizome. The knobs seen are where the stems used to be.

 

How To Grate Wasabi properly?

Daio Wasabi Farm

Wasabi on a metal oroshigane: It grates down to a sticky purée – more adhesive than horseradish.  Now, where do you grate the stem from? The pointed end or the stem end? Wasabi Master says usually after chopping the stems away, the root is first grated from the top stem end as it will hotter as you come closer to its pointed end nearer to the root.

 

Daio Wasabi Farm

Oroshiki grater made with shark skin: The traditional way to grate the wasabi root is on a wooden paddle covered with shark skin. There are two essential tips to getting the best possible experience from fresh wasabi paste: it has to be made fresh, and it must be grated to just the right texture. The importance of correct grating can’t be overstated. The prized flavour and incredible aroma of wasabi is created by ‘tearing apart’ the individual wasabi cells and mixing the ingredients within. This releases the volatile compounds and after giving the paste a few moments to rest and develop its flavour. To achieve just the right texture, a very fine grater is needed. Utensils such as cheese or Nutmeg graters just don’t do the job properly as they are too coarse and ‘slice’ rather than ‘grind and mix’. When grating, the wasabi is held at 45 degrees to the surface and grated in a circular motion as this achieves a good balance of grinding and mixing. The sharkskin surface with its teeth and nubs acts like a sandpaper to give a beautifully smooth texture to the fresh wasabi paste.

 

Daio Wasabi farm

A little pile of grated wasabi, a lovely, light shade of green. (It really is green; the color comes from chlorophyll, since despite its root-like appearance, the rhizome grows above ground.)  Wasabi master got us to try the different wasabi from the different graters. There was indeed a stark difference in terms of the sharpness.  He told us it was important to let grated wasabi rest for one to two minutes. This allows the wasabi’s flavor to develop; the flavor-producing compounds react following grating and exposure to the air. They’re extremely volatile, though – meaning that fresh wasabi loses its pungency and hot flavor in about 20 minutes. It must be eaten freshly grated! It’s strong and hot, but with no harshness and no lasting burn. Plus, it tastes green, herbal, distinctly plant-like; it’s a very clean, pure flavor.

 

Daio Wasabi Farm

Daio Wasabi Farm: I love how cool Wasabi Master is and the experience was certainly an unforgettable one.

Innovative ways to have wasabi

Daio Wasabi Farm

I had to try the wasabi ice cream while I was at the farm. It was one refreshing spicy ice cream!  I rather enjoyed my ice cream. It tasted lightly sweet with a plant like flavor. Towards the end, the wasabi flavour became stronger.

 

Daio Wasabi Farm

The unique item we had was a wasabi beer, yeap, wasabi beer with little shredds of wasabi in it. So how did it taste? HERBAL AND SPICY! Nasal clearing and really not my kinda of beer! It was however very innovative.

 

Daio Wasabi Farm

Wasabi juice was actually lime juice with wasabi paste ice cubes. The lime juice came through strongly with a little spiciness that is distinctive of the sweet mellow wasabi. The lemon and lime made it a really refreshing drink. I liked this!

 

Daio Wasabi Farm

Daio Wasabi Farm has a soba shop which serves fresh Wasabi related dishes. Soba is one of the main food in Nagano made with pure water from the Kitane Alps.  Chilled soba with fresh real wasabi is the best!

Souperchef Anna Travels | Taste Japan 2

by Souperchef Anna on

Takayama | Ryokan experience

Takayama is a city in the mountainous Hida region of Gifu Prefecture. To differentiate it from other places named Takayama, the city is also commonly referred to as Hida-Takayama. It has the nickname “Little Kyoto of Hida” as it has managed to retain a traditional touch especially in its beautifully preserved old town.

 

Takayama

As clear as the mirror on the wall, the stream of water runs through the Mie Prefecture in the island of Honshu in Japan. The Miyagawa River is the longest in Japan, best known for its breath-taking clarity and purity. Through old Takayama, the river is spanned by several small bridges including Kajibashi, Yanagibashi, Ikadabashi and the famous red Nakabashi. Numerous pools in the river are filled with giant gray and orange carp and ducks.

 

We were in awe when we first saw Takayama’s s Edo-period buildings with gorgeous dark wood timbers. Walking through the narrow streets made us feel like we have stepped back in time. Most of the buildings now house restaurants and souvenir shops, selling laquerware and other handicrafts, as well as Sarubobo dolls.

 

Takayama

Takayama’s old town has been beautifully preserved with many buildings and whole streets of houses dating from the Edo Period (1600-1868), when the city thrived as a wealthy town of merchants. The southern half of the old town, especially the Sannomachi Street, survives in a particularly pretty state with many old homes, shops, coffee houses and sake breweries,


Takayama

The pride of Takayama is the beautifully, preserved old town area, where merchant and private houses are said to be constructed dating back the Edo Period.


Sake Brewery in Takayama

Sake is one of Takayama’s local specialties. Several old sake breweries can be found in Takayama’s old town, recognized by sugidama (balls made of cedar branches) hung over their entrances. Small samples of sake can be purchased at some breweries.

 

Running north to south along an esplanade lined with tree, there are thirteen temples and five shrines here. This area is known as Higashiyama Teramachi. Every temple or shrine has interesting buildings and many have fine statues and other treasured art objects. By visiting Higashiyama Teramachi you will fully understand why Takayama is called “little Kyoto”.

 

Takayama

Takayama

Higashiyama Teramachi. One of the temples found along the route.


Takayama

The gate at Higashihonganji Betsuin (branch) Temple.


Takayama

Fujii Art Gallery: This storehouse, built entirely with Japanese cypress in the Edo Manryu style, houses a collection of 2,500 historical art and craft items amassed by Dr. Fujii, who resided in Takayama. Of particular interest are a set of Hina dolls (for the March doll festival) made over 270 years ago (in the early 18th century) known as the Kyoho Hina, and scrolls painted by artists such as Taikan Yokoyama and the monk Ikkyu.

Takayama

 

Jinya-mae Market in front of the Takayama Jinya

The Jinya-mae market started more than 300 years ago. The origin of the market started with silk raising farmers who sold leaves of mulberry trees and even today only farmers are allowed to open stalls. Most stalls sell fresh green vegetables, dried foods, and homemade pickles. Unusual ingredients including sansho peppers and wild vegetables.

 

Takayama

Most stands sell local crafts, snacks and farm products such as vegetables, pickles and flowers.

Takayama

Takayama

Takayama

Takayama

Fresh shallots


Wild picked Sansho at the local market

Wild picked Sansho at the local market


Takayama

The merchants were very generous with samples, so it was a  good place to snack on pickled veggies and rice crackers.

 

Ryokan and our experience

Honjinhiranoya Kachoan (34, Honmachi 1-chome, Takayama-city, Gifu, Japan 506-0011)

It was our first time staying in a ryokan and we were treated to such warm hospitality and truly felt like royalty. A stay at Ryokan should definitely be on everyone’s list – even if only for one night. It gives you a chance to experience Japanese culture, hospitality, and cuisine at its best.

A ryokan  is a traditional Japanese inn that is quite similar to the Western B&B. This style of accommodation dates back to the Edo period that stretched from 1603 to 1868 when Japan was ruled by the shoguns of the Tokugawa family. Back then, ryokans served travellers along Japan’s highways. These days, you will find ryokans mostly in scenic areas outside of the big cities and away from their skyscrapers and neon lights. They are especially popular in areas that feature onsen or natural hot springs.

The ryokan was started by Eroki san’s father 42 years ago. It is 2015 Travelers’ Choice by Tripadvisor. Seeing the accolade it got, we had high expectations and definitely did not disappoint.  The experience we had was a surreal one. Eroki san was a souperb landlady and host. Gracious, elegant and very knowledgable. Her staff greeted us by our names and we were giving a loud “gong” welcome on arrival.

 

Takayama

Rooms are constructed using traditional Japanese methods – this means an entrance room for changing out of our shoes and into slippers, sliding doors, which are called fusuma in Japanese, a tea table and set, and of course, tatami flooring with a futon bed. To ensure that we remain comfortable, we changed into a yukata, a traditional Japanese robe.


Takayama

When we went out for our dinner in a private room, the staff came and lay out the futon bed for us. Indeed we felt like royalty.

 

Ethics of bathing in an onsen

This is my first time in an onsen too. I was lucky I had my hosts with me and they brought me to the onsen and shared with the dos and donts.Indeed it was a mind blowing experience when I was explained what each of the steps are.

In the Ryokan, bathing areas are communal (male and female separate) and consist of a handful of showers – to be taken while seated on the stool provided – and a hot bathing pool. You have to shower before you go in the bathtub, and even showering takes on a completely new definition. You are actually cleansing your body, making it as pure as possible, getting rid of all the daily bad energies. You sit on tiny stool, and start washing yourself, while looking at the mirror, making sure you don’t miss a spot, while a small wood bucket is filled with water. When you finish, you get the bucket and empty it above your head, repeating the process until you are ready, and soap free to get yourself in the bathtub filled with very hot water, and relax.

 

Takayama

In most ryokans, these hot baths are fed by a local onsen. Most ryokan feature a variety of both indoor and outdoor baths, which are communal and separated by gender. No bathing suit allowed here. And you are not allowed to bring a towel into the hot bath. But you are allowed to wrap a towel over your head or place it over your face. As can be seen here, the tiny stool to sit on while taking a shower.

 

Kaiseki ryōri

For dinner, we had an elaborate meal  known as kaiseki ryōri, and it features multiple courses prepared in a variety of cooking methods. Food meets art in this traditional Japanese meal, as our chef did his best to balance the appearance, taste, texture, and color of the various dishes.

 

Takayama

Our private dining room all set.

 

The theme for our dinner was Hida beef, multiple courses featuring it in different manner to showcase its versatility from appetizers, to salads, to hot pots and grills. Hida beef is Takayama’s Kobe beef. This is beef from Japanese Black cattle raised to over 14 months of age within Gifu Prefecture and graded by the Japan Meat Grading Association with the yield rate class of A/B meat quality with grades from 5-3.

 

Takayama

Our multi course dinner featuring Hida Beef.

 

They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and the folks who run ryokans take that very seriously, as they serve up a multi-course morning meal full of local and seasonal specialties. We were treated to a feast fit for an Emperor – salad, homemade tofu, eggs, seasonal veggies, an assortment of pickles, grilled river fish, and the obligatory bowls of rice or porridge and miso soup. All washed down with a good pot of tea.

 

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Hoba miso is a regional favorite – food seasoned with fermented soybean paste and grilled on magnolia leaves. Fallen leaves (dead leaves) from the magnolia tree are spread with miso and condiments such as green onions, leeks, edible wild plants and mushrooms such as shiitake and cooked over a clay stove (as seen below) know as shichirin. It is a local Hida regional dish that is eaten on top of rice. The reason why miso is eaten this way is because the water in Takayama area is hard, so it is unfit for miso soup. Instead of miso soup, the locals enjoy miso in another way, cooking miso without water and have it broiled.


Takayama

Eroki san’s son is a master of sake and today he runs the Funasaka Sake who makes one of the best sake in Takayama.

 

Till we meet again, Takayama!

Nagano | Traditional Shinano cuisine

Zenkoji Temple is the heart and soul of Nagano City. It is one of the most important and popular temples in Japan. It was founded in the 7th century and stores the first Buddhist statue ever to be brought into Japan when Buddhism was first introduced in the 6th century. Similar to the towns developed around castles, there are towns in Japan developed around the large temples or shrines. Called monzen-machi “temple towns”, they developed during the Edo Period, when pilgrimage became popular in Japan and were originally created to cater for pilgrims: restaurants, inns, local product stores. In Nagano, this is also the case along Daimon-cho. Lining the stone paved streets are storehouses and merchant houses “machiya” reminiscent of the romantic Taisho era.

Zenkoji Monzensaryo Yayoiza (503,Daimon-cho,Nagano,380-0841)

Here, is where we experienced traditional heritage Nagano/Shinano cuisine. Situated in a remodeled 160-year old ‘machiya’ townhouse, Yayoiza serves Nagano’s heritage cuisine using locally sourced, seasonal ingredients including ‘Shojin’ Buddhist vegetarian meals exemplary of Zenkoji Temple. We were told that the restaurant used to be shop selling tatami mats and it was built after the Zenkoji earthquake in 1847. The “machiya” townhouses are unique with high ceilings, thick beams.

 

Traditional Shinano cuisine

Traditional Shinano cuisine served at the Yayoiza housed in a 160 year old remodeled “machiya”.

 

Traditional Shinano cuisine

The traditional dining room in Yayoiza

 

 

Yayoiza emphasizes on using Shinshu ingredients incorporating as many seasonal ingredients into their menu. Although serving traditional cuisine, the food here is creative and has clean flavours. According to Kumiko san, the landlady, the delicious food is healthy and made according to Shinshu traditions reminiscent of the Yayoi Era.

teamed dishes using wood framed trays made of Sawara Cypress from the Kiso Valley.

The pancake-like ‘usu-yaki’ made with soba (buckwheat flour) and seasoned with miso is Yayoiza’s signature dish.

 

Traditional Shinano cuisine

Traditional Shinano cuisine: Our menu for the evening written out beautifully in rice paper

 

I was in awe when the dishes were served one after another. Beautifully presented, clean in flavours. Deep rooted in tradition yet so wonderfully creative.

 

Traditional Shinano cuisine

Traditional Shinano cuisine: A trio of appetizers: Peeled poached tomatoes stuffed with beancurd with a bonito consomme jelly, broccoli and prawns. Smoked duck with gourd. Grilled peppers. THe tomato was WOW! 10/10 for me.

 

Traditional Shinano Cuisine

A cold chawanmushi dish served with an okra sauce. I think there are health benefits from consuming this dish. Okra is a thick, gluey substance that lubricates the large intestine and helps with elimination. Okra’s fiber also feeds the gut’s beneficial bacteria (probiotics) and helps maintain the pH balance of your digestive tract.

Traditional Shinano cuisine

Traditional Shinano cuisine: Rustic Buckwheat flour pancakes in nori was wrapped with Shinshu miso and thinly sliced leek. This to me was the star of the evening! This is considered a traditional snack in Nagano. What was creative was the the little touch of broadbean stuffed with a fish paste and steamed.

 

Traditional Shinano cuisine

Traditional Shinano cuisine: Tempura Asparagus served with a wedge of lemon. Here, no sauce is given. Frankly, there was no need for it. The asparagus was absolutely divine, huge , sweet and tender! Also locally sourced, the flavours were really clean. Nagano is Japan’s 3rd largest producer of asparagus! I was also told tempura is a traditional must have after praying too.

 

Traditional Shinano cuisine

Traditional Shinano cuisine: The 30cm-square trays are loaded with freshly-picked locally sourced Nagano vegetables and placed over the steamer for a simple, healthy diet reminiscent of the Yayoi Era.The wood framed trays are made of Sawara Cypress from the Kiso Valley. The thin slices of Shinshu beef is paired with vermicelli, asparagus, and rice. We were given ponzu sauce for dipping but honestly it was not needed when everything was perfectly steamed and so fresh.

 

Traditional Shinano cuisine

It was a surprise when the landlady, Kumiko san, in perfect English asked whether I would like to pen down a few words for her restaurant. I was like ME? LOL! So my first ever well wishes being penned down. I felt honoured indeed. The experience we had, the food she served was nothing short of AMAZING!

 

Traditional Shinano cuisine

Traditional Shinano cuisine: Here my well wishes were displayed proudly by Kumiko san at the front of the restaurant together with those from the REAL CELEBRITIES!

 

 

This was indeed a wonderful Nagano experience, enjoying comfort foods traditionally eaten during the Yayoi Era. I really hoped to be back again someday to say hello and possibly learn how to cook from Kumiko san’s chef. Wishing her well in her dedication to traditional cultural cuisine of Nagano!

Sampuru | Replica food making experience

Whenever we go to a Japanese restaurant, the first thing we do is marvel at the fake food in the front window. My kids are very intrigued by them. So real, so fake, so detailed! Restaurants throughout Japan display these plastic food replicas as a sort of menu or in-the-street advertising. These replicas are a unique part of modern Japanese culture. On my first visit to Tokyo in 2007, I bought many of these little food replicas of sushi, tempura and even plastic mugs of frothy beer on a keychain as souvenirs for friends. I have always been fascinated with the art of sampuru (sample foods) and curious where did this tradition come from and how are these replica foods actually made.

 

Replica food

Replica food seen in a restaurant we visited . Everything looks so fresh in this bento box. It does showcase to tourists what we would expect to get for 1800 yen. It definitely helps us who could not read Japanese and the restaurant does not have an English menu. Sampuru are not cheap at all to make as the amount of detailing required. It can cost in the region of a few hundred dollars to have this box of replica food made.

 

An off the beaten track experience

I am souper stoked when I learnt that we will have the opportunity to visit Gujo Hachiman, the home of sampuru. The food replica-making industry in Gujo is the largest in the nation and over 60% of them are still made in Gujo Hachiman to this day! The father of food replicas – Takizo Iwasaki – was a native of this town, and it was here in 1917 that he had his critical epiphany. As the story goes, as a child, Takizo saw a drop of hot wax fall from a candle into a puddle of cold water and was struck when, upon touching the surface, the drop bloomed into the shape of a gorgeous flower! This image would stay with him and become his inspiration as he aimed to develop a realistic way to mimic the appearance of food. In 1932, he founded the company today known as Iwasaki Co. Back in those early days, wax was thus used as the replica material, but today modern technology has taken on a much greater role. Vinyl resin is currently the preferred ingredient, as it is both longer-lasting and more malleable than wax!

 

Gujo Hachiman

Takizo Iwasaki is credited with creating the first food sample early last century. Initially inspired by the shapes formed by candle wax dripping on a tatami mat, he subsequently molded a wax rice omelet in Gifu Prefecture in 1917.

 

Shokuhin Sample Kobo (956 Hashimotocho, Hachiman-cho, Gujo City, Gifu 501-4227)

Housed in a 150-year-old building, this food replica shop is one of the most popular destinations in Gujo Hachiman. When we entered the store,we were greeted by all these food replicas in the form of fridge magnets and keychains. They have cup ice cream replicas, sweet tarts, chocolate bars! Sample Kobo is the first food replica workshop in Japan for tourists and visitors and they have been doing so since 1991. I really like their motto, to create smiles of satisfaction and delight on customers’ faces. Carefully sculpted to look like real dishes, fake food actually makes you salivate. Today it is a recognised art form in Japan and handcrafted replica foods can cost a bomb for a full menu.

 

Sample Kobo

Sample Kobo

At the back of the store is the workshop where all the sample foods are made, and it is arranged so that customers can come into the room to catch a glimpse of the production process.

 

Sample Kobo

 In action, the making of spaghetti pomodoro food sample. It is getting very trendy these days to have the utensil suspended in the air and through this, we could see that it is actually held by a stiff wire. Katsuji san shared with us, to make the food as real as he could, he needs to do a lot of research, real pictures of the food in different angles and lighting so he can truly capture the “deliciousness” of the food. There is paint brushing involved to get the colour right. Each of the elements for the spaghetti pomodoro have to made separately before putting it together.

 

Sample Kobo

The almost real looking sampuru of spaghetti pomodoro with mushrooms. Though sample making is true handicraft with traditions, it is innovative too! As can be seen here, food replica artists are no longer restricted to foods in a bowl or plate, but creates replicas that freeze moments in time – such as a suspended fork over a plate of pasta or a bowl of ramen spilling over .

 

Sample Kobo

The hands on workshop area is very well equipped.

 

 

I was pretty excited to get started. We made tempura batter from yellow parrafin wax, using it to coat pre-prepared fake food items like shrimp, eggplant, peppers, and pumpkin slices. We created the koromo, or fried tempura coating, by dripping the wax from high above the water to achieve the crisp and crunchy look of the real thing. After that, we submerged the preformed coating under the water and wrap it around our chosen filling.  To make a prawn tempura replica, liquid wax is dripped in strings from a paper cup at a height of about 60 cm into water heated to about 40°C. The key point here is to drip the wax from that exact height to make the tempura batter.  Truly fascinating how it mimicked to almost 100%.

 

Sample Kobo

The wax spreads out unevenly on the water surface, turning into a bumpy sheet. Once formed into the right shape, we have a tempura replica that looks like it would be crisp and crunchy to eat. This was the hardest part, the dripping of the wax from the paper cup! I had the tendency to raise it to high. It must be perfect in order not to get too thick a batter around the shrimp and worse when it actually lacks the crunch and the crisp look. We were told to only half wrap our vegetables and to coat it lightly to mimic the real tempura vegetable where part of the vegetable used is exposed.

 

 

The  instructor also demonstrated how to make a lettuce before we took our turns. She started the process by ladling white wax onto a stainless steel bain marie with water at 40°C to form a puddle on the surface. Next, she made the puddle larger by adding another ladle of green wax on one side of the white before pushing the floating mass away to the far side of the bain marie. Here came the magic. Taking both sides of the white section between thumbs and forefingers, she pulled it slowly downward underwater and back towards her. As the wax was still warm, it stretched  to three or four times its original size. Lifting the delicate sheet of wax out of the water, she took the white part and scrunched it up to make into a ball. This was the core of the lettuce. Next,  she wrapped the green wax around to cover it, in a folding manner, alternating between left and right, until she had a complete lettuce.

 

Sample Kobo

A collage of pics of making the lettuce. This was one amazing experience. I just could not believe how real it was. The crunched up lettuce looked so fresh. The colour was perfect. I felt like a real artist !

 

 

After the replica making exercise, we bought a lot of souvenirs home. A particular one that I really loved has to be this one.

The beer looks so unreal! They had little bits of sytrofoam suspended in the sealed mug, and every time it gets turned, the "foam" would move! The edamame ! I wanna eat it too!

The beer looks so unreal! They had little bits of sytrofoam suspended in the sealed mug, and every time it gets turned, the “foam” would move! The edamame ! I wanna eat it too!

 

Gujo Hachiman highlights

We had the opportunity to walk around Gujo Hachiman and  thought I just share some highlights of this beautiful place. Gujo Hachiman offers visitors an authentic small town Japanese experience, where the traditional way of life has changed little over the years. It is a small historic and beautiful riverside town in the Gifu Prefecture that often gets overlooked by tourists. Often called “Little Kyoto” due to its many temples, it is possible to explore the quaint little town on foot without the large crowds of Kyoto. We visited Daikokuya Miso here too, an artisan mamemiso maker.

 

Gujo Hachiman

Here the traditional way of living is on a very human scale. People passing each other in the street still greet each other with a small bow, and exchange a passing greeting. The children were really cute seen here walking home after school in their rain boots, hats and umbrellas.

 

Gujo Hachiman

Gujo Hachiman is famous far and wide for the Gujo Odori Dance, one of the most famous traditional dance festivals in all of Japan dating back 400 years. Our host told us that for three days from 13/8 to 16/8, 10,000 people join in the all night long dancing. As the town is pretty small, most would come and sleep in their cars due to shortage of rooms. There are many quaint shops here and it truly seemed life is a standstill.

 

Gujo Hachiman

Riverside summer houses feature large semi-enclosed verandahs that overlook the Yoshida river. Designed to catch cool summer evening breezes, these houses are the perfect escape from summer heat, and many are still used today as summer residences and to escape the city on hot summer days. It is a mountainous region that sees a fair amount of snow in the winter months.

 

Gujo Hachiman

A stroll along the old streets and among the quaint town’s many temples and shrines is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon in Gifu. Sodecabe, or “sleeve walls”, are architectural features on the upper floor of many of the narrow closely spaced Edo period machiya houses in Gujo Hachiman. These dividers extend out from the edge of the house and down from under the roof. They form a privacy partition from the neighbouring house, provide additional fire protection, and support large heavy roofs, especially when laden with snow in winter.

 

Gujo Hachiman

There are many small canals lining the roads through-out Gujo Hachiman. These canals represent the strong bond that exists between the town and its clear water. They were originally constructed for fire-prevention purposes, but today are used by the locals in their daily lives. In a lot of these canals, we were really surprised to see see Japanese koi (carp) swim against the currents.

Tohoku | A humbling experience

When I got to know that we were suppose to cover Tohuku region specifically Miyagi and Sendai, I admit I was very apprehensive. Not that long ago in 2011, the great Tsunami destroyed a great part of Tohoku and caused a nuclear meltdown of the nuclear reactors in Fukushima. The government of Japan has declared the region safe and every day, the food source is monitored and tested for radioactivity.

I am glad we went. It was a humbling experience when we saw first hand after 4 years, how the people picked themselves up, to rebuild their lives, their homes, their communities. Some of the places that were completely engulfed and demolished are still in a state of restoration. I heard first hand accounts from business owners who had their factories destroyed, swept out to sea, many lives lost. They have so much tenacity and pride how they emerged from the disaster stronger. I can’t help but admire the strength of the human spirit. There was not an ounce of complaint or bitterness in time. The places near the coast were the most hit, especially the city of Ishinomaki where a lot of people, many who are in the fishing industry, lost their lives and still many are declared missing and unaccounted for.

Here is a collection of some of the places we went in Tohoku:

 

Shiogama Seafood Market

Shiogama Seafood Market

Shiogama Seafood Market: Every year, during the strawberry season, Thai tours flock here to enjoy the fresh seafood and strawberries in March to April. Everything here feels very reasonably priced. Shiogama also has the highest density of sushi restaurants in Japan, specialising in raw tuna (Maguro).

 

Shiogama Seafood Market

At the Shiogama Seafood Market, fresh tuna comes in boats everyday instead of frozen.

 

Sea urchin at Shiogama Seafood Market

Sea urchin at Shiogama Seafood Market

 

Kaisendon

A beautiful dish of the freshest raw fish served over rice

 

Takeda Sasa-kamboko

Takeshi san, the Executive Director shared his story of what happened on that faithful day in March 2011. His factory is actually located in Miyagi along the coast of Shiogama, one of the worst hit areas. They were able to clean up the factory quickly with the help of the residents. Everyone chipped in to get the business back in operations. He shared how he is so grateful and is paying it forward. They came up with new products to use octopus and source only locally from the fishermen around the factory. He wanted to help the fishermen and work with them so they can rebuild their lives. I was very touched with with how the Japanese people has such a strong sense of community.

 

Takeda Sasa-kamakobo

Takeshi san is the Executive Director at Takeda Sasa-kamakobo, a business making this popular snack gift selling something that we would call as fish cake, premium fish cake

 

Takeda Sasakamaboko

A gallery of pictures to showcase the state of the area after the tsunami and how they worked together as a community to get things back to normal

 

Takeda Sasakamaboko

Premium Sasakamaboko. These fish cakes are shaped like bamboo leaves. A piece sold here is 154 yen. In the supermarket, one can buy 8 pieces for 198 yen. Takeshi san takes pride in what he does, and uses good quality fish. He is very innovative and have flavours such as mentaiko, yuzu and even gyutan (beef tongue) .

 

Yamatoku Hiratsuka

Ryuichiro san, is the CEO of Yamatoku that processes saba caught and brought into the port of Ishinomaki. Ishinomaki is one of the worst hit area. I could see why. They are really just next to the big open sea, unsheltered. Whole buildings were destroyed and today if you visit, all the buildings are spanking new. All his equipment for processing fish were all destroyed. Thankfully, the government had played a part in helping businesses like Ryuichiro’s through special assistance funds to buy machineries and rebuild the factory.

 

Yamtoku

Standing proud outside his newly built factory, Ryuichiro san shared how the water engulfed the 2nd storey of his original factory, 14 m high. At that time, there was 35 people working in his factory and it was blessing that all survived.

 

Yamatoku

Factory premises of Yamatoku with new state of the art equipment

 

Yamatoku

Yamatoku’s saba products are exported to Singapore

 

 

We also had some wonderful food experiences in Sendai. Some highlights below :

Dateno Gyutan Honpo, Sendai

I have learnt from the chef at Dateno Gyutan that Gyutan has its origins in postwar Japan. Keishiro Sano, a yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurant owner, figured he could save money and make a new type of cuisine in the process by using the cow tongues and tails discarded by US occupation forces. The result, of course, was gyutan. He opened up Aji Tasuke to sell his new creation in 1948. The citizens of Sendai also thought it was a strange food at first, but they tried it and quickly got hooked.

 

Gyuten

 In Sendai, Tohoku region, it is a speciality. There are at least 10 restaurants selling gyutan at the train station and there is actually a Gyutan street called Gyutan Dori in Sendai showing how popular this delicacy is.

 

Gyuten

They use a special part of the tongue that is hidden inside the throat area and a special technique to draw the blood out so the tongue will not have the bloody taste.

 

Gyuten

Typically, it is lightly salted and grilled on charcoal.

 

Gyuten

Different feeds causes different fat content and I learnt that the Japanese people prefer marbly, soft cuts better. However, there is a growing trend of Japanese who prefers grass fed beef despite the fact the meat would be tougher. It is perceived to be healthier and less fatty.

 

Izakaya Experience in Sendai

Izakaya Shuhei is a popular local tavern in Sendai. On our last night in Japan, we went out for drinks with our hosts. Life goes on. It was a cheery atmosphere and who would have thought in 2011, something devastating happened and everything was in chaos not that long ago.

 

Izakaya bar

Izakaya bar Shuhei in Sendai

 

Izakaya bar

Izakaya bar: Cheery atmosphere

 

 

I am deeply blessed and humbled that our paths crossed in this trip to Tohoku. Tohoku needs our soupport. It has very beautiful countryside, mountains, lakes, hot springs, UNESCO registered Chusonji Temple, Kowai Farm in Iwate, the freshest seafood but most important of all, the biggest HEART!

 

Hearts together

Together united, there is no problem too big!

Cultural Highlights

Most of the time at the mention of Japan, what comes to mind are hot springs, sakura blossoms, Mount Fuji, Kyoto and Tokyo. Indeed, few step off the tourist path. But those who do, will be greatly rewarded. There are entire prefectures waiting to be explored bringing along with it, its own history, culture, religion and foods. This is the last of my instalment for SouperchefannatravelsxJapan journals where I would want to just highlight some of the places we have been which are culturally important and helped me in my soup inspiration journey.

 

Shinto and Buddhism-a medley

Most Japanese people observe rites of the native Shinto religion and those of Buddhism. Many Japanese people regard the religious practices of Japan as part of the nation’s culture, rather than a matter of individual belief or faith. We had the privilege of visiting a shrine and a temple during our visit and I have journalled the highlights below.

Chusonji Temple ( Koromonoseki-202 Hiraizumi, Nishiiwai District, Iwate Prefecture 029-4102, Japan)

Hiraizumi’s most famous attraction, Chusonji is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, representing the Buddhist Pure Land since 2011. This place sees 80,000 visitors a year with 20,000 being foreigners and surprisingly 90% of these foreigners come from Taiwan. There is actually a direct flight from Taiwan to the nearby airport.  We were hosted by the chief monk, Shinso san, a well mannered educated young who speaks English and have studied in Europe. He comes from a family of monks, his grandfather and his father both served at Chusonji Temple.

 

Chusonji Temple

Chusonji Temple: at the main hall, the Hondo with our host, Shinso san, a 3rd generation monk who hosted us to a personal tour of the temple premises, telling us about its history and its significance. I was educated here on the difference between a temple and a shrine, specifically we are not suppose to bow and clap our hands as what we would normally do if we were at a shrine.

 

 

Chusonji was established in 850 by the priest Ennin as a temple of the Tendai sect of Buddhism in Tohoku. The temple came to prominence when the northern branch of the Fujiwara clan moved their base to Hiraizumi. The reason for its existence was to console the souls of all those, whether friend or foe, who died in two major conflicts at the end of the 11th century. This was a period when Hiraizumi served as a sort of northern capital of Japan. It had a population of between 100K to 200K and it was one of the 3 major cities besides Kyoto and Dazaifu (Fukuoka today) It was a glorious culture using gold and silver flourished during this period, and was known as the Golden Culture of Hiraizumi, symbolizing the power of the Fujiwara clan who dominated Japan at the time. At its peak, the temple consisted of a large network of dozens of buildings. There were at least 100 halls housing 400 monks. But many were destroyed by fire in the 14th century. Today there are only 14 monks staying in its premises taking care of its day to day activities and prayer services.

 

Path to the Chusonji temple

A leisurely stroll through lush greenery up to the Tsukimi-zaka Slope entrance of Chusonji Temple. The path is lined with 300 to 400 year old cedar trees and made us feel in awe.

 

 

With the fall of the Fujiwara at the end of the 12th century, Chusonji suffered likewise so that now only two buildings from that era remain intact. Luckily, among these is the most spectacular, the Konjikido. Similar to Kyoto’s famous Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), Konjikido is a hall completely covered in gold. It dates back to 1124 and stands inside another building for protection. As photography is strictly prohibited in the halls, to see the grandeur of the hall, please visit the official website here.

 

Chusonji Temple

National treasure: The hall that houses Konjikidô (Golden Hall). The hall dates back to 1124 and is the only remaining example of a building from the Fujiwara-era at Chuson-ji. The mummified remains of the four generations of Fujiwara lords are located inside the hall. We were told by our host Shinsho san the last of the Fujiwara clan to be buried here, had only his head intact. We were told he was betrayed by his own trusted aide and his head was brought to the enemy for a collection of a bounty. Konjikidô is dedicated to Amida Nyorai (the Buddha of Infinite Light). Inside you’ll find a lot of golden statues, and mother of pearl and gold leaves were used for ornamental displays. It’s a really breathtaking sight. It is said to be one of the most beautiful and elaborately decorated buildings in the world! Apart from the roof the hall is covered with gold leaf both inside and out.

 

Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine (4-7-1 Saifu, Dazaifu-city, Fukuoka, 818-0195)

Dazaifu Tenmangu shrine is a Shinto shrine located about 15 km southeast of Fukuoka city. It is dedicated to the memory of Michizane Sugawara, also known as “the god of wisdom”. Michizane Sugawara (845-903) was a talented politician well versed in poetry and literature. But in 901, he was involved in a political battle and was demoted and transferred from Kyoto to Dazaifu, a remote area in Japan at the times. He died two years later. The Shrine was built on the site of his grave. Since the Middle Ages, this shrine had been worshiped as the god of learning, because he was an excellent scholar.

 

Entrance to the Dazaifu Shrine

Entrance to the Dazaifu Shrine: The streets are lined with bazaars selling souvenirs (samurai umbrellas, traditional Japanese masks, Hello Kitty in kimono!) and umegaemochi rice cakes, as well as bicycle rental shops and a Starbucks outlet with the funkiest architecture courtesy of Kengo Kuma and Associates: the coffee shop resembles an intricate needlework of wood. The path toward the shrine itself is marked by a torii (or “bird perch”) gate, meaning that one is entering a sacred world.

 

Umegae-mochi

Umegae-mochi, a mochi cake filled with sweet bean jam, is the local confection of this shrine and is in connection with the story of Tobiume. This was really yummy when eaten hot.

 

Dazaifu Shrine

An ox statue at Dazaifu Tenmangu. Legend has it that Michizane’s coffin was carried on an ox-pulled cart, and when the animal suddenly stopped and refused to move, it was taken as a sign – Michizane was buried on that particular spot. The statue is said to possess healing powers. If you stroke the head, you will become more intelligent. The Tenmangu Shrines are related to scholarship, many students would visit and rub its head and if you notice, the part of the horns and the face are a lot shinier than the other parts of the ox.

 

Dazaifu Shrine

Dazaifu Shrine Honden (Main Hall) built in the Momoyama Style (resplendent building style of the 16th century)

 

Dazaifu Shrine

Dazaifu Shrine: The plum tree standing on the right of the main hall is the legendary tobiume (flying plum tree), which according to legend flew from Kyoto to Dazaifu to accompany Michizane into exile. Tobiume is said to be over 1,000 years old. In early January each year, Tobiume is always the very first tree to blossom, and the thousands of other trees quickly follow, producing an incredible sight when the Tenmangu is coverd in small pink and white flowers.

 

Dazaifu Shrine

 Many Japanese are Shinto followers and is regarded as a way of life rather than a religion. There are a series of etiquettes to be followed when praying. One such belief is the placing of the five yen coin into the wooden offering box. The Japanese for “five yen,” go en (五円) is a homophone with go-en (御縁), “en” being a word for causal connection or relationship, and “go” being a respectful prefix. As a result, five-yen coins are commonly given as donations at Shinto shrines with the intention of establishing a good connection with the deity of the shrine.

 

National Cultural Treasures of Japan
A highlight of 2 national treasures we visited during our souperinspiration trip.

Matsumoto Castle (4-1 Marunouchi, Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture 390-0873)

Matsumoto Castle is the oldest castle in Japan still containing its original black painted, wooden keep (donjon) dating from 1595. The black color gave Matsumoto Castle its nickname “Karasujo” (Crow Castle) and the brooding, somber color was designed to sow fear in the hearts of any approaching attacker. Matsumoto Castle is built on flat ground and is thus classified as a hirajiro in Japanese (flat-land castle) and has a large moat and thick walls as a means of defense. Construction of the fortress that was to become Matsumoto Castle began under the Ogasawara clan in 1504 and was remodeled by Lord Kazumasa Ishikawa, a retainer of warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi, in the mid-1590’s. It is one of four castles designated as a National Treasure in Japan.

 

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle-a national treasure constructed more than 400 years ago. According to our host Teddy san, it  is the oldest castle in Japan. Looking at it, it has 5 floors but in actual fact it has six floors, including the obligatory hidden floor where the samurai soldiers rested and kept their food and powder supplies. The branches seen here are those of cherry blossoms and it would be a beautiful sight in spring.

 

Koiwai Farm (36-1 Maruyachi, Iwate-gun, Shizukuishi-cho 020-0507, Iwate Prefecture)

Koiwai farm is the biggest private farm in Japan, and is located 12 km northwest of Morioka city, Iwate. It is on the foot of Mount Iwate (2,038 meters high), and is about 3,000 hectares wide. It was established in 1891, and today its businesses are dairy, eggs production and the others, additionally it has a factory of dairy-products. In the farm, there is the sightseeing area named “Makiba-en”. where visitors can  meet cows and sheep, and get on a horse tramway.

 

Koiwai farm

Koiwai is a 3000-hectare ( 7400-acre ) private farm located scenically at the base of Mt. Iwate. It is a popular tourist destination, with about 750,000 visitors every year.

 

Koiwai farm

Koiwai farm: For most of us, the scenery of ranch farm is unfamiliar to the eye.

 

Koiwai farm

Koiwai farm: About 750,000 people visit Koiwai every year. A number of the farm buildings at Kamimaru Gyusha, such as the silos, the six cowsheds, and the head office, have been named National Tangible Cultural Properties.

 

Koiwai farm

Koiwai farm; We toured the grounds and were hosted by Yumi san who told us how she grew up on the farm as her father worked here too. She shared about her happy childhood memories. The premises of the farm housed a school  for the kids of the farm’s employees. We were able to learn about farm operations and its historical significance in Iwate agricultural economy by touring the grounds. The milk barn seen here was built in 1964 and today it is still in operation. These dairy cows are milked twice a day and each cow yields 30 kg of milk per day.

 

Koiwai farm

Koiwai farm: a young calf

 

Koiwai farm

Koiwai farm is most famous for its dairy products. These milk jars are only available here. It is the creamiest milk I ever had. The fresh milk sold here is pastuerized but not homogenised.

 

Koiwai farm

Koiwai farm: Another great reason to visit Koiwai is its food. We tried the rich, milky soft serve ice cream made with the farm’s fresh milk and eggs,  the fluffy omelet stuffed with rice, the beef stew and more.

 

 

 IT’S A WRAP!

The team photo

A capture of the moment at the end of our trip. From left: Kayano, Junko, myself, Rie, Ziqi and Andrew