Tasting Tohoku

Kaisendon, a seafood rice bowl topped with scallops, sea urchin, shrimp, salmon roe and tuna. — Pictures by CK Lim
Kaisendon, a seafood rice bowl topped with scallops, sea urchin, shrimp, salmon roe and tuna. — Pictures by CK Lim

AOMORI (Japan), Nov 11 — A map of flavours, of how a people eat, is a geography of the place they inhabit.

Some are better known to us: the Weißbier of Bavaria, drunk by the gallons during Oktoberfest; the asado barbecues of Argentina, fuelled by the country’s huge herds of cattle; nasi lemak and Nyonya kuih in Malaysia, enriched by santan (coconut milk).

What about lesser known locations though? Tohoku, the northern-most region of Japan’s island of Honshu, is a mystery to many outsiders. Rugged yet beautiful, with volcanoes and hot springs, pristine lakes and snowy slopes for skiing, Tohoku is a quiet marvel. But how do Tohokuans eat?

The best place to begin investigating is Aomori (the capital of the northernmost prefecture of the same name). Here seafood from the surrounding cold coastal waters is not only fresh but considered some of the best in the country.

To enjoy a wide variety of the ocean’s bounty, we usually order a kaisendon, a seafood rice bowl topped with raw delights such as hotate (scallops), uni (sea urchin), ebi (shrimp), akagai (ark shell), ikura (salmon roe) and maguro (tuna).

Ichigoni (“strawberry boil” in Japanese) is a Hachinohe specialty of sea urchins and abalone in broth.
Ichigoni (“strawberry boil” in Japanese) is a Hachinohe specialty of sea urchins and abalone in broth.

Aomori is especially famous for bluefin tuna (honmaguro) caught near the fishing town of Oma, located at the tip of Shimokita Peninsula. The honmaguro is considered the very best of Japanese tuna. These fetch hefty prices at fish markets such as Tsukiji in Tokyo; the record being 155 million yen (RM5.69 million) paid in 2013 for a single tuna!

Further south in the Aomori Prefecture, the city of Hachinohe offers its own take on the haul from the Pacific Ocean. Legend has it local fishermen used to dive deep off the Tanesashi Coast in search of uni and awabi (abalone). With the harsh chill, they would quickly dump these into a pot seasoned with little more than salt and shoyu (soy sauce).

Break open the raw egg yolk and mix it with the diced raw squid and salmon roe.
Break open the raw egg yolk and mix it with the diced raw squid and salmon roe.

The resulting broth is fresh and briny, the flavours of the sea urchin and abalone fillets melding in perfect umami harmony. They called the dish ichigoni (literally “strawberry boil” in Japanese) because the nuggets of sea urchin resemble wild strawberries when cooked.

We follow this with another Hachinohe delicacy, a rice bowl covered with diced raw squid (ika) and topped with a single raw egg yolk in its centre, ringed with glistening globules of ikura. We use our chopsticks to break the orange yolk and mix it all up — simplicity and sumptuousness in a single bowl!

A koppepan (stuffed bread roll) bakery in Morioka.
A koppepan (stuffed bread roll) bakery in Morioka.
Every individual order of koppepan is labelled with the name of the filling (left). Open up this koppepan to reveal a filling of rich chocolate and creamy peanut butter (right).
Every individual order of koppepan is labelled with the name of the filling (left). Open up this koppepan to reveal a filling of rich chocolate and creamy peanut butter (right).

In the eastern prefecture of Iwate, the city of Morioka specialises in koppepan, fluffy bread rolls filled with myriad fillings. Walk into a koppepan bakery, and you are presented with a multitude of options written on menu boards hanging over the counter. With over 60 types of toppings, from sweet to savoury, sometimes it’s easier to go with the tried-and-tested pairings such as adzuki (red bean paste) and butter.

Morioka Reimen, cold noodles served in a chilled beef broth, has a Korean influence.
Morioka Reimen, cold noodles served in a chilled beef broth, has a Korean influence.
A platter of different beef cuts in a yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurant (left). Grill it to your preferred level of doneness (right).
A platter of different beef cuts in a yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurant (left). Grill it to your preferred level of doneness (right).

Morioka is also known for a distinctive Korean influence in its cuisine, thanks to Korean immigrants to the city. One such staple is the Morioka Reimen, cold noodles served in a chilled beef broth and topped with kimchi, sliced beef, a slice of fruit such as pear and half a hard-boiled egg. Absolutely refreshing.

These are usually found in yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurants so we make sure not to miss out on premium beef, cooking the well-marbled slices of wagyu on top of the Korean-style grill plate. Another variation called barayaki, back in Aomori, uses meat from beef ribs that are cooked on teppanyaki griddle with plenty of sliced onions.

Fresh fruit abound in Tohoku’s western prefecture of Akita.
Fresh fruit abound in Tohoku’s western prefecture of Akita.
Kuri manju, a small cake filled with chestnut paste (left). Some of Akita’s seasonal best: persimmon, grapes and apple (right).
Kuri manju, a small cake filled with chestnut paste (left). Some of Akita’s seasonal best: persimmon, grapes and apple (right).

In Tohoku’s western prefecture of Akita, fruits reign supreme, especially seasonal fruits such as peaches, grapes and strawberries. Autumn is when kuri (Japanese chestnuts) are at their most plentiful. Many meals will end with a small cake filled with chestnut paste called kuri manju while the season lasts.

Another popular autumn fruit is kaki or persimmon. Eaten fresh, they have a delicate sweetness. Kaki is also dried by hanging them so they can be enjoyed beyond the fall months. The resulting dried fruit, called hoshigaki, is chewy and more intensely sweet. Lovely with a cup of hot green tea to take some of its saccharine edge off.

Shiokara or salted squid viscera (left). Pickled chrysanthemum petals (right).
Shiokara or salted squid viscera (left). Pickled chrysanthemum petals (right).

Another way of keeping fresh foods longer in Tohoku’s harsh climates is by fermenting. One fermented food that puts off many a foreign visitor is shiokara or salted squid viscera. Gooey and funky, it’s easy to understand why a non-Japanese might skip this. Taken with some local sake, however, we discover that shiokara (a popular drinking snack) is actually rather tasty, with champagne-like notes of amami (sweetness).

Even flowers can be preserved. Chrysanthemum petals are pickled and served as appetisers to a complete meal. Tasting more floral than tea-like, the colour of the flowers — vibrant yellows and purples — whets our appetite. These are fragrant accompaniments to some hot steamed rice; indeed we could dine on rice and pickles alone, that’s how good they are!

Crispy apple chips (left). Chunks of dehydrated apple encrusted with cinnamon sugar (right).
Crispy apple chips (left). Chunks of dehydrated apple encrusted with cinnamon sugar (right).
A slice of Hirosaki’s famous apple pie.
A slice of Hirosaki’s famous apple pie.

Returning north to Aomori, we discover a Tohoku specialty that requires less courage from wary diners. Aomori is Japan’s top apple-producing prefecture and there are a plethora of apple-based snacks such as apple chips or chunks of dehydrated apple encrusted with cinnamon sugar.

From what we observe though, everyone’s favourite way of preparing apples, aside from enjoying them raw, is in an apple pie. The pastry shells can be light and airy or thick like a crusty blanket; they are but a case — a showcase, as it were — for Japan’s best apples. The best apples are harvested in Hirosaki and they make a humongous pie called kyodai that can go up to 2 metres in diameter!

Ah, this is but a sampling of Tohoku’s many delicacies. There are other cities and prefectures that we’ve yet to visit — Yamagata for imoni (taro hotpot), Fukushima for Namie-yakisoba (pan-fried noodles from the town of Namie) and Miyagi for zunda-mochi (rice cakes covered with salty-sweet edamame paste).

The only solution, naturally, is to return to Tohoku some day for more adventures in eating!

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