When it comes to food in Japan, we all know the basics: Sushi. Ramen. Curry. Gyoza. But then there are all those regional variations and specialties unique to each prefecture, many of which have yet to make their mark on global menus.
Tohoku, the northernmost region of Honshu island, is particularly ripe for culinary exploration. Japan food expert Elizabeth Andoh is the author of the book “KIBO – Brimming with Hope,” a collection of recipes and stories from Tohoku.
It was published following the 2011 Japan earthquake, with portions of the proceeds donated to recovery efforts. Five years on, the beautiful mountainous region is welcoming visitors again, giving us more reason than ever to explore its cuisine.
The following KIBO excerpts highlight eight Japanese specialties that are popular in Tohoku. Entries have been edited for length.
1. Shiso maki: Walnut-miso stuffed shiso leaves
The Tohoku region is justly famous for its walnuts – large, meaty orbs that produce an incredibly rich, aromatic paste when roasted and crushed – and its miso – a full-bodied, red fermented soybean paste.
In this dish, the two local champions combine with toasted sesame to make an addictively tasty filling for shiso leaves. Some Tohoku chefs will add a spicy spark to the sweet-and-salty miso mixture by adding a pinch of fiery shichimi togarashi (seven-spice blend) to the filling.
In the summertime, when fresh shiso grows in abundance, nuggets of the nutty filling are wound in the herb’s aromatic leaves before being lightly seared in sesame oil. These stuffed leaves are terrific with an icy beer, chilled sake or hot green tea.
2. Hittsumi-jiru: Pinched noodle soup with pork
Hittsumi-jiru,a classic Tohoku comfort food, is a chunky chowder-like soup – the sort of fare served at happy community events. In local Iwate dialect, the word hittsumi means “to pinch” and describes how the noodles are made.
Some Tohoku cooks will pinch off bits of stretchy dough and add them to the soup directly, others will shape (and parboil) the pinched noodles, then add them to the soup shortly before serving. The direct-to-the-soup-from-the-start method creates soft noodles in a thick stew. As the pinched noodles cook, the flour thickens the broth.
Parboiled pinched noodles, on the other hand, tend to be firm and a bit chewy; the soup is more chowder-like, brimming with bits of vegetable and meat.
3. Harako meshi: Salmon rice topped with red caviar
Archaeological evidence dating back at least 5,000 years shows that the early inhabitants of Tohoku – the Jomon people – fished for salmon. The ancient coastline is dotted with inlets that today bear the names of well-known fishing ports: Ofunato, Rikuzentakata and Minamisanriku.
Salmon has always played an important role in Tohoku cuisine and harako meshi (literally “salmon child rice”) is a signature dish of the region. Often featured at family gatherings, every household seems to have its own rendition.
When presented as casual fare, the salmon is likely to be flaked and tossed into the rice as it steams for a final few moments. When divvied up, individual bowls are topped with a modest spoonful of salmon caviar.
On special occasions, though, many home cooks will present the dish on a large platter, garnished with slices of cooked salmon and clusters of caviar.
4. Kaki no dote nabe: Oysters-on-the-riverbank hot pot
Dote (riverbank) nabe (hotpot) is so named for the rich earth-colored miso that’s smeared around the rim of the pot. As the broth bubbles, the miso is drawn into the pot, little by little, flavoring and thickening the soup (think riverbank silt sliding into a stream after heavy rains).
Vegetables can simmer leisurely in the broth, waiting to be plucked out when each person is ready. The oysters, however, are best dipped briefly until just firmed a bit, then grazed along the rim to pick up extra miso.
5. Michinoku kokeshi bento: Fried tofu and mountain vegetable pilaf
Train stations throughout Japan sell boxed lunches, called ekiben, featuring local fare. Getting to sample these regional ekiben is one of the pleasures of domestic travel in Japan. Some ekiben come in special themed bento boxes; kokeshi ningyo-shaped ones are one example.
Stylized kokeshi dolls have been associated with the region, especially the Nambu district that includes the cities of Morioka and Hanamaki in Iwate Prefecture, for hundreds of years.
They were, and still are, one of the most popular souvenirs with visitors to the region’s famous hot spring resorts. Traditional dolls handcrafted by kijishi (woodcarving artisans skilled in lathe work) have become collectors’ items.
Packed into this kokeshi obento box is a rice dish cooked by a multistage method known as takikomi. Fried tofu and mountain vegetables are first cooked to create a flavorful broth, which is then used to cook the rice.
Takikomi dishes typically feature regional and seasonal ingredients. For instance, spring in Tohoku means an abundance of mountain vegetables, such as fern, bracken and tender young bamboo shoots.
6. Onigiri: Pressed rice “sandwiches”
Salted, pressed rice sandwiches – onigiri – are easy to pack up, transport and eat, making them a substantial, satisfying finger food. Most are shaped into triangles, though logs called tawara, or “rice sheath,” and balls are also common.
Plain, white rice stuffed (like a sandwich) with a filling is the norm, but maze gohan (cooked rice that has been tossed with other cooked foods) is also used in making onigiri.
Rice “sandwiches” are usually wrapped with strips of nori (laver), though onigiri are sometimes slathered with miso or brushed with soy sauce and grilled. These are called yaki onigiri, or grilled pressed-rice.
7. Matsu no mi shira ae, kaki utsuwa: Persimmons stuffed with fall fruits in pine nut tofu sauce
Many food cultures scoop out juicy melons and citrus fruits then serve the fruit, cut into bite-sized pieces, in the hollowed-out shell. In Japan, persimmons are used in a similar fashion.
The carved-out shell becomes an impressive cup in which the diced persimmon is served on its own or in combination with other fall fruits – grapes, pears, crisp apples – that have been doused with a classic sauce of pine nuts and tofu called shira ae.
To make the creamy sauce, some cooks merely mash tofu and season it with a drizzle of mirin (sweet rice wine) and a drop of usukuchi shoyu (light-colored soy sauce). Others will blend mashed tofu with sweet, pale miso or a spoonful of rich sesame paste.
In the Tohoku region, many cooks add toasted, crushed pine nuts to enhance their rendition of shira ae.
8. Shake no kobu maki: Salmon-stuffed kelp rolls
Kelp, rolled into neat diploma-like scrolls and tied with edible gourd ribbons, are enjoyed throughout Japan, especially during the New Year holidays. The classic Tohoku version stuffs the rolls with migaki nishin, a cured and dried herring.
They’re enjoyed as appetizers during the holidays in the Tohoku region, paired with celebratory sake, or served clustered together as a side dish at dinnertime.
Excerpts reprinted with permission from KIBO, by Elizabeth Andoh, copyright 2012, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Photography copyright 2012 by Aya Brackett.