From Sasebo Burgers to Okonomiyaki, Japanese cuisine is more than sushi and noodles

Oyaki grilling over smouldering coals in Nagano City

Oyaki grilling over smouldering coals in Nagano City, Japan

From Sasebo Burgers to Okonomiyaki, Japanese cuisine is more than sushi and noodles

20 October 2016

By Celia Plender

London-based food writer and anthropologist Celia Plender is the winner of the 2015 Yan-kit So Memorial Award, worth £2,500. Here she reflects on her 10-week trip to Japan in March 2016 to research a recipe book about regional Japanese cooking, which the Award supported.

Starting in Tokyo, she travelled all the way down to the sub-tropical islands of Okinawa and up to the chilly northernmost island of Hokkaido. She used her time to sample local specialities, visit producers and suppliers of regional goods and to gain insights into the geographical, cultural and political factors that have shaped local Japanese foods.

Along the way she stayed with old and new friends, in traditional inns and guesthouses, as well as hostels and business hotels. She had the opportunity to watch and learn from chefs, home cooks and cookery schools.

There are signs of regional food differences almost everywhere you go in Japan, and one of the joys of travelling by rail, as I often did, is the train station bento boxes [boxed meals] known as ekiben that showcase all sorts of local dishes and ingredients. Then there’s the multitude of local food-based souvenirs you find all over the country ranging from apple pies in Aomori, an area famous for the fruit, to Hokkaido’s high quality seafood and seaweed, or Sendai’s miso.

In some places there are also full-blown regional cuisines like Kyoto’s revered kyō-ryōri, renowned for its artistic presentation and highly refined preparation, or Okinawa’s ryūkyū ryōri, filled with tropical fruits, vegetables, herbs and nose to tail pork recipes.

There are also differences in the way that basic stocks are prepared in the East and West of Japan. The East favours stronger, soya sauce-rich soups, while the West’s broths and flavourings are much subtler.

Despite this, as I travelled around the country I often found myself wondering what exactly constituted regional Japanese food. This might sound like a strange question given the nature of my trip, but as I discovered, the answer is far from straightforward. And that’s why I find regional Japanese food so fascinating.

Ekiben from Tottori train station showcasing the beni zuwai crab that's abundant in the area

Ekiben [boxed meals sold on trains and at train stations] from Tottori train station showcasing the beni zuwai crab that’s abundant in the area

As with many industrialised countries, you can find the more familiar Japanese dishes like sushi, tempura, breaded and deep-fried tonkatsu pork and ramen noodle soup almost everywhere you go. But all of these can have regional twists.

There is a myriad of different types of sushi that vary in shape, style and toppings from place to place.

Ramen [wheat noodles in a broth] also comes with a range of different broths, fillings and seasonings. Hokkaido alone has at least five famous varieties of ramen associated with different cities – Sapporo (with a miso-based broth), Hakodate (a salty broth), Asahikawa (a soya sauce-based broth), Kushiro (a soya sauce and seafood broth) and Muroran (a curry-broth ramen).

Udon noodles are also associated with a few different cities, although most agree that Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku is the most renowned for these chewy wheat noodles.

Then there are regional dishes that are distinct to particular regions. For example, Hokkaido’s most famous dish is jingiskukan which is barbecued lamb or mutton cooked on a curved grill, which takes its name from the 13th century warrior and founder of the Mongol Empire Genghis Khan.

Head to the countryside in Japan and the cooking is much more rustic featuring soups and hotpots filled with local herbs and vegetables. In Gifu Prefecture in central Japan for example, locals grill meat and vegetables in miso on top of a magnolia leaf.

Hobamiso in Takayama, Gifu Prefecture

Hobamiso in Takayama, Gifu Prefecture

In more mountainous areas, buckwheat often features heavily as the grain grows well in cooler climes where the quality of the soil is not good enough for growing rice. One area which is particularly famous for this grain is Nagano in central Japan. Here I learned to make handmade Nagano-style soba [buckwheat noodles] and oyaki [stuffed dumplings].

Making soba noodles at the Tonkururin Soba Museum in Nagano Prefecture

Making soba noodles at the Tonkururin Soba Museum in Nagano Prefecture

Oyaki is a kind of buckwheat or wheat flour dumpling stuffed with anything from pickles made from local greens (nozawana), to seasonal vegetables with miso, to sweet adzuki bean paste (an).

Traditionally, these are pan-fried and then cooked on the dying embers of an irori – a kind of sunken hearth which used to be a standard feature of a Japanese home. Today, they are often fried or steamed instead, but at Ogawa no Sho in Nagano City, where I learned to make them, they are still cooked over coals. (See picture at the top of this story.)

This is one of the dishes that I haven’t stopped thinking about since returning home to England, so I have included a recipe below.

Learning to shape oyaki at Ogawa no Sho, Nagano City

Learning to shape oyaki at Ogawa no Sho, Nagano City

Hotchpotch of tradition and innovation

Thanks to a multitude of factors ranging from politics to modernisation, migration, geography and culture, regional food in Japan has become a hotchpotch of tradition and innovation, urban and rural influences, and adaptations of dishes from other countries.

One city that demonstrated the diversity of urban, regional food culture well for me on this trip was Osaka in the Kansai region of Japan where old meets new and there are also plenty of foreign influences. The city has the motto kuiadore – eat until you go bankrupt – and after a few days there I could understand why.

I spent my first day there exploring Osaka’s food culture with a Aria Aoyama, International PR Manager, from the Osaka Government Tourism Bureau who I met through the Japan National Tourism Organisation.

We visited a range of local shops, markets stalls and restaurants specialising in everything from udon noodles in broth with deep-fried tofu (kitsune udon), to pickled aubergine (mizunasu) to thick, savoury pancakes (Okonomiyaki) stuffed with all sorts of fillings and slathered in mayonnaise and sweet and salty Okonomiyaki sauce. All of these are local Osaka specialities.

Pickles at Kuromon Market, central Osaka

Pickles at Kuromon Market, central Osaka

Although Osaka is a modern city filled with neon, skyscrapers and backstreet stalls selling skewers of breaded and deep-fried meat, fish and vegetables (kushikatsu), it also has a long history and this is reflected in some of its dishes.

One retailer who takes particular pride in this is Junichi Doi, the fourth generation owner of Konbu Doi. The shop specialises in high quality kombu seaweed and katsuobushi – smoked, dried bonito fish, which are used together to make dashi stock.

Sitting on the tatami mats of a traditional room above the shop, Mr Doi explained to me that Osaka has been an important trading port in Japan for many years. It is through Osaka’s port that kombu first arrived in the area by boat from Hokkaido. Together with katsuobushi as dashi stock, kombu has been a fundamental part of Osaka’s cooking for more than 200 years.

Dashi is present in everything from the city’s haute-cuisine-style kappo dishes (literally meaning ‘food that is cut by knife and cooked by fire’ referring to traditional Japanese ceremonial dishes) to its famous octopus batter balls known as takoyaki.

Making takoyaki at a friend’s house in Osaka

Making takoyaki at a friend’s house in Osaka

Having talked us through the history, Mr Doi taught us to make the perfect dashi broth. He used equal quantities of kombu (that he had aged in the shop for several years like a fine wine) and katsuobushi. The result was a soothing, savoury broth good enough to drink on its own.

Learning about dashi with Mr Doi

Learning about dashi with Mr Doi

A more recent aspect of Osaka’s history that has also left a mark on its food culture is the influx of Korean immigrants that arrived during the industrial era of the 19th century. Today there is a large Koreatown in the Tsuruhashi area of Osaka which is home to many Korean barbecue restaurants, stalls shops, and supermarkets, as well as thousands of Korean people who reside in Japan.

Other foreign dishes have also come to be identified very strongly with Osaka. In particular, the Chinese-style steamed pork buns (nikuman) which are sold at the shop 551 Horai in Osaka. These are seen as a must-have food souvenir from the city. You can now find them pre-packaged at the airport and central train station ready to take home to friends and family.

But are these regional associations enough to call foods like Korean barbecue (yakiniku) or Chinese nikuman Osakan dishes? As a city with so many famous dishes to offer, they’re probably not going to be the first thing that comes to mind.

In other places though dishes absorbed from other countries have become synonymous with a city as the Sasebo Burger has. Sasebo is a small town with a big American Navy base on the western coast of Kyushu. The Sasebo Burger is a burger inspired by real burgers from the USA – giant burgers hand-made by cooks after they are offered. The most iconic dish on offer in Sasebo today are these Sasebo Burgers filled with a fried egg, beef patty, bacon, sliced tomato, onion and lettuce. These were learned from the local US naval base in the 1950s and refined and reworked by Japanese chefs over time until they came to be seen as a speciality of Sasebo.

Views over Shizuoka Prefecture from a tea plantation

Views over Shizuoka Prefecture from a tea plantation

During my 10 weeks in Japan I visited so many interesting places, tried a vast array of local dishes and ingredients, giving me all sorts of interesting insights into Japan’s rich food culture – both old and new.

Travelling much of the country by train gave me the chance to see how the landscape and climate changes from one end of Japan to the other, and how the food changes with it. I came across ingredients that thrive in a particular setting and stocks and soups that suit the warmer or colder climates.

Some of these regional dishes are even available in London these days, like tonkotsu ramen from Fukuoka in Kyushu which is popping up all over the capital. There are a few okonomiyaki restaurants around the city and you can even find Sasebo Burgers in Brixton now!

But many regional dishes are not on offer yet. I’m yet to find much Okinawan food here, for example, and I’ve never seen Oyaki [stuffed dumplings].

Many of the foods and the places I experienced were introduced to me by local residents who gave me their time, hospitality and help, for which I am truly grateful. Below is my recipe for Oyaki with sweet beans.

Oyaki at Ogawa no Sho, Nagano City

Oyaki at Ogawa no Sho, Nagano City

Oyaki with sweet beans recipe

In the absence of an open fire I have finished these in the oven. Oyaki make a lovely afternoon snack with a cup of tea.

Makes 5

For the filling

200g adzuki beans, soaked overnight

200g granulated sugar

Pinch of salt

For the dough

160g plain white flour, plus extra for dusting

40g buckwheat flour

1.5 tsp baking powder

Pinch of salt

140ml boiling water

Sunflower or vegetable oil, for frying

  1. Rinse the beans and place in a pan with enough cold water to cover. Bring to the boil, then strain and return to the pan with fresh water. Bring back to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer rapidly for around an hour and a half until the beans can be crushed between your fingers easily. Top the water up regularly as it boils away and skim off any scum.
  2. Drain off the majority of the cooking water, then add the sugar and simmer until it has melted and the mixture has reduced to a thick-ish paste (it will continue to stiffen as it cools). Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
  3. While the beans are cooling, mix the two kinds of flour and salt together for the dough, then gradually stir in the boiling water. One the dough is cool enough to handle knead until smooth on a very lightly floured work surface. Then cover with clingfilm and allow to rest for an hour.
  4. Preheat the oven to 180˚C, fan 160˚C, gas 4.
  5. Drizzle a little oil into a pan, then wipe with kitchen paper so the oil is evenly spread in a very thin layer. Heat a frying pan over a medium flame.
  6. Divide the dough into 5 evenly sized balls, then dust your hands with flour and flatten one of the balls into a thin disc. Spoon 2-3 dessertspoonfuls of the an paste into the centre. Use your hands to shape the dough around the bean paste, then pinch the top of the parcel closed and fold in the pinch marks to make a smooth ball.
  7. Place the oyaki in the frying pan and cook for a minute or two on each side over a medium flame until dark golden brown. Transfer to a baking tray, then repeat with the remaining dough.
  8. Once all the dumplings have been pan-fried transfer the tray to the oven and cook for 15 minutes until the dough looks cooked through and the dumplings are a little puffy. Turn over halfway through cooking.
  9. Leave the oyaki to stand for a few minutes before eating as the centres will be very hot.

Celia Plender, a PhD student and freelance food writer based in London, is the winner of the 2015 Yan-kit So Memorial Award for Food Writers on Asia. In the spring of 2016 she spent 10 weeks travelling the length of Japan to research regional Japanese food using the travel bursary she had been awarded.  The Yan-kit So Memorial Award for Food Writers on Asia was established in 2006 to assist first-time cookery writers who are interested in writing about Asian cuisine. Celia will be talking about her trip to Japan at Asia House on 16 November.

Celia Plender gave a talk and shared stories, photos and recipes from her trip at Asia House on Wednesday, 16 November. The talk was followed by a drinks reception and a food tasting prepared from Celia’s recipes. This event was generously sponsored by Paul Bloomfield Ltd, Paul Bloomfield’s catering company. For more information click here.

Celia will be cooking an Okinawan dinner at a supper club in London on the 9 and 10 December. If you missed Celia Plender’s event at Asia House, you can hear more about her and try her dishes at this event. For more information click here.