Rural scenery of Odate (2019)Original Source: Akita Tourism Guide
Rice is a staple food in Japan. Many Japanese people may find subconscious comfort in the aroma of Japanese rice, filled with a slight sweetness and ample moisture. Japanese people have been economically and emotionally connected to rice in a deep way since ancient times. In the past, rice was given as a land tax in place of money to people in authority, and the idea that seven gods reside in each grain of rice has been passed down through the centuries.
Rural scenery of Odate (2019)Original Source: Akita Tourism Guide
Akita Prefecture in particular is a famous place for rice production, with brands such as Akita Komachi and Hitomebore produced here. The flowing rivers from the beautiful forests of the Shirakami-Sanchi mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, bring water to the firm ground, toughened by the snow. Just as the prefectural name “Akita” (autumn rice fields) suggests, rice supports the lives of those who live in this prefecture, changing its form in a variety of foods.
Here is a scene of the prefecture’s namesake rice fields in autumn. The ears of the rice plants look just like waves of gold as they rustle in the wind, heavy with rice. Akita has the highest ratio of food self-sufficiency in Japan, with 192% of prefectural food needs produced locally. Let’s look at foods made from rice and sake production methods from the leading agricultural prefecture in Japan.
Akita rice diet: Tanpo
Tanpo is a food where rice, pounded to bring out its glutinous nature, is grilled on a cedar skewer. The sweetness of the rice is brought out in the gentle flavor. There are differing views on the origin of this food, with some saying it was originally an offering to the god of the mountains, and others saying it was a convenient and portable food for traditional mountain hunters and other people who secluded themselves in the mountains.
Akita rice diet: Kiritanpo
When asked what a typical local food from Akita was, many Japanese people would probably answer the same way: Kiritanpo. Actually, the “kiri” of kiritanpo means “cut”, meaning that kiritanpo is just a cut version of the tanpo introduced before. Regardless of how rich or poor a farmer may be, kiritanpo is an essential part of festivals celebrating the year’s harvest reaped by the farmers. Kiritanpo nabe, a kind of soup often made not just in winter but at New Year’s, the Bon festival, and when family returns home, originates in Odate, a city in northern Akita. The soup stock is made from hinai-jidori chicken, a local specialty.
A treasured flavor, combining newly-harvested rice and hinai-jidori chicken
The ingredients are very simple. Burdock, maitake mushrooms, scallions, water celery, and tanpo make up the ingredients found in the mountains, and these are combined with hinai-jidori chicken, with its trademark lean meat. The best season for this soup starts on September 20, as it is just when rice is freshly harvested, and as the weather changes, snow falls, and it becomes quite cold. This is why kiritanpo is often eaten from autumn all the way through winter.
How to make Kiritanpo Nabe
Step 1: pound the rice in a mortar
Local specialty Akita Komachi-brand rice is used, of course. This rice has a deep umami and sweetness, and still retains its crunchy texture even when pounded and mashed. Place the freshly-steamed rice into a mortar, and pound the rice until it is about 70% mashed. I’m surprised by how the rice gradually becomes harder and harder to pound. It’s important to pound the rice not just with your arms, but with your whole body.
Step 2: place rice on cedar skewers and mold into shape
Take about 100 g of the pounded rice, now formed into balls, and put it on a cedar skewer. Stretch the rice out in a downwards motion, while turning the skewer, and ensure that the thickness of the rice over the stick is even. Finally, smooth out the surface while applying salt water.
Step 3: grill while roasting over a charcoal fire
Tanpo used to be grilled over a hearth built into the floor. Nowadays, there is a special charcoal stove that can grill 30 tanpo skewers at once, and it is said that it was invented by a hardware shop owner in Odate. This is a useful tool for uniform grilling, as the skewers can be rotated while grilling. Using an electric stove causes the surface of the tanpo to dry out, but using a charcoal fire allows for a crunchy outside and a sticky, chewy inside – in other words, the perfect tanpo.
Step 4: place Kiritanpo into a pot to boil
The tanpo become kiritanpo when removed from skewers and cut. Place the kiritanpo in a pot filled with hinai-jidori chicken, vegetables, and a broth made from hinai-jidori chicken bones, salt, and soy sauce. The hinai-jidori chicken is perfect for soups, as the meat stays soft even when heated. Lastly, add the water celery without letting it boil, as it is important to maintain the aroma and texture of this mountain vegetable.
The harmonies in the combination of ingredients
Each ingredient’s distinct flavor is present in the perfect kiritanpo nabe. Take care to ensure that the best parts of each ingredient can come through. It’s important to keep the crunchy texture of the water celery, etc., and to bring out the rich flavor of the chicken.
Each bite is gentle, yet nostalgic
The flavor, which gradually fills your body, is light, even though a variety of ingredients are mixed in. Even with the kiritanpo, the flavor has a slight depth, and as you bite down, that flavor expands in your mouth together with the sweet aroma of the rice. Kiritanpo nabe is a food that will have you asking for seconds… or even thirds!
Akita rice diet: Miso Tanpo
The sweetness of rice and miso is enough to make for a satisfying treat. Miso Tanpo is made by applying sweet miso to a tanpo on a cedar skewer and grilling it to add a nice aroma. It’s a kind of snack in Akita loved by children on their way home from school and farmers taking a break. It seems that many new varieties have popped up recently, including one made with cheese. Why not try and find your favorite variety?
Akita rice diet: Doburoku
Rice is not just a food, but valued as a drink, as well. Doburoku is an unrefined traditional alcoholic drink made by fermenting rice, malted rice (a fermentation starter), and water. It is also known as moromi-shu and dakushu, and it has a distinctive cloudy consistency. The umami of the rice can be fully experienced as the flavor of the drink comes from simply fermented rice. Production of this drink is only allowed in an area known as the “Doburoku Special Area”.
The drink still contains some rice kernels that have kept their shape, and they flow into the cup when poured from a sake bottle. The rich aroma from the rice pairs well with kuma nabe (a soup made with bear meat). The alcohol percentage varies widely, as farmers and mountain hunters made doburoku on their own in the past. It is stronger than beer but weaker than sake. It is said that the custom of drinking doburoku was established when rice cultivation came to Japan, or in other words, sometime between the end of the Jomon Period (1000-300 BC) and the Yayoi Period (300 BC- 300 AD).
Akita rice diet: Rice Bowls
A bowl full of rice is enough to excite one’s appetite. But a bowl of grilled hinai-jidori chicken over rice, a local Odate delicacy, is not a food you see everywhere. Hinai-jidori chicken is particularly famous among the over 150 varieties and brands of chicken in Japan, and it has a sufficiently chewy texture as you might expect from the fact that this breed was created through the cross breeding of pheasant with hinai-dori, a slightly different chicken that is recognized as a so-called Natural Monument of Japan.
If you wish to try free-range or pasture-raised hinai-jidori chicken, then I’d recommend trying oyakodon, a dish made with egg, chicken, and rice. The hinai-jidori chicken meat, wrapped in the sticky cooked egg, has a deep flavor and ample umami. Taste and enjoy how well it pairs with the soft, yet firm rice below.