I grew up in a small town in Vermont where there were limited restaurants and definitely very limited “exotic” cuisines. I remember the first time that I went to a Japanese restaurant in New York City with my family. Eating with chopsticks? Fish that wasn’t cooked? Small, fuzzy green beans that were salty and delicious? I was completely enamored by this exciting new cuisine! I have to say I felt that same excitement when I had the chance to experience Japanese food in it’s home country.
- Bento Box
My first real Japanese meal didn’t come until I was on the bullet train, speeding from Tokyo up to a region in Northern Japan called Tohoku. My crew and I all got pre-packaged bento boxes, which is a totally normal lunch on the go in Japan. Yet to me, it was totally new and much different than my usual lunch of a salad or sandwich. I had a vegetarian bento box, neatly compartmentalized into sections of different types of veggies along with a healthy portion of rice. Each bite was completely unexpected–and most of the time, I wasn’t quite sure what vegetables I was eating, but it didn’t matter. I devoured the whole thing, enjoying each unique flavor as the Japanese countryside sped by my windows.
A typical social Japanese dinner out is had at the izakaya, or what was explained to me as a “Japaense gastropub.” We took off our shoes, sat around sunken tables and ordered what seemed to be an endless amount of small plates. These were all shared amongst the group. After our “kan pai,” the Japanese “cheers,” it was a free-for-all, everyone snagging little tastes from all the plates. I tried sausage and cheesy oysters, as well as chicken skewers and sashimi. Some dishes I had to come back to for more! Overall, this style of restaurant was a great introduction to the foods typical of Japan and the region of Tohoku.
At almost every meal, sashimi was included and this made me extremely happy as I’d never had sashimi that was more fresh. The tuna literally melted in my mouth. No matter where we were, if sashimi was on the menu, and being Japan, it often was, I had to order it.
Kiritanpo is a dish that is popular in Tohoku, particularly in the Akita prefecture. It definitely was the most memorable meal that I had in Japan. Kiritanpo is actually rice that is kneaded together to form a tube shape, then it is toasted by an open flame on a skewer. The rice sticks are then chopped and added to a hotpot, that’s been stewing with seasoning and vegetables. Just the sitting area was amazing–we sat on pillows surrounding this sandy pit that houses the hotpot, the toasting kiritanpo, roasting fish on sticks as well as a flat hot plate for searing vegetables, meats and fish. It was a very hands-on meal with everyone basically cooking for themselves. The kiritanpo was very satisfying, especially after it soaked up some of the juices from the broth, but it was very filling! With so much to try here, I left extremely full. Bring your appetite when you try it!
I already liked soba but I found a new appreciation for it in Tohoku. Soba was EVERYWHERE. In ice cream, in tea and even in competitive eating (wanko-soba). However, I liked it too much to want to slurp it down so fast at every meal. Soba is a thin buckwheat noodle that is served in a variety of ways. I often ordered it hot commonly served with a savory broth and scallions. Additions like fish cakes or pork can be added as well. It is also served cold on a bamboo tray with a variety of dipping sauces. My favorite soba dish was in the hot spring town of Ginzan-Onsen, where I had soba with roasted Japanese eggplant.
Of course, sake is one of the most popular alcoholic beverages in Japan and this rice wine is one of my personal favorites. I prefer the crisp and slightly flowery varieties. At a seafood restaurant in the Tohoku region, I was introduced to the custom of overflowing your sake cup. I ordered one cup of sake and it was served in a glass inside a small box. The waitress then poured the sake to the brim and kept pouring! I asked my Japanese crew members and they said it was the polite way to serve sake, as a gesture of generosity. My one cup of sake actually turned into two, and I wasn’t complaining. 🙂
- Salmon Roe
I had never seen so much roe in my life. This was a delicacy and the Japanese crew that I was with were SO excited to dig in. I figured I might as well try it, even though it looked a little bizarre to me. Guess what? It wasn’t bad! This generous serving was over a mound of rice and the little orange orbs popped with saltiness. It certainly wasn’t my favorite bite in Japan but it certainly wasn’t bad either. I think I need to give it another shot sometime.
To learn more about the Tohoku region of Japan, check out this informational guide on CNN. The culinary delights of this region are just a small piece of what makes Tohoku so unique and magical. Watch a teaser of my journey in Tohoku right here: