Archive for June, 2013

Around Japan in 47 curries: Akita mushroom

June 22, 2013
Map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

Map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

This is Part 6 of a 47-part series of weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

Akita Prefecture has a quaint tradition of threatening children with knives. On New Year’s Eve, shaggy monsters called namahage stalk from house to house in twos and threes, brandishing giant knives and demanding to confront lazy kids, spoiled kids, and crybabies.

Akita is in northern Japan, where the winters are cold, and in the old days it must have been tempting to stay inside by the fire rather than going out to work in the woods or fields. Children who sat with their feet dangling into the irori—a traditional Japanese fireplace in the form of a pit in the middle of the floor—might end up with blisters on their soles. Namahage, whose name derives from “blister peeler,” see such blisters as a sign of laziness, and threaten to cut them off with their fearsome knives.

To see how scary namahage can be, watch this video I made of three such monsters who came down to visit Tokyo in 2011:

Fortunately for any children who are threatened by namahage, protective parents can appease the monsters by offering them a cup of sake and something to eat. Namahage are known to enjoy eating mochi, but in a pinch you might try offering them some Akita Prefecture curry instead.

The curry I just tried from that prefecture is made with chicken and mushrooms.

In contrast to last week’s sweet and oily (and delicious) chicken curry from Tokushima Prefecture, this chicken curry was more of what I consider typically Japanese, in that it was based on a thick dark gravy that was only mildly spicy. Also, it included only about two bites of chicken.

Akita curry 001 The mushrooms were its saving grace. There was a generous quantity of them, and their springy texture added a welcome spark of life to the heavy combination of thick sauce and sticky rice.

I would have identified the mushrooms as shimeji—a standard item at any Japanese supermarket—but the ingredient label described them more specifically as buna-shimeji, or beech shimeji. As far as I can tell, there is little or no botanical, mycological or culinary distinction between shimeji and buna-shimeji, but in the course of my investigation I learned that Akita and neighboring Aomori prefecture share the vast Shirakami-Sanchi beech forest, which has been declared a World Heritage site.

So it’s appropriate that I washed the curry down with some Buna no Mori (beech forest) beer, made with wild yeast originally collected in the forest. This 5-percent beer was slightly darker than a typical mass-produced Japanese lager, and had a flavor that was rich and strong. It went well with this curry. I think it would go well with almost anything.

If a namahage ever comes to your door, a bottle of this stuff might be enough to keep his knife away from your feet.

shimeji marked

Around Japan in 47 curries: Tokushima “tail chicken”

June 14, 2013

This is Part 5 of a 47-part series of weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

Map by Lincun via Wikimedia Comons

Map by Lincun via Wikimedia Comons

One day in the year 1586, a lot of people on the island of Shikoku got drunk. Hachikusa Iemasa, the lord of the Awa domain at the eastern end of the island, was sharing his lordly supply of booze with the public to celebrate the completion of his castle. Such wild revelry ensued that they made a tradition of doing it every year, and thus the famous Awa Odori dance was born.

That’s one version of the story. It is also possible that the Awa Odori is just an especially fired-up version of the Bon dances that happen all over Japan every summer. Whatever its origins, Tokushima Prefecture – to use the modern name of the old Awa domain – has been famous for its Awa Odori for many generations.

It’s a huge, energetic dance event held in the street every August. Here’s a video of some scenes from the 2005 Awa Odori, by Justin Klein:

It looks like fun, but what does this have to do with curry? Well, according to the Livestock Research Institute of the Tokushima Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Technology Support Center, the largely rural prefecture was once a major supplier of chicken to the urban market in Osaka, a relatively short boat ride away.

But in the late 1960s, poultry imports began on a large scale—particularly from Brazil, which is still a significant supplier of chicken to Japan. In the face of such competition, the absolute and relative size of the Tokushima poultry industry began to shrink.

In an effort to distinguish their product, Tokushima farmers began crossbreeding Shamo chickens (a Japanese breed that has Thai roots) with white Plymouth Rock chickens from America. They called the resulting birds … Awa Odori.

While the word “odori” means “dance,” it can also be written with two kanji characters that mean “tail chicken.” According to a Tokushima government website: “With their characteristic long tail feathers, Awa Odori poultry get their name from the Awa Odori dance. The meat has a slightly reddish colour, is low in fat and also very chewy, and the sweet flavour of this locally grown meat is a real treat. Of all the breeds of local poultry in Japan, Awa Odori boasts having the highest production volume in the nation.”

You can see photos of the chickens HERE or HERE or HERE.

AWA ONION 001Nowadays, Tokushima food companies market Awa Odori chicken meat in a variety products, including this week’s curry, made by the Sadamitsu Shokuryo company.

I tried two kinds: Awa Odori tomato curry and Awa Odori onion curry. They were both similar, and both good. The curry broth in both instances was like a thin, oily soup with a sweet and sour flavor. Each contained plenty of chicken (the first listed ingredient), diced small.

Some packaged curries in Japan have just a couple of bite-sized chunks of meat in them, which presents the dilemma of when to eat them. (Save the meat for last? Go for it right away? Try to spread it out?) In this case, there were enough little bits of chicken in both curries that I had meat in practically every spoonful. And as promised, it was chewy. It was reddish, too, through that may have had more to do with the sauce than the meat.

Awa chickenNeither of these curries were spicy at all. Curry powder appeared far down the ingredient list for both of them. In the case of the onion curry, it was listed after “apple cream” and fruit chutney. In the tomato curry, it came after mango paste—but before honey.

In some minds, this might raise ontological questions about whether a mere dash of curry powder is enough to qualify a meal as “curry.” I may have to confront such issues as this series goes on. But for now, one things I can say for sure is that this was a very pleasant meal. And that’s good enough for me.

Around Japan in 47 curries: Chiba mackerel curry

June 8, 2013

This is Part 4 of a 47-part series of weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

The first time I ever set foot in Japan was when I stepped off a plane at what is now Narita International Airport in the summer of 1989 to begin work as an English teacher on the JET Program.

Map by Lincun for Wikimedia Commons

Map by Lincun for Wikimedia Commons

Narita’s official name back then was New Tokyo International Airport, but it was far outside of Tokyo, in the middle of northern Chiba Prefecture. I would spend the next two years living in the capital, Chiba City, writing countless letters back to America in which I explained that not only Tokyo’s main airport but also Tokyo Disneyland and the Tokyo Motor Show (then held at the Makuhari Messe), and various other things with “Tokyo” in their names, were all actually in Chiba.

But even if parts of Chiba were lost in the overflow of the Tokyo sprawl, it still had distinctive areas of its own. The southern half of the prefecture is the mountainous Boso Peninsula, which separates Tokyo Bay from the Pacific Ocean. North of the peninsula on the Pacific side is Kujukuri beach, a 66-kilometer stretch of smooth, flat sand that extends all the way to Choshi, an old fishing town on the Kanto region’s easternmost point of land. There, on a rocky bluff overlooking the sea, is Choshi’s main tourist attraction, a 31-meter-tall lighthouse built in the 1870s.

AA light

Like many towns in Japan, Choshi is suffering from demographic and economic decline. According to central government statistics cited by Wikipedia, its population dropped from 90,415 to 70,225 over the three decades to 2010. According to the city’s own website, the figure was 69,211 a year after that, with people in their 20s accounting for the overwhelmingly greatest share of population outflow over the past decade.

On a visit to Choshi last year, I noticed many businesses that appeared permanently shuttered, including a hotel just a block from the famous lighthouse. But Choshi does have a few things going for it. Two major soy sauce companies, Yamasa and Higeta, have factories there. And its history as a center of the fish cannery business led to the existence of this week’s curry: canned mackerel.

AA can

When I popped open the can, my nose was hit by a strong fishy odor that momentarily reminded me of cat food. This did not seem promising, but the smell disipated within a few seconds. By the time I heated it up in the microwave and poured it over some rice, there was nothing objectionable about it.

AA dish

You definitely need to like fish if you are going to eat this curry, but its flavor turned out to be surprisingly mild. It was absolutely packed with solid chunks of mackerel, with the skin still on. It was much meatier—and more of a meal—than most Japanese curries I have tasted up to now. It’s comes in a small, single-serving can (190 grams), but most of that can, by volume, is full of fish.

The first three ingredents are listed as “Vegetables (potatoes, onions, carrots, garlic, ginger), mackerel, curry powder…” If they hadn’t lumped the vegtables together as a single item, I’m sure that mackerel would have come first.

If you like seafood, try this curry and help a struggling town.

What’s scarier than vampires? Plankton.

June 7, 2013

Hideyuki Kikuchi is a Japanese novelist best known for his character D, who wanders a desolate far-future landscape, hunting vampires. The cultural threads from which D’s world is woven include Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name and H.P. Lovecraft’s nameless horrors. No wonder D himself only goes by a single initial.

VAPWhen I read the first novel in the D series, one small detail that stuck with me was a peculiar form of entertainment that Kikuchi’s high-tech vampires had devised. They genetically engineered plankton into “huge ravenous monsters that could take a school of seven-foot tuna right down to the bone.”

Countless movies have tapped into the horror of giant insects, but giant plankton is a grotesque variation that I have never seen anywhere else.

Kikuchi’s vampires, as bloodthirsty as ancient Roman Coloseum-goers, enjoyed ocean excursions in sturdy but transparent bubble-like craft from which they could observe the gruesome struggles of these giant creatures up close.

As it happens, Kikuchi was born in 1949 in Choshi, a Chiba Prefecture town where fishing is a major pillar of the local economy. Perhaps he glimpsed something ominous in the sea…

You can read a little more about Choshi in tomorrow’s post on this blog.

Meanwhile, you can read a 2008 interview article I wrote about Kikuchi HERE.