Posts Tagged ‘iwate’

Around Japan in 47 curries: Iwate cheese

July 15, 2013
Iwate map by Lincun, via Wikimedia Commons

Iwate map by Lincun, via Wikimedia Commons

This is Part 9 of a 47-part series of weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

Think of a place slightly larger than Maryland and slightly smaller than Swaziland.

One answer to that riddle is Iwate Prefecture in northern Japan. It’s the nation’s second-biggest prefecture (after Hokkaido) at 15,278 square kilometers. Thirty of those square kilometers belong to Koiwai Farm, a gigantic privately owned ranch.

When I first came to Japan, I found some Koiwai cheese in a supermarket and mistook it for an American product. After all, Kiowa – as I initially misread the name – has an American ring. (The Kiowa are a Native American tribe.)

The Choshu Five in London, with Masaru Inoue at center (Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The Choshu Five in London, with Masaru Inoue at center (Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons)

However, I now know the history of Koiwai cheese – and its unusual name – goes all the way back to the adventures of the Choshu Five, a group of young men who secretly left Japan in 1863 to study in Britain. After their return, they became leading figures in the country’s rapid modernization. One of them, Masaru Inoue, is remembered as “the father of the Japanese railways.”

In 1888, Inoue visited Iwate to inspect the progress of railway construction there. According to the Koiwai website, the volcanic soil and barren-looking windswept terrain struck him as a promising area for ranching. With the support of Japan Railways Vice President Makoto Ono and Mitsubishi President Yanosuke Iwasaki, he did establish a ranch in Iwate in 1891. The name of the farm was written with the first characters in the names Ono, Iwasaki and Inoue, or O-Iwa-I. But the character for “O” in Ono can also be read “Ko,” so Oiwai became Koiwai.

Koiwai camembert 001Today, you can find Koiwai butter and cheese in many Tokyo-area supermarkets, although the company has a tiny market share compared to such modern-day dairy giants as Megmilk Snow Brand, Morinaga, Rokko Butter and Meiji Dairies.

On a recent visit to the Iwate Prefecture antenna store in Ginza, Tokyo, I found some Koiwai cheese curry for 630 a box.

Cheese curry marked

I tried two types, cream cheese and camembert cheese. Visually, they were both very similar, and they shared a very nice texture thanks to the presence of melted cheese (and also yogurt) as well as a generous amount of ground beef. The cream cheese curry was mild but tasty, while but the notably more pungent camembert curry had a deep, rich umami-ful flavor. I think it would have gone very well with some strong red wine, but this didn’t occur to me until after the fact.

No matter. The camembert curry is one I will almost definitely be trying again, so the wine can wait till next time. Wine and curry may be an unusual combination, but I imagine an adventurous innovator like Inoue would probably approve.

Look inside my lucky bag

January 10, 2012

At the beginning of every year, most Japanese retailers sell fukubukuro “lucky bags” filled with excess merchandise they want to unload. Customers can’t see what is inside the bags, but it is generally understood that the price of one bag will be much lower than the ordinary price of its contents. You pays your money and you takes your chances.

You could look at this as a combination of two vices: retail therapy and gambling. Or, if the price isn’t too high, you could look at is as a harmless bit of silly fun.

Over the many New Year’s seasons I have passed in Japan, I have merely looked on at this phenomenon with puzzlement. But this year I actually bought a lucky bag for the first time.

Japan is divided into 47 prefectures, and the governments of most (probably all) of them maintain “antenna shops” in Tokyo that showcase local products and promote tourism. I recently visited the Iwate Prefecture antenna shop in Ginza, hoping to buy a new soy sauce flavored dessert that I had read was being produced in that prefecture. There were none available, but I did see lucky bags on sale.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have given the bags a second glance, but Iwate is one the three prefectures hardest hit by last year’s tsunami, which makes me think that buying frivolous Iwate products is a way to do an economic good deed while also being self-indulgent. Besides, the price was amusing and not too high: 2,012 yen.

Although I couldn’t see inside the bags, there was nothing to stop me from picking several of them up one after another to see how heavy they were. The Iwate antenna store sells many types of local sake and microbrew beer, and I was hoping that a heavier bag might indicate some of those goodies inside. Each bag did seem heavy enough to contain at least one can or bottle, but more than that I couldn’t tell. I picked a bag at random and hoped for the best.

In retrospect, since there was no notice prohibiting people below the age of 20 from buying the bags, I was foolish to hope for alcohol. Here’s what I did get:

Top row

A handkerchief with a poem printed on it. The poem is by Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), one of the most famous people to come from Iwate.
A bag of rusks – slices of bread baked a second time to become hard and long-lasting. Rusks are a Western invention, used long ago to provision ships, but Japan is the only country I have ever seen them in.
Jajamen – fat udon noodles with chunky, spicy sauce. This bag contains servings for two.

Middle row

“Seagull egg” petit fours – little round cakes with a white chocolate shell and yellow anko filling.
Youkan – a thick, heavy, gelatinous, bean-based confection that in this case has a sesame flavor.
Soba noodles.

Bottom row

Horohorozuke – spicy minced vegetable pickles to put on top of rice.
Pickled wakame seaweed snacks – rubbery and sour.
A mixture of a dozen types of grain, including millet, barley and amaranth, to mix into plain white rice before cooking to make it more interesting.

Was it worth it?

On the one hand, the usual retail prices of these items probably add up to about twice the amount I paid. I do intend to eat and/or share all of the food items shown above. As for the handkerchief, I have a friend may have a bit of an interest in Miyazawa, so I’ll probably give it to that person.

On the other hand, NONE of these items are things I would have chosen to buy if I could have seen them first.

Such is the nature of lucky bags.