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Tohoku: 6 Dishes for the 6 Prefectures

As a travel destination, Tohoku is booming, and if you find yourself in one of these six prefectures, you'll want to try the local specialty to get in the spirit.

If you’re staying in Tohoku, chances are you’ll be opting for some pretty intense kaiseki meals from talented chefs in a luxury ryokan. But, if you want to taste Japan‘s Tohoku properly, there are a few humble dishes that stand out in Tohoku cuisine. For noodle fans and connoisseurs of natural flavors, Tohoku has a complex palette that suits the setting. Whether it’s seafood or seasonal delicacies, the six prefectures of Tohoku have their specialties.

Kiritanpo in Akita

Kiritanpo was originally a peasant food invented to preserve rice during cold winters and has been served in restaurants since the Meiji era. This dish is one of Akita’s trademark dishes; made from pounded rice, it is formed into a cylinder and wrapped around an Akita cedar or bamboo stick and then toasted over an open fire.

Because of its appearance, it is named after the cotton ball the samurai place on top of the spear they use in training. Traditionally, Kiritanpo is eaten after rice is harvested in November and consumed throughout autumn into the spring.

ABOVE: Kiritanpo hot pot, an Akita specialty.

There are three ways to eat it: hot off the grill with a miso marinade; in kiritanpo-nabe stew with pickles, preserved vegetables, and burdock; or cooked with Hinai chicken in a soy sauce broth, with green onions, maitake mushrooms, seri, and burdock, known as Hinai-Zidor.

Wanko Soba in Iwate

Found in abundance in Morioka and Hanamaki, the soba noodle is made of buckwheat, while wanko refers to a small wooden bowl from which the guest is served a single, mouthful-sized portion of noodles at a time. The bowl is continually refilled as an expression of “Otebachi,” or gratitude, and serving continues until a lid is put on the wanko, with empty bowls stacking up on the table.

The number of empty bowls signals how well the guest enjoyed the meal and sends the guest’s respect to the chef. There are a variety of toppings from which to choose, such as daikon radish (pickled in miso), crushed walnuts, mushrooms, salmon and salmon roe, and many dipping sauces.

There are numerous –  and many disputed –  legends about why the small wooden bowl is used. A popular myth is that a wealthy man once held a party, yet he was unprepared for the number of guests that arrived. To solve this delicate situation, the guests were served in small bowls, ensuring that everyone was given something to eat and allowing guests to refilling the bowls when they wished. Nowadays, the tradition is also celebrated in a Wanko Soba Eating Contest.

Gyutan in Miyagi

ABOVE: Gyutan is cow tongue sliced and cooked over charcoal. 

Considered a delicacy, cow tongue is grilled over charcoal with spices until tender and juicy. It became popular after World War II by way of a Yakiniku a chef who serves grilled meats who discovered it via a French chef. It is typically eaten with sides of barley rice and oxtail soup. Gyutan became popular among businessmen visiting Sendai, who then traveled with news of it back to their hometowns. It can now be found throughout Japan, though it is found mostly in Sendai, and especially at the Sendai Station.

Kaiyaki Miso in Aomori

ABOVE: The shell adds flavor to the Kaiyaki miso.

Aomori is located on Mutsu Bay, which provides the seafood for this dish cooked over an open flame in a large scallop shell instead of a pan. The theory is that the more the shell is reused, the better the flavor. Made with sliced miso-marinated scallops, leeks, eggs, and a bit of sake, traditionally this dish was used as a cure for a variety of illnesses.

Imoni in Yamagata

In the late summer and early autumn, locals form imoni parties where they simmer this soup over an open fire near the Mogami river as a “sign of the season”. The Yamagata version is sweet and is made with taro root, beef, sugar, soy sauce, and konnyaku (an extract from an Asian flower), while other vegetables, tofu, or mushrooms may be added according to taste.

The tradition began in the late 17th century, with men cooking potatoes and dried fish on the river banks while waiting for boats. Nowadays, tourists flock to the river banks on the first Sunday of September for the autumn imoni festival, Akino Imonikai, where the soup is served from six-meter-wide, cast-iron pot and stirred by a crane specially rigged for the occasion.

Buckwheat Noodles with a Scallion Stalk in Fukushima

ABOVE: Buckwheat noodles eaten with raw scallion stalks instead of chopsticks.

For the ultimate dexterity test, buckwheat noodles are eaten with raw, J-shaped scallion stalks instead of chopsticks. The Aizu region, the westernmost region of the Fukushima Prefecture, is known for its buckwheat noodles and Ouchi-juku, a small town where this method of eating originated. The takato soba is served hot in a broth flavored with either soy sauce or wine and accompanied by a grated daikon radish. Soba is at its freshest during October and November.