Rice, Seafood, Sake

Foodie hotspots: Niigata city, Sadogashima island, Uonuma, Kamo, Echigo-Yuzawa hot springs, Nagaoka, Tsukioka Onsen, Ozawa Onsen, Tsubame, Teradomari, Yahiko.

 Foodies Look Out For: Rice; sake; seafood, especially crab, sea-bass, rosy sea perch; hot-spring cuisine; funky budget options; hegi soba buckwheat noodles; soups.

The Basics: Niigata, in Central Honshu faces on to the Japan Sea. It's a beautiful, snowy, windswept prefecture, famous for the bounty of its seafood and its fertile farmland. It is also where you'll find Sadogashima island, the former penal colony turned tourist destination, and famed for its annual Earth Festival and the Kodo taiko drummers.

Niigata city was once a thriving seaport, and is still the center of the prefecture's commercial and cultural activities. The mountainous inland area, known as Echigo, is famed for its ski resorts, national parks and many onsen hot springs. Echigo-Yuzawa and the fabulous ryokan traditional inn Ozawakan in Osawa Onsen are just two of our favorites.

Niigata was also the home for many years of FGL’s great contributor, Joan Itoh Burk. If you read her lovely writing, you’ll be transported back in time, yet still feel how the best of rural Niigata is even today. The prefecture may now have Wi-Fi and touch screens, but it still has dragonflies and trout streams. Joan’s writing is timeless.

 Foodies Go Niigata: Niigata sits in the Japanese collective imagination as the home of yuki, okome and Nihonshu: snow, rice and sake. It's a pretty fair description, and the three are clearly interrelated. The pure melting snow that drains into the rice paddies creates the perfect natural environment ideal for cultivating Niigata's exquisite koshihikari and other rice varieties, including sakamai, the grains used in producing sake. What's more, the constant winter snows serve as an air purifier, a key point in excluding air-carried pollutants or microbes that can seriously damage the brewing process.

The Niigata coastline stretches from Murakami in the north (check out its Iboya Kaikan salmon museum) to Itoigawa in the south (with a nice little fish market), and offers up a seafood cornucopia throughout the year. In Niigata city across the harbor from the Hotel Nikko Niigata, the Pier Bandai complex houses souvenir shops, sushi shops and a ‘BBQ’ zone, and a large fish market. The latter is especially impressive. Look for suzuki sea bass, Sadogashima island’s Nanban-ebi sweet shrimp and, in winter, the fabulous local snow crabs. The latter are particularly good at the giant Teradomari Fish Market (Sakana no Ameyoko), not least in the kani ramen crab ramen.

Given the prefecture’s seafood and rice heritage, it’s not surprising that Niigata is a fine location for sushi. Find it in the mixed sushi platter known as

Niigata Sushi Zanmai Kiwami. Uni sea urchin, kanburi yellowtail (caught in the depths of winter), Nanban-ebi shrimp, yanagi-garei flatfish, and, our favorite, akamutsu rosy sea perch, also known as nodoguro, literally ‘the black throat’. The latter is also excellent when grilled. The no-frills Sushi Yasu and rather refined Sushi Kappo Marui are both superb.

If you are interested in staying at a ryori ryokan inn in Niigata, Shiki no Yado Minoya in Yahiko has good dining and friendly staff. The local shrine, Yahiko Jinja, has long been connected with the rice gods and sumo, and its festival on November 23rd is a splendid sight.

On menus all across the prefecture, you’ll find the hearty soup known as noppe-jiru. Essentially made from leftover vegetables, it features a shoyu soy stock thickened with yamaimo taro, and seasonal ingredients, anything that comes readily to hand it would seem. Originally a dish for festivals and special occasions, it is now a common feature in home cooking, with each family claiming their own style.

Sasadango are balls of yomogimochi – sticky rice with mugwort – containing red azuki beans, all wrapped in sasa bamboo leaves. The dish dates back to the Warring States period when warriors needed a portable source of sustenance, and none other than the great warlord Uesugi Kenshin is said to have been a fan.

The good people of Niigata love their buckwheat soba noodles as much as anyone. Here they are served as hegi soba, in which the noodles are created with a nori seaweed tsunagi bonding agent, coiled into ovals, and served on a flat wooden dish. It is a specialty of the city of Uonuma, where Kojimaya Sohonten and Komatsuya are two of the best establishments. Another Niigata local specialty is wappameshi, rice served in a traditional cedar wood bento box. When you open the box, the combined smell of cedar and hot rice is simply divine.

One can’t mention Niigata without thinking about sake. It isn’t the largest producer in the land, but it is famed for the small batch, high quality brews it produces, and the Echigo Toji (the Niigata brewers) are amongst the most highly-respected in the land. Joetsu City, Kakizaki, the upper and middle courses of the U, Sabaishi and Shibuumi rivers, Tsukanoyama, Nagaoka, Raigo-ji, and Teradomari are the traditional ‘centers of excellence’. Trying to choose a few ‘recommended tipples’ for our regular feature (see below) is like asking a French person to name their three favorite wines. At best it’s a quixotic task, at worst, pure madness. We did our best.

The Niigata Budget Gourmet Niigata has some fun ‘budget’ eats. One might add ‘bonkers budget eats’. Youfu katsudon, dreamt up in Nagaoka city, is ‘Western-style’ pork cutlets covered liberally in either ketchup or demi-glace sauce. The legendary place to try it is at Restaurant Nakata in Nagaoka’s Sakanoue 2-chome.

Then there’s itarian. In the late Showa period a ‘Spaghetti Napolitan’ boom spread across Japan. Not to be outdone, Niigata created futomen yakisoba itarian, in which thick noodles are cooked with bean sprouts, cabbage, yakisoba sauce, and then the whole thing is covered in: tomato sauce!

However the biggest budget hit of all is Bus Centre Curry. It was invented in the tachigui (stand up eating) specialist Mandai Soba, located in the Niigata Kotsu Express Bus Terminal. It's a typical kare raisu, except the sauce is a mix of a wafu fish broth and tonkotsu pork broth, and the roux is a bright neon yellow color! It has become so popular that it is sold in retort packs.

If you wish for even more budget delights, check out Niigata tare-katsu donburi rice, or poppo-yaki, pancake-like snacks especially popular at local shrine festivals.

The Ramen Professor Recommends: The city of Tsubame specializes in very fat, fettucine-like ramen noodles cooked in a shoyu broth with a gyokairui-style fish soup. It is then coated liberally with seabura pork back fat, sprinkled from a strainer. The sound this makes has led to it being nicknamed chacha ramen. In Tsubame, the venerable Koshu Hanten is the place to go. Crab ramen with a Korean spin is good at Koicchaya in Nagaoka. In Niigata city, check out the traditional Abekku Shokudo in Hinode. It uses locally-produced Hinode seimen noodles to produce a great, old school-style shoyu-based ramen. Sekimonji is located in the car park of Love Hotel Chocolat, no less, in Niigata city's Honchodori 9-bancho. It's not a salubrious neighborhood, but Sekimonji's shoyu ramen broth is as clear and pure as it gets. It is only open 11am to 2pm, as the owner is a full-time fisherman. Closes Tuesday.

FGL Favorite Tipple:  Oh crikey, where to start? Well, the natural place for this observer is at the beginning: Kubota. This was the first Niigata sake I ever drank, and it’s not a bad introduction. Then there’s the middle, when I discovered Kato Shuzo’s Kintsuru from Sadogashima, Niigata city’s Koshinokanbai, Murakami’s Shimeharitsuru, and Taiyo Shuzo’s legendary Higan, the latter rated by Time magazine as a ‘champagne of sake’. These days I am likely to be sipping Ten To Chi, made with the unique-to-Niigata koshi tanrei rice, Aoki Shuzo’s Yuki Otoko Junmaishu (it means Yeti sake, btw, and features the best label we’ve seen in a while), or Kamo Nishiki. Or Yanma. Or... I’d better stop now.

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