Amountain chain runs down the middle of the main island of Honshu, Japan. Take a train in late winter from the green Southeast, where Tokyo is, to the Northwest, and you emerge from a tunnel under the mountains into a snow-covered land that you would not expect to be Japan’s rice bowl. This is Niigata, which, unlike many of Japan’s 47 prefectures, can grow just one crop of rice each year because of the harsh winters and an average annual snowfall of nearly 10 feet.
But the relatively nonintensive farming of Niigata’s soil allows for unusually high fertility, and Niigata is known not just for its high volume of rice production—in which it ranks No. 1 in Japan—but for the high quality of its rice, too.
Niigata’s Koshi-hikari is considered among the best rice for cooking—hikari means “light” or “shine,” and the short-grain rice is known for its attractive look and its slightly sweet taste. The best of the best is from Minami-Uonuma, in the south of the prefecture. That area also is known for its maitake mushrooms. Nearby Yairo is praised for its large, flavorful shiitakes as well as for round, pristine watermelons.
Residents of Niigata say that the steady wintertime snowfall keeps the air clean and provides plenty of top-notch water, which is used to irrigate rice paddies and also to make sake, another of Niigata’s claims to fame.
“We have a lot of snow, which provides good water and keeps the air clean, and fertile land for rice,” says Norio Yokoyama, chef-owner of Murui Sushi Restaurant in Niigata City. “Good water and good rice make for good sake. To go with our rice, the Japan Sea gives us good fish and shrimp. Every part of Japan has its own local ingredients.”
The prefecture is not the country’s largest sake producer, although it is the largest per capita consumer of Japan’s national brew. The prefecture is No. 3 in production, behind Tokyo and Kyoto, but Niigata’s 97 producers are generally smaller than the bulk brewers to the south. Their sake, made from local Gohyakumangoku rice—which is different from the Koshi-hikari rice that they eat—is known for its smoothness and refinement when compared with those made with Yamadanishiki, a fuller-bodied rice from Kyoto.
The artisan tradition of the region’s sake makers extends elsewhere, both to Niigata’s famed lacquerware and to a slew of food products, including pampered beef, dry-aged salmon and specialty pork.
Niigata City, the prefecture’s capital, is Honshu’s most important port on the Sea of Japan and the first one to open for trade with foreigners, in 1868. The prefecture’s 150 miles of coastline along the sea’s cold waters give it access to plenty of well-marbled fish, including fatty yellowtail and fugu, or Japanese blowfish. Its shrimp is regarded as among the sweetest in the country.
Japanese cuisine, much like Italian cuisine—and, increasingly, American fine dining—focuses on using excellent ingredients at the height of their season. So a bitter shoot called fukinoto that sprouts with the first thaw is eaten in early spring, followed, as is the national custom, by the beloved sakura, or cherry blossom, which is made into jellies and preserved in salt as well as used in fresh applications. The cold earth is said to make for sweeter root vegetables, so even in the summer the farmers of Niigata pile snow from higher elevations onto their root vegetables until they are ready to be harvested.
Niigata’s natural bounty has been translated into what is widely regarded as some of Japan’s best food.
The great divide
Culturally, Japan is divided by a blurry line between regions that eat salmon on New Year’s Day and those that eat yellowtail. That line runs through Niigata prefecture, where both fish species abound.
Japanese does not actually have a word for yellowtail, says journalist Akiko Katayama. Instead, the fish is named by its age. Kampachi is younger than hamachi, and fully-grown yellowtail is called buri.
Experts in the culinary customs of the area say that, although the term buri can be used to describe any mature yellowtail, in Niigata buri also is assumed to be wild rather than farm-raised. The fish is sliced thinly and eaten as sashimi, but generally in small quantities because it has a high fat content that tends to induce palate-fatigue.
So buri also is eaten as shabu shabu—the Japanese version of Mongolian hot pot. Thin slices of the fish are swished back and forth two or three times in simmering stock, such as dashi—a broth made from umami-rich kombu seaweed. It then can be dipped in ponzu or eaten as it is. Locals say making buri into shabu shabu washes away some of the fat and makes it more palatable.Japanese fair fare
Much as Americans enjoy funnel cakes, corn dogs, turkey legs and cotton candy at carnivals, state fairs and the like, Niigata also has food that generally is eaten only at festivals.
Niigata’s equivalent of junk food includes skewers of mochibuta, the local pork, from the town of Echigo.
Another popular item is abura-age. Its name simply means deep-fried, but it’s deep-fried tofu. A specialty of Niigata’s Tochio area, abura-age is topped with soy sauce, cooked onions and bonito flakes.
O-yaki are buns from the countryside that are stuffed with fried vegetables or sometimes something sweet, like pumpkin. They are steamed and then baked.
Yaki-onigiri are rice cakes glazed with miso or soy sauce and grilled.
Food from other parts of Japan are enjoyed at festivals in Niigata, too. An example is Satsuma-age, which is minced fish mixed with vegetables, shaped into patties and then deep-fried. Satsuma-age comes from the town of Satsuma on distant Kyushu island.— Bret Thorn
That broth then is filled with vegetables such as negi, or Japanese leek, a green called shungiku, which translates as “spring chrysanthemum,” and mushrooms, such as the local eringi, or enoki.
Buri also can be cooked in yellowtail stock. One common preparation is to simmer it with daikon, soy sauce, sake and mirin.
Although the local yellowtail is eaten raw, the local salmon is virtually always preserved. The pink-fleshed fish that return to the Miomote River to breed are a species of salmon that is not considered as delectable when raw as the king salmon imported from the American Pacific Northwest Instead, the fish is salted and stored for a week, and then rinsed and hung to dry for one to 10 months. A one-month salmon is simply chopped and roasted. Older ones are eaten in paper-thin slices, much like prosciutto or Serrano ham.Happy meals, Niigata-style
The bento box is a Japanese version of fast food. Served in portable containers and often meant to be eaten at room temperature, these boxed meals—usually lunches—are bought in large numbers at train stations by passengers.
As with American fast food, children’s versions are offered as well.
Pictured here are two bento boxes intended for kids. The first, with a Pokémon theme, includes ground chicken cooked with soy and mirin on rice with edamame as well as a kamaboko—a whitefish cake—made to look like the Pokémon character Pikachu. Also in the box is a ground beef patty, a processed fish product called chikuwa and broccoli.
Finishing the meal are egg salad, jelly and sweet potato cubes with black sesame. These boxes are available in Tokyo.
The second box, shaped like a train, was found at the Niigata train station and contains ground beef, a curry sausage, meatballs, dumplings, a cube of cheese, a prune, a cherry, jelly and a tomato sauce similar to ketchup.
Both cost about ¥800, or $6.75.— Bret Thorn
Although the waters off of Niigata have fugu—the blowfish that perhaps is best known because it can be deadly if not sliced by an expert—the waters near Yokohama or between Kyushu and Honshu islands are better known for that fish. However Niigata does claim to have some of the world’s sweetest shrimp. The locals call it namban ebi. Ebi means “shrimp,” and namban is a chile pepper that the crustacean is supposed to resemble. In season, the shrimp can be served live in bowls of water for people to rip off their heads, suck out the brain and then eat the peeled bodies.
It is more common, however, simply to serve the shrimp raw as nigiri sushi, on Koshi-hikari rice with wasabi and soy sauce. As an accompaniment, the body and head might be deep-fried and served on the side for a good source of calcium. Similarly, salmon bones can be grilled or roasted and eaten.
Namban ebi also is made into deep-fried cakes. The minced shrimp is mixed with cod, egg, onion and mashed yam, formed into patties and deep-fried. It might be accompanied by small grilled shichimi peppers and ponzu or salt.
Small bits of shrimp brain—which are smaller than the size of a pea—are served on pieces of nigiri-sushi rice and eaten with shots of sake.Norio Yokoyama
Chef-owner, Murui Sushi Restaurant, Niigata, Japan
Norio Yokoyama entered the world of making sushi in the traditional fashion:
He began with a low-wage apprenticeship and worked his way through the ranks. Today he is the head of Niigata City’s sushi restaurant association, a body that includes 170 restaurants in a city of about 800,000 people.
Although he has been working in sushi restaurants for 43 years, he does not pine away for the olden days. Rather, he appreciates the growing sophistication of his clientele as well as the more reasonable work hours.
Have you worked outside of Niigata?
Yes, my high school teacher in Niigata introduced me to a sushi chef in Shizuoka Prefecture [on the Pacific Ocean], where I started as an apprentice and worked there for six years. Then I spent another three years in Tokyo before coming home to Niigata.
How did that affect your abilities as a sushi chef?
The ingredients and fish are different in other parts of Japan. The rice is also different. Learning the differences made me a better sushi chef. So did working for different bosses. After I came back to Niigata I worked in someone else’s sushi restaurant for a year and then I opened my own.
How has being a sushi chef changed in your 43 years in the business?
People are getting much more sophisticated. They want to explore other dimensions of sushi. Now some of them don’t want soy sauce on their white fish. They want just salt, because they want to taste the raw materials. They have much better judgment than they used to about what is good.
They also want to try new things. Sometimes now we add citrus to sushi, and new flavors like plum and kombu stock. Some people like sushi with mayonnaise.
Why did you decide to be a sushi chef?
Because it looked cool from the outside, but it was different when I got inside. We worked from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. at low wages. If you treated people like that now, you would be sued, but then it was just the way it was done, and I never thought it was strange.— Bret Thorn
Move over Kobe
Niigata salmon comes from the historic town of Murakami, which also is home to some of Japan’s most highly prized beef.
Kobe beef might be the best-known Japanese beef in the United States, but the Matsuzaka beef of Osaka and Murakami beef are considered to be on par with Kobe. Murakami beef is a bit leaner and sweeter than the other two.
All of those varieties are also called wagyu, which simply means “Japanese beef.” The cattle are fed high-grain diets, as well as beer to aid in digestion, says Shoichiro Yoshida, chef-owner of Yoshigen restaurant in Murakami.
The black-furred Murakami cattle are descendants of the Tajima breed, which also is the breed used to make American Kobe beef. They spend two years eating the straw and hay from the local rice and are finished on corn. Sweetness and good marbling are supposed to be their points of distinction.
Murakami beef can be eaten raw and thinly sliced, similar to carpaccio, or it can be sliced into squares, grilled and eaten, often with salt and wasabi.
Tougher cuts are simmered in broth with flavorings, such as daikon, Japanese leek and black pepper.
Looking to the horizon
Although Niigata’s food and sake already are highly prized, the prefecture continues to evolve. Last year 37 of the 97 sake breweries began to use a new breed of rice. Kenji Ichishima, president of Ichishima Sake Brewery, explains that the new variety, Koshi-tanrei, is a hybrid of the local Gohyakumangoku and Kyoto’s Yamadanishiki rice. He says it is hoped that the new breed would give more body to the prefecture’s comparatively austere brews.
Food is marching forward, too.
Yoshida, the chef at Yoshigen, prepares his beef sous-vide and serves it with a ponzu mousse made by whipping the traditional sauce of soy citrus, mirin, kombu and bonito flakes with gelatin.
Responding to customers’ demands for lighter seasoning on whitefish, Yokoyama of Murui Sushi Restaurant makes new sushi items, such as flounder with salt and lemon.
Other alcoholic beverages are being made in Niigata now as well. Echigo, home to the region’s prized pork breed, mochibuta, also is home to Japan’s first microbrewery, which opened in 1994 and makes pale ales, brown ales, pilsner and weissen, as well as Koshi-hikari—the only beer made from local rice and also the only one exported to the United States.
A winery has opened in the prefecture, too. Cave d’Occi, in the warmest part of Niigata, grows mostly Burgundy and Bordeaux varietals, but recently has experimented with Tempranillo, Sangiovese and others.
At the winery’s on-premise restaurant, the food boasts Italian flavor combinations using Niigata products. Dishes include baby mackerel with pink peppercorn and a salad of local octopus. A springtime dessert parfait of cassis and strawberry was accompanied by sakura jelly.
It almost could have been Japanese.