Yamagata Prefecture: The narrow road to deep northern dining
July 31, 2017
Yamagata is in the Tohoku region, which occupies the northernmost areas of Japan’s largest main island, Honshu. Traveling by Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo, the largest communities in the prefecture can be reached in about three hours, while some are less than two hours from Tokyo for those using a plane.
With a long stretch of coast facing the Sea of Japan and a great deal of abundant farmland, Yamagata is known for rice, cherries, seafood, beef and edamame among a host of other delicious items. The name “Yamagata” can be literally translated as “mountain shaped,” and fittingly, the local food culture has been profoundly shaped by the mountains.
Digging in and stocking up for the winter
Before advances in refrigeration, packaging, and transportation brought the luxury of year-round fresh produce and imported food, Yamagata people would spend the winter eating things that had been harvested and preserved in autumn: dried mushrooms, pickles, root vegetables, and rice.
While that alone constitutes a tasty and nutritious diet, one can imagine the joy when the snows began to recede and the first green shoots appeared, bringing with them the earliest signs of warmer days ahead.
Even today, many locals forage keenly for wild vegetables as winter retreats. Indeed, wild food is a common feature of Yamagata’s noka minshuku, or farmhouse bed and breakfasts, where traditional meals can be enjoyed in often-historic family homes set amid idyllic countryside.
Spring has sprung
The first mountain vegetables to peek out from beneath the snow are fukinoto (butterbur buds), which are packed with a fresh, bitter flavor. Though traditionally sautéed then mixed with sweetened miso, eaten with rice, or fried as tempura, these days fukinoto are also becoming popular in pasta dishes, lending a meaty texture and a crisp astringency.
As spring begins in earnest, the next wild vegetables to be found are koshiabura (a member of the ginseng family); tara no me (angelica), most popularly eaten as tempura; and kogomi (fiddlehead fern), which is beautiful combined with a sesame dressing.
Warabi (bracken) and yama udo (Japanese spikenard) appear later in the season. One staple of kitchens across Yamagata is boiled yama udo served with a soy sauce-based broth and dried herring. Warabi, which has to be boiled with a little wood ash to neutralize harmful compounds, has a woody flavor. Though delicious, it can be something of an acquired taste.
Feeling hot, hot, hot
Later, with the heat of July rolling into the region’s plains, a popular summer food for families is dashi. While this sounds like Japan’s famous soup stock, in Yamagata dashi also denotes a mixture of finely chopped vegetables. The ingredients differ, but one standard variety combines cucumber, eggplant, myoga, and shiso, mixed with a finely chopped konbu seaweed (pre-soaked in water), for a slippery Japanese equivalent of a salsa. Finished with a dash of soy sauce and eaten with rice, dashi is a refreshing treat on hot, humid days when appetites wane.
Yamagata’s ascetic religious heritage has spawned other delights for those who don’t eat meat. In addition to a long history of Shugendo, the focus of warrior monks known as yamabushi, Yamagata also has a tradition of esoteric Buddhism, making it a great place to sample shojin ryori, the seasonal vegan cuisine traditionally eaten while engaged in religious austerities. Many lodges around Mount Haguro offer shojin ryori for breakfast and dinner at a very reasonable fee––and you don’t need to be in the midst of spiritual observances to enjoy it!
As the crickets lift their voices in song and cool winds blow across the rice fields from the mountains, where mushrooms have begun to sprout, next up on the Yamagata culinary calendar is imoni, a soy sauce-based potato stew.
At imoni-kai, communities gather to prepare the dish, often outside. A particularly large gathering takes place each September in the city of Yamagata, on the banks of the Mamigasaki river, where huge cauldrons of stew are stirred by mechanical diggers. Among various takes on imoni, the most popular in central Yamagata prefecture uses beef, with imo taro potatoes, konnyaku, negi (Japanese leek), and maitake mushrooms.
Finally, no introduction to Yamagata soul food would be complete without mentioning a dish that is seldom seen in restaurants: hippari udon. Piping hot, freshly boiled and strained udon noodles are mixed with finally chopped natto, an egg yolk, a little soy sauce-based fish broth and finely chopped negi: a hearty, homely, natural embodiment of all that is good about Yamagata cuisine.
Text: David McMahon and Esther Waer