One of the highlights of a trip to Yukiguni is without doubt the food. Whether you are enjoying a kaiseki banquet in your ryokan, or sampling a local treat served in a mountain hamlet you are in for a gastronomic adventure.
Much of the traditional food in the region is very functional. It has provided nutrition using ingredients that are readily available. In summer this was often the abundant vegetables in the field. In winter it tended more to preserved foods, as with the land blanketed in snow for half the year, fresh ingredients simply weren’t available.
Traditional dishes often find themselves on the menu of certain countryside ryokans, and delicious as they are, it doesn’t always mean that the locals have such fond memories of them!
One example of this is the anbo bun in Matsunoyama Onsen in Niigata prefecture. The farmers worked the rice terraces carved out of the sides of the mountains and produced the rice that is so famous from this region of Japan. The good rice was highly prized but there were always smaller grains or rice fragments which were separated out. This was usually made into rice flour as nothing was wasted. A common product was the anbo bun which was made with rice dough and had a flavored filling. The most usual filling was the greens from the daikon radish, chopped up and seasoned. This happens to be a very healthy filling as they are so high in vitamins. These buns were often served first to help fill people up before the good rice was served. So common were these buns that people of a certain generation can’t help but remember them with a certain amount of ennui rather than nostalgia!
The anbo buns would store well but would get hard. A common practice to refresh them for consumption was to bury them in the ash of the fire which would soften them and heat the filling. Dusted off they would be edible, would fill the belly, and provide sustenance. They would help get through the winter, though we wonder what the reaction of the old-timers would have been to hear they can now be found in luxury ryokans!
Persimmon fruit, another highly nutritious and healthful local product, are common in fall. There are two types: those that are naturally sweet, and those that are bitter off the tree but can be treated to become sweet. A sweet version of the anbo bun could be made with chopped up bitter persimmons that had been treated and deseeded. This snack was always a welcome change from the daikon greens and a flavor strongly associated with the season.
Another seasonal taste for the farmers of Matsunoyama Onsen used to be the summer vegetables, miso, and rice balls for lunch. The vegetables were wrapped up and left in the cool of the water channels by the rice fields. Come lunchtime the chilled vegetables were chopped up with some miso and added as a fresh filling for the rice balls. This was a poor farmer’s meal but even today is a real treat of hand-grown organic, seasonal vegetables served with home-made miso and the famous local rice.
The food of an area is an important insight into the history, culture, and way of life, as well as a way to pass on knowledge.