fields and rivers, served with sake
A distinctive culinary culture
Nishi-Awa is a landlocked region, and although the areas near the Yoshino River have ready access to the sea, the valleys have none. The steep valley sides are ill-suited to growing rice in paddies, so these regions developed their own sources of nutrition as an alternative to the typical Japanese staples of rice and seafood. And although rice and seafood are of course available everywhere today, the alternatives developed in Iya and the surrounding valleys are still consumed today. Be sure to look out for them, and try them while you can!
In place of rice, soba (buckwheat) is grown on the valley slopes. Soba grains contain the eight essential amino acids required for sustaining life. Sobamai zōsui is a typical way of consuming soba. The grains are removed from their hulls and cooked in a light broth with meat and vegetables for a delicious, highly digestible meal. Restaurants throughout the region serve this dish. Various other native grasses provide valuable millet grains, adding a wholesome flavour to many dishes.
The need for self-sufficiency prompts innovation
Preserving food is important for self-sufficiency, and an interesting method is used to preserve tōfu. Tōfu is normally soft, but the tōfu known as Iya-dōfu is as hard as a rock, hence its other name, iwa-dōfu.
Konnyaku is another preserved food produced in the region. It’s a firm, jelly-like substance with little or no flavour. It’s very filling and high in fibre.
Iya-dōfu and konnyaku feature in a popular snack called ‘dekomawashi’. A triangle of konnyaku, a block of tōfu, and a satoimo potato are skewered and slathered in miso. They vaguely resemble a doll (‘deko’ in the local dialect). The skewers are set upright around a charcoal brazier, and turned (‘mawashi’) until cooked. You’re likely to see this wholesome food on offer at the main sightseeing spots.
“ It’s pressed for several days to remove moisture and then further air-dried. This hard tōfu can then be carried many miles over rough mountain trails without disintegrating. Cooking the tōfu restores it to edibility.
River fish and game
Although the valleys had no access to seafood, the rivers are full of fish, and rainbow trout is a good source of healthy protein. Like dekomawashi, trout is typically cooked on a skewer over a brazier. The crispy skin and sweet flesh served piping hot are absolutely delicious.
The valleys are also full of wild animals such as tanuki, deer and boar. If you stay in Iya and drive at night, you’re sure to see one or several of them. Deer and boar are hunted for their meat, which is prepared in various ways. It’s eaten barbecued, marinated, and in hotpots with miso. In Japan, this wild meat goes by the name ‘gibier’, from the French for game. It has a richness and sweetness unlike commercially raised meat, and it matches exceptionally well with junmaishu sake.
Sake from the local breweries
The Nishi-Awa region is home to four sake breweries. The sake of this area is considered relatively light and sweet, but robust and flavourful. Each brewery makes a range of types, so you’re sure to find something that you enjoy. In spring, fresh and floral sake is produced. In autumn, the sake has matured into mellower, deeper flavours. Don’t hesitate to ask for some sake when you order your meal. You can ask for it cold or hot as you prefer, and as the weather outside suggests. A sip of local sake always brings out the full flavour of your meal.